The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I usually browse the science fiction sections of my local bookstores wondering if anything will jump out of the piles of juvenilia, serials and techno-worship. I've always been more an inner-space than an outer space SF reader. That doesn't mean that I dislike aliens, starships and inter-galactic romps, instead, what it means is that the story must contain some exploration of what it means to be human (or better yet, what it means to be sentient). Hard SF techno-geeks (once again I like Hard SF as long as it has the meatier philosophical explorations) like to dismiss this fiction as "soft" SF.
I read to escape, but I also read to learn and to experience beyond my means.
So I have often passed by Mary Doria Russell's novel "The Sparrow" wondering if it could live up to its promise as a "startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction" (New York Times blurb). Having finally picked it up and slowly got involved with it (I'm usually reading about 4 or 5 things at a time because my work involves reading/researching) and finally getting hooked (I'll be honest, I discard well over half of the books I start, out of frustration with the author's incompetence or laziness) and then becoming obssessed with the solving of the core mystery of what happened to Emilio Sandoz, a South American Jesuit Priest, and his crew who were sent across space to engage a newly discovered sentient species.
This book starts off slowly, introducing its dual, layered narratives, one centered around Emilio after the disastrous mission, the other 40 years earlier as Emilio recounts the journey. The buildup though is worthy of the patient reader and Russell provides a rich array of characters and events in this future society. The mystery is at first vague (other than the recognized outcome) but it draws strength as the narrative progresses and nearly overwhelms the reader in the last 50 pages.
I don't want to give any of the story away, so let me finish with a few themes: Religion, but more so, struggles of faith/non-faith, especially in an age of science; predators and prey amongst sentient societies; contamination and violence in colonial enterprises; institutional power and individual promise; the intertwining of business/military/culture; redemption and renewal; death and destruction; the nature of evil; and our own prejudices. There is one last powerful issue/theme explored in the book, but it is a part of the mystery and cannot be mentioned or else it would give away the story for any potential readers.
Supposedly Brad Pitt's Plan B productions has optioned the film and he wants to play Emilio--it would make a fascinating film, if done with integrity and intelligence.
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