The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Originally published in 1997, The Sparrow combines some of mankind’s most basic questions into an interesting story:
- Are humans the only species in the Universe? And if we find another species, how do we approach them?
- From Anne, in the story: “What sticks in my throat is that God gets the credit but never the blame. I just can’t swallow that kind of theological candy.” In other words, if God is responsible for the good times, is He responsible for the bad?
Both of these themes thread through the novel, told in flashbacks and first hand narative. The answer to the first question is unique: without consulting any other Earth organization, the Jesuits launch a mission, just as they have launched missions to remote and unknown places at different times in their history. This is a unique angle in the sci-fi “meet the new aliens” genre.
The second theme is the strongest, and centers on Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, who sees the hand of God in the “coincidences” leading up to the mission, and the first part of the mission itself…but has lost his faith by the time of his return.
Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor from a Jesuit sponsored trip to the planet of Rekhat. Originally the inspiration and the spiritual leader of the mission, he is blamed, and basically put on inquisition, for the heinous crimes he is thought to have committed. The discovery of the alien race (through transmissions of their singing) and the mission to visit them, told in flashbacks, seems pre-ordained, particularly to Sandoz, a survivor from the rough part of San Juan, Puerto Rico, who went on to become a Jesuit priest. When a young friend of Sandoz, Jimmy, hears the alien singing while working at the Acerbo dish, and the first people he calls are Sandoz, his friends Anne and George (she a doctor, he an engineer, both friends of Sandoz and pulled to San Juan by him) and Sofia Mendes, an indentured servant/savant whose specialty is AI programming (she had already developed a linguistic program by questioning Sandoz, and was doing the same with Jimmy and his ET Searches). Emilio sees the gathering of these folks as divine, as the right team to go to the planet, on the other side of Alpha Centauri, in private while the United Nations debates endlessly on what to do.
After a while it became hard to ignore how, against odds, the dice kept coming up in favor of the mission. The crew members went on with their training, their work unaffected by the waxing and waning of confidence, but they all experienced varying degrees of amazement. Even the Jesuits were divided. Marc Robichaux and Emilio Sandoz smiled and said “See? Deus vult,” while D. W. Yarbrough and Andrej Jelacic shook their heads in wonder. George Edwrds and Jimmy Quinn and Sofia Mendes remained agnostics on the question of whether these events were minor miracles or major coincidences.
At first, the mission is divine. The team meets and Emilio builds communication with the alien Runa, and then the Jana’ata. But it goes incredibly and suddenly wrong with the team misunderstanding the cultures and relations of the two races, prompting the inquisition of Emilio as he returns to Earth as the sole survivor, questioning his own faith, blamed for the murder of his alien liason and possibly the deaths of the rest of the team.
The main drawback of the storyline is the suddenness and ferocity of the violence, which happens much too near the end of the story. With one or two clues that the carnivorous Jana’ata were agressive and violent (the main one being when Supaari attacked Emilio when first seeing him), the Earthlings discover too late in the game what they are really up against.