"The Sparrow" by Mary D. Russell


(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

I just finished reading “The Sparrow”, a science fiction novel by Mary Doria Russell. It is a treatment of themes of suffering and questions about God that unfold as some Jesuits take it upon themselves to lead a mission to our stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri to initiate first contact with newly discovered aliens there. [Click to undo spoiler blur.]

While I am eager to discuss it with anybody who has read it, I will only give a cautionary recommendation: The story and its characters are gripping and brilliant, but it is not family reading, and I’m not talking about a mere presence of language “bombs” (that are indeed sprinkled throughout) that can be sanitized by a vigilant read-aloud parent. The necessary themes she develops, central to the plot as they are, will not be for the very young or faint of heart, or for anybody of fragile religious sensibility. It is a hard, honest look at life.

But now that I have hopefully scared away anybody who has no business picking it up, let me just add that Russell’s anthropological expertise shines through along with spiritual sensibility and insights that many here would appreciate.

Just as a teaser I will include just this bit out of an epilogue where she shares some about her own views:

Russell:

Now, I know that many people believe that religion and science are opposites, but for me, religion is very much like music. No one would argue that music is the opposite of science. No one would ask if music is more true than science, or if science is more accurate than music. Those comparisons are meaningless. Nobody would expect a musician to reject science because it isn’t a timed sequence of pitches and tones, nor would anyone expect a scientist to reject music, simply because music is not a collection of empirical facts organized into a body of theory that generates testable hypotheses.

I really like that, and will shamelessly use it; but lest it be thought that the above snippet represents any sort of singular theme she simplistically hammers on, I assure you it is not so. Theists and atheists may differ widely on how they accept any conciliation between science and religion, but most here, I think, should find good provocation in this story where plenty of room is left for all sorts of acceptance or rejection of faith.

Many here on this site who muse long and hard about the place of evil in our world and how God fits (or not) with that would find this to be a gripping story, I think.


(Thanh Chung) #2

I read the book and its sequel, Children of God, last year and enjoyed them. I admire how the author developed the setting of the alien world with its languages, cultures, and inhabitants.


(Aaron) #3

It was interesting! Personally I prefer “A case of conscious” by James Blish or “the star” by Arthur c. Clarke for stories of first contact involving Jesuit priests.

Have you read “a canticle for leibowitz”?


(Reggie O'Donoghue) #4

As a big Sci-Fi/Fantasy geek, I’ll have to read it.


(Jay Johnson) #5

Worth repeating. It reminds me of a favorite quote from Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value:

People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them—that does not occur to them.

A related thought from that same book:

Nothing is more important than the formation of fictional concepts, which teach us at last to understand our own.

Thanks for the review!


(Mervin Bitikofer) #6

I have! --another favorite science fiction work of mine, though I confess to having lost interest in his sequel. “The Sparrow” did remind me of Miller’s book, though. I’ve not read any of Blish. I’ll have to check him out.

–gotta run. Will reply to others later.


(George Brooks) #7

When I saw this thread, I didn’t think of a book … I thought of a song… featured in the early recordings of Simon & Garfunkel. It’s a touching folk song; as a teenager, this song would make me weep. I guess I should have stayed a Catholic. To me, the Earth always represents Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Who will love a little Sparrow?
Who’s traveled far and cries for rest?
“Not I,” said the Oak Tree
"I won’t share my branches with no sparrow’s nest
And my blanket of leaves won’t warm her cold breast."

Who will love a little Sparrow
And who will speak a kindly word?
“Not I,” said the Swan
"The entire idea is utterly absurd
I’d be laughed at and scorned if the other Swans heard."

And who will take pity in his heart
And who will feed a starving sparrow?
“Not I,” said the Golden Wheat
"I would if I could but I cannot, I know
I need all my grain to prosper and grow."

Who will love a little Sparrow?
Will no one write her eulogy?
“I will,” said the Earth
"For all I’ve created returns unto me
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be."

““Sparrow” illustrates the plight of those who become forgotten within a rich society. Rejected and overlooked by the rich and the beautiful, the sparrow only finds peace in death.”


(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

Yes, and with a bit of a nod to linguists too – a far cry from all the English speaking aliens (or techno-magic of Trek’s “universal translators” – who knew you could be so easily replaced by a bit of tech, @Christy!)

But all that is dealt with more realistically in Russell’s story, though other license has to be taken as always for the sake of the real story.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #9

Very poignant – even sad! It’s a beautiful song. And it is good to know that even the sparrow is not beneath God’s notice.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #10

Another enjoyable little snippet from Russell’s 20th anniversary afterword that is apropos of Catholicism and maybe also the recent kerfuffle in congress over a Jesuit’s prayer. Here it is (from the new afterword in “The Sparrow”)

Old joke. Three Catholic priests are having dinner: a Franciscan, a Dominican, and a Jesuit. Suddenly the lights go out.

The Fransiscan says, “Let us welcome Sister Darkness and wait patiently for Brother Sunlight to return.”

The Dominican says, “God gives us the darkness of ignorance so that we might, by contrast, discern the light of truth.”

The Jesuit finds a flashlight and goes downstairs to flip the breaker.


(George Brooks) #11

@Mervin_Bitikofer

If I was a Catholic, it’s not a good idea to fire a Jesuit … any Jesuit.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #12

Not having time for a longer book at the moment, I cheated and read Wikipedia’s plot synopsis … I’m guessing I wouldn’t appreciate it quite as much as it looks (from a distance) if it just involves sharper jabs born more from a warfare thesis than from a sympathetically exploratory one. I also noted that Guy Consolmagno is quoted as saying of it:

“…that this novel was written without much knowledge of Jesuits, …[its] theology isn’t only bad theology, it’s not Jesuit theology.”

And I have a lot of respect for Consolmagno as a Jesuit director of the Vatican observatory. So naturally … I wondered what he would think of “The Sparrow”. I didn’t have to look far. In this 2004 interview with Astrobiology Magazine he was asked if he had read “The Sparrow”, and this was all he had to say about it:

Yes, and I hated it. But that’s a whole different issue. Nobody in that book had a sense of humor. Nobody in that book knew how to laugh.

so … ouch. I guess my sci-fi favorite here gets no accolades from Guy either. But at least he didn’t mention the theology in it … tempting for me to try to read into the silence there.

I did read Clarke’s short story “The Star” (thanks for that). Interesting plot twist! I think, though, that it fails to develop any further a theodicy theme that is already milleniea old, only writ larger in this story. It reminded me of the slaughter of the innocents already relayed to us in the gospels. So why the priest should have been caught by surprise by seeing the same thing scaled up out there in the cosmos (while understandably faith shaking) still wouldn’t be fundamentally different from the many “large” things already happening on the scale of our own lives here that drive some of us from faith and cause others to flee towards it.

Clarke does have some other works (I’ve read the Rama series) that as I recall give at least a passing nod to Catholic religion (as in he doesn’t mock it by only consigning it to idiot characters) … though his book “Childhood’s End” could not be confused with any sympathetic theological themes I would guess.

I don’t know if the favor I feel toward “The Sparrow” will survive taking in the sequel – I’m almost afraid to do that. But I should give the author the benefit of the doubt; what looked to me to be a spiritual depth in the first book can’t just easily disappear in subsequent works, right? Oh me of little faith.

[Added edit: I shouldn’t have stopped searching so fast on Consolmagno’s reaction to “The Sparrow” – he does say a little more here in “A Jesuit’s guide to avoiding awful science fiction.” Both the Sparrow, and Blish’s “Case of Conscience” make his short list of three. He only says marginally more, though, calling the theology of the first book, “Naive”. His main criticism seems to remain that the Jesuits “take themselves far too seriously.” But while he doesn’t go on to critique the theology for anything more than its naivete, he also doesn’t pay it the same compliment that he affords for “Case of Conscience” – which he calls a page turner despite its backward theology. I’m in no position, of course, to object to Consolmagno’s critique of how Jesuit theology is shown, but I do have to wonder at his finding no humor in “The Sparrow”. I thought the characters engaged in plenty of humor … at least until the main part of the book where things get so bad. At those stages of the story, to show characters laughing or taking their tragedies lightly would have been to make them practically inhuman – something I would guess that no self-respecting anthropologist is going to allow in her story. (…perhaps a bit like wondering why Jesus isn’t cracking more jokes as he’s carrying the cross toward Golgotha.) So with my obligatory nod toward his critique (mere mention actually) of her naive Jesuit theology, I have to differ with Consolmagno on the book’s alleged lack of humor. I thought that it was quite the page turner.]


(Thanh Chung) #13

About Guy Consolmagno, I read the The Atlantic article, “Why Sci-Fi Has So Many Catholics”. It seems that Consolmagno does not like sci-fi stories about Jesuits in general. He says, “An awful lot of it is that those stories are written by people who don’t have intimate knowledge of scientists in general, and certainly not of Jesuits.”

Cosolmagno is an avid sci-fi fan, but I think he just got tired of reading sci-fi books about Jesuits and everyone asking for his opinions on those books.

I’m not fresh on the details, but I like Children of God l because I am somewhat satisfied of how it ended the story of The Sparrow. Maybe it’s not as good as the first book, but it is still captivating to me because I like reading the alien cultures of Rakhat. The sequel deals with a lot of issues that happened in the aftermath of the Jesuit expedition on Rakhat.


(Ashley Lande) #14

I read about fifty pages in and wasn’t really digging it… I skipped toward the end and skimmed a bit (something I usually don’t do, I promise!) and was deeply disturbed by the rape. Ugh. I still shudder to think of it. Unfortunately I couldn’t get past that and never read the rest of the book.


(Ashley Lande) #15

I concede, I was probably one of those ones who had no business picking it up :smiley: You are correct, it’s definitely not for the delicate. I feel like I can deal with dark themes only when there is an arc of redemption to the story.The book was recommended to me, interestingly enough, by an atheist friend, who I really wish had mentioned the graphic rape (I guess that’s a spoiler, sorry).

I saw someone mentioned Children of God. It’s one of my favorite books.


(Ashley Lande) #16

Wait… nevermind. I’m talking about Children of God by P.D. James. Totally different book than the sequel to this…


(Phil) #17

It is frustrating how multiple books can have the same title. Messed me up several times.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #18

Yes, you would have to be mentally “off” to NOT be disturbed by such tings – I found it disturbing too. I am usually annoyed by authors who sprinkle foul language into their works, but I have to wonder in this case if it was this author’s way of trying to protect sensitive readers from things they would not want to contemplate.

I was curious how you would have read the sequel, if you had not finished the original work, but I see from your current post that you are correcting that and were thinking of another book.

I have started reading “Children of God” by Russell, and so far I’m thinking that the most disturbing theme raised in the first book is now part of the backdrop to be dealt with in the sequel. I’m guessing there is to be more of a theme of redemption and trying to bring closure to what came up in the first book; but I’m only a third of the way through the sequel. So my speculation may be premature.

I still defend the work of these two books, such as I’ve seen thus far, 1 and 1/3 books in, that there is spiritual meat (not milk) to be faced here, in that there is no cultural evil (an interesting theme in itself given our discussions in this forum on morality and its foundations – I keep expecting Russell to press this question even farther) that has not been exposed and faced by the crucified Christ. I hear in Sandoz’s bitterness at the end of “The Sparrow” the same echo of Jesus’ cry “My God, My God …”

This is not to say that I’m pressing you or anyone to read this. You can instead get the main synopsis of the plot from wikipedia which would get you a fair overview. What it doesn’t get you, though, is bits of profound dialogue in which Russell represents various sides to these questions with very perceptive acuity. Neither the faith (represented by the Catholics --especially the Jesuits), nor the agnostic characters are given to caricature; but give arguments that (seem to me) would do right by all such thoughtful parties as are often represented here in these forums. So there is that. However, one “side” that would feel shorted in this work are those who embrace warfare mentality and don’t like to see characters maintaining friendship, work, and respectful dialogue across such tribal boundaries. But they aren’t slighted by any explicit mockery, but more by absence. Russell does not have any of her major characters playing the fool. No repetition of Galileo’s blunder for her. [now I hope the last 2/3 of her sequel doesn’t make me eat these words!]

[with edits now.]


(Phil) #19

Sounds like a trip to Half Price Books is in my future.


(Mark D.) #20

I’ve just requested it from my local library. Will chime in with my impressions if the gate for replies here doesn’t close before I finish it. I’m intrigued.