The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell


The Sparrow Book Review

In science fiction, space exploration is usually spearheaded by intellectuals, the military, mega-corporations, or even the average joes of our future. And to some extent, the heroes in these stories aren’t all that different from the heroes you’ll find in other genres, which is understandable, because, you know, even if the genre is as boundless as the author’s imagination, they also need to be able to write a story that a large audience enough will relate to. In this sense, starship captains and their associations don’t tend to be all that different from archetypes we’re already familiar with. But maybe it isn’t a case of there not being other organisations and character types that could be employed. Maybe it’s just a case of writers having to find models on which to base their stories in places that haven’t been referenced a thousand times before.

Case in point with The Sparrow by Mary Russell, a science fiction novel that goes in a unique direction by taking its lead from an institution barely even referenced in most other sci-fi  – The Catholic Church. It’s a source that proved to be rich with inspiration. After all, it was often missionaries from the Church who would travel to the farthest reaches of the world in an attempt to spread the word of god. And today the church still probably has enough financial resources at its fingertips to launch a similarly misguided mission into the farthest reaches of space, if such technology were to become available to those who were willing to pay. What’s more, because the leader of the expedition in Russell’s book is actually a priest, you get to explore the universe through the ideas of somebody who isn’t your average square-jawed hero or even the rigorous scientist type you’d more often see at the centre of science fiction tales. You can understand why then, I thought it was a concept with hefty potential. As a wannabe history buff, I was titillated by the idea of taking a religious organisation as anachronistic as the Catholic Church and launching them to an alien planet. And while it fulfils this mission in many ways, in one or two other regards I thought the concept was a little squandered, though that isn’t to say it wasn’t a fantastic read.

To give you a better idea of what to expect, though Russell shows off some well-earned sci-fi credentials in her description of how the Catholic crew travel to the alien world in question, many of the pages are also dedicated to what makes a saint in that the leader of the expedition seems to have been inspired by God in some way to fulfil the task at hand. The relationship between spiritualism and celibacy is studied to some extent. And there are also some enjoyable sections that draw back the curtain on the inner workings of Church bureaucracy. Overall though, the religious element to the story wouldn’t have lost much by making the missionaries any other form of Christianity. This might seem like a minor gripe to those of you who have no interest in the subject, but as somebody who was raised Catholic, I know the religion has some pretty weird ideas that would have been fun to explore in a science fiction setting. So, even though the book has a well-drawn cast of characters, I did find myself glossing over their interactions a bit in a rush to get to the meat of the piece – That moment, I was sure, when the existential certainty of the Catholics would be warped by the completely alien outlook of another intelligent species.

The book almost did tackle the prospect, in a way that potentially could have blown my mind. In particular, the alien language that our protagonists are required to learn in order to communicate with the alien natives they meet utilises nouns that define objects as either present or abstract. This is a fascinating premise in its own right, but it seemed to me that there was an entire novel of possibilities in the idea of a Catholic missionary making this discovery. At a fundamental level, we’re talking about a group of explorers whose religion deals with the abstract concept of an all-knowing God who created a corporeal version of himself in the form of a son in order to communicate his wishes. To me, it seemed like a natural theme to explore, and even a little odd that it wasn’t even brought up as a topic of note in a book where a Catholic priest is on a mission to convert these alien creatures to his creed. And on a bit slightly more esoteric level, I was practically biting at the bit for the inevitable moment when I was sure the alien species would attempt to resign the concept of transubstantiation, in which Catholics say that the holy wine they drink has been literally transformed into the blood of Christ, with that of their perspectives on the present and abstract. But, in large part, most directions the story could have gone were kind of brushed to the side in favour of describing the inner struggle of a man who has to balance the terrible things that happen to him over the course of the story with his spiritual beliefs.

Of course, this is probably an unfair complaint. I don’t want to criticize the book for not being what I wanted it to be, especially considering there’s plenty to love about what it actually accomplishes.

The fact is, I would wholeheartedly recommend The Sparrow to anybody looking for a thoughtful story that is both a wonderfully rendered science fiction piece and a strangely fulfilling spiritual one, even if, like me, you probably lean more towards atheism than any other organised form of religion. Really, it’s a surprisingly personal story that sets up much of the character growth as a mystery rather than as a journey you accompany him on from beginning to end, which I guess is a fancy way of saying the book is a bit of a page-turner. All told, there are tragic deaths and a series of terrible misunderstandings. The sad events challenge the priests, and the reader, to see through it all and find the love of God, which if you like, you can just translate as, ‘meaning in this universe.’ Strange as it sounds though, I don’t think we need to travel to an alien planet to face that trial. But you could probably say that about any science fiction book. As is so often told, the lessons we can take from the genre were really all born of today. That said, if you’re looking for some science fiction entertainment that’s a little less Catholic, then check out my in-depth analysis of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5. And don’t forget to subscribe to the channel, for lots more videos about books, both short and long.


Simon Fay

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