Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
On the face of it, the Sparrow is a novel about humanity's first contact with an alien race, a disastrous expedition to Alpha Centauri that leaves only one survivor, a Jesuit priest named Father Emilio Sandoz. Underneath, though, Mary Doria Russell creates a nuanced, multi-layered novel that poses some serious questions about the nature of faith and morality.
The story builds suspense by cutting back and forth between the Church’s interviews of the spiritually and physically broken priest, who initially refuses to talk, and the events of the past, proceeding from the time when the aliens are first discovered (and the Church recognizes an opportunity for itself). We know that things are destined to go wrong, but not exactly how, except for a few pieces of foreshadowing. Does the tragedy of the mission hinge on one mistake -- or many?
Russell takes her time setting up the story, which might try the patience of some readers, but illuminates the minds of a small, tight-knit group of well-constructed characters. We see the initial sense of scientific and spiritual mission, the optimism of the interstellar travelers as they near their destination, the months of exploration of the edenic planet Rakhat and the first encounters with the childlike Runa. However, as the story unfolds, we begin to see the outlines of a significant difference between the humans and the aliens that neither side manages to perceive fully, each with its own innate view of how life is meant to function. I found the conception of an alien species’ alternate biology and culture reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s works.
Religious themes often feature in First Contact novels, because, of course, the very presence of other intelligent beings would raise important questions about the “design” of the universe. Could we get a new glimpse of the Ultimate Creative Force by meeting fellow travelers? Or is there a hubris in hoping? What commonalities should be embraced? What differences accepted? In The Sparrow, these issues are central, though you don’t need to be Catholic or even religious at all to relate to them. The priests here may belong to an old tradition, but theirs is one that embraces science and rationality, seeking God somewhere in the DNA of the universe rather than in supernatural encounters. Indeed, conversations between Father Sandoz and a strong-willed agnostic character named Ann show that the boundaries between belief and lack of it aren’t easy to define.
At the heart of the book, though, is the question of shattered faith. What happens when what we hope for fails us, and the universe cruelly turns on us, as it does for Father Sandoz? Do we let go of the piece of wreckage we’re clinging to and allow ourselves to silently sink below the cold waves? Or do we reach for the helping hand that others offer us, even though it forces us to face the pain and weakness we carry? Russell, admirably, doesn’t offer an easy out for either Father Sandoz or her readers.
A few things hold me back from a five star review, however. First of all, there are a lot of plausibility issues, the main one being that a visit to another inhabited planet would never unfold with so little planning or caution (I mean, think about the bacteria). Secondly, though I liked the characters, their quirks and banter get a little too precious at times.
Overall, though, I think The Sparrow is well worth a read for anyone who appreciates science fiction that isn’t about blazing guns or astrobabble, but tells a contemplative story focused on age-old human questions.
Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow was a beautifully complex human drama, which happened to be dressed in science fiction clothing. In it, a diverse cast of people set off to another star system, in hope of making humanity's first contact with another intelligent species. Though the mission was successful at first, it ultimately shattered in tragedy, leaving one survivor, a maimed, spiritually broken priest named Emilio Sandoz. Through his eyes, the story told is one of faith disappointed, and the struggle to come to terms with what the word "faith" might still mean after such trauma -- whether in humanity, in the people of other planets, or in the ultimate design of the universe.
I'm not sure if The Sparrow was a book that needed a sequel, but Russell felt that Emilio Sandoz's story wasn't finished, and contrives a way to bring him back to Rakhat, as well as a mission for him when he gets there. Thus, we get a second space expedition, with another crew of history-freighted characters. Meanwhile, on Rakhat (decades pass during transit), the native aliens find their attitudes changed by their contact with the foreigners, which sets in motion a civil war between the plant-eating "slave" species and the dominant, but less numerous predatory "master" species.
Children of God is as thoughtful a book as its predecessor, and Russell does an admirable job of expanding on the themes she established in the Sparrow, finding hope, meaning, and connections to religious ideas in events on Rakhat, while maintaining a vision of a God that’s ultimately mysterious. The plotting, however, feels more labored this time around, an obvious process of getting pieces into place with plenty of glossing over of logic. Other than Emilio Sandoz, most of the characters feel like talking biographical dossiers who don’t have all that much to do other than push the protagonist in various directions. I missed the organic friendships of the crew in the Sparrow, and found it hard to care about Danny Ironhorse and Sean Fein in the same way.
The part of the novel set on Rakhat isn’t uninteresting, though the alien characters feel more human than they did before and I had some trouble keeping their identities straight. Russell seems to be going for a parallel between the Runa and the Biblical Jews in Egypt, but with a different kind of outcome, which I thought went well with all the other religious themes in the book. I enjoyed seeing how the herd mentality of the Runa, which had previously kept them docile, could be turned into an advantage against a foe with a less collective-minded, more aristocratic society. It would have been interesting to see, in a third novel, where things on Rakhat went after the war ended, given the future issues Russell hints at, but we’ll just have to use our imaginations.
Though the last chapters of Children of God are somewhat predictable, I thought they provided an emotionally satisfying conclusion to Emilio Sandoz’s story. Was a whole novel necessary to get there? Maybe not, but I think Russell accomplished what she set out to do, and it was worth my time to complete the two book series. 3.5 stars.
Audio notes: Anna Fields is a competent narrator, but nothing special. I happened to have a paper copy of this book as well, and might recommend that format more. The contemplative quality of the writing is more evident without the sometimes overwrought accents that Fields employs.
This book is a lot of fun. Weir seems to have done a ridiculous amount of research into how a manned NASA Mars mission would probably work, and turns this knowledge into a suspenseful adventure with a likable protagonist and a healthy dose of humor. The story begins, in classic castaway fashion, from the journal entries of an astronaut named Mark Watney, who’s stranded on Mars after an emergency forces the rest of his fellow astronauts, who think him dead, to abort the mission and depart.
Now alone with his expedition’s equipment, including rovers, space suits, a habitat, and some botany experiments (but no radio), Watney must improvise ways to stay alive and contact Earth. A lot of science and engineering geekery soon follows, but Weir does such a good job of explaining it, using Watney’s informal voice and snarky, quip-ready “engineer” humor (the opening f-bomb sets the tone), that I don’t think it will be too hard for the average reader to understand. Being an engineer myself, I could easily relate to how this guy’s mind worked, as he took apart different systems and put them to use in ways they weren’t quite meant to be used, yet did so in a careful, controlled manner. I had one of many smiles at the part where he contemplates international law and decides that one of his actions makes him a pirate. A SPACE PIRATE! Yep, engineer.
I don’t think it’s much a reveal to say that the narrative eventually expands to include people back on Earth. If you recall the movie Apollo 13, a lot of similar action follows, as NASA and other organizations put their best minds to work on the problem of how to save Watney. I won't spoil the series of mishaps, setbacks, and narrow escapes that follow as he hangs on for a rescue attempt, but suffice to say that Weir makes good use of his setting and contrives some creative but plausible solutions. The supporting characters could have been developed a little more, but their banter is entertaining. Weir is clearly a fan of NASA, but isn't above poking fun at bureaucracy, PR machines, and the various personalities that inhabit the organization.
I hope someone sees fit to make a movie, because all the right ingredients are here. There’s a crowd-pleasing survival story and a likable hero. There’s a long-shot plan and a big-screen-ready nail-biter of a climax. And it's a heckuva a lot more believable than other Mars-themed stuff that Hollywood has given us (I'm looking at you, Red Planet). But, if there’s never a film, audiobook narrator RC Bray is the next best thing, with a boyish voice that's a perfect fit for Watney, and different affectations for his various quips.