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Worlds Without End Blog

WoGF Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell Posted at 11:14 AM by Stephen Poltz


WWEnd Women of Genre Fiction Reading ChallengeStephen Poltz (spoltz)‘s love of anything SF and Fantasy was inspired by his childhood heroes Carl Sagan and JRR Tolkien. Oh yeah, and by watching cheesy ‘50s sci-fi movies on a black and white TV. He got a book-reading-reboot when he met his partner, Jacob, a voracious reader from a family of hard-core, genre fiction enthusiasts. After seeing a display of Hugo Award winning books at his local bookstore, Steve became obsessed with reading all the winners. Now, when not QAing software, learning Polish, or finding new books to read on WWEnd, he writes reviews on his blog It Started With The Hugos…

The SparrowDespite being an agnostic, I love SF and Fantasy that questions, critiques, or parodies religion. Some of my favorite novels are A Canticle for Leibowitz, A Case of Conscience, and Live from Golgotha by Gore Vidal. So when I looked for more books to read for the WoGF challenge, I searched in the WWEnd database using the tag “theological.” Once again, I found a gem.

The Sparrow transposes the experience of the New World Jesuit missions to the genre of SF. Fr. Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, leads the first mission to a planet which seems to harbor intelligent life. Something goes terribly wrong and leaves the priest the only survivor, demoralized and in a crisis of faith.

The premise of The Sparrow may seem absurd by today’s standards. We don’t expect the Catholic Church to be the first to send a mission to an extraterrestrial world. Placed in a historical context, it is not absurd at all. This happened throughout the European exploration of the Americas, as well as the non-Christianized regions of the other continents. This book takes that premise and places it in a contemporary context with our modern sense of cultural sensitivity. The result provides the reader with a group of very likable, honorable, and by most definitions, good people put into a morally ambiguous and deadly situation.

I loved the prose of the book. It was beautifully written. I found the narrative structure to be quite compelling. The history of the mission is told parallel to the trials of the surviving Fr. Sandoz. It is another book where every word seems important and every paragraph necessary.

I also loved the characterizations. The people on the mission were drawn in such detail and with such love, that I could relate them to specific people I knew from my college days when I hung out with a group of left-wing radicals which spanned the spectrum from radical nuns to philosophical scientists. During the ’80s, all these people came together to form an intentional community of support for each other and care for their fellow human beings in a spirit of peace and justice. I read several reviews of the book that insisted that these characters were too good to be true. My experience is that these people exist, and find each other and God in the world in profound ways.

Mary Doria RussellWhat would it be like if there were more than one sentient species on a planet? There must be some novels that have speculated on this concept, but this is my first encounter with it. Uplift stories don’t even come close. Russell takes the premise of multiple sentient species interacting on a planet and forces us into a moral quandary. How will we interact with extraterrestrial life where evolution has created a morality so radically different than ours? The answer may be difficult and even abhorrent, but it is a question we will probably have to face.

Despite my absolute love of this book, I had a few issues with it. It saddened me that Russell’s Church of the future is still run by celibate males, and that there is no feminine influence at the highest levels. I also found it disheartening that the one gay character only came out to one other character. The way he came out reminded me of a quote by Montgomery McNeil in the movie Fame, “Never being happy isn’t the same as being unhappy. Is it?”

Russell uses a lot of archetypes and common Catholic iconography in the formation of her main characters. Fr. Sandoz is the saint of classic hagiography. He is a sinner who has a conversion experience and goes out to live the gospel. In the tradition of the mystic saints, and as the main plot of the book, he experiences an existential crisis in a dark night of the soul. Fr. Yarbrough can be likened to St. Peter, the rock, the commander and pragmatist of the mission, carrying his rifle like Peter carrying his sword at the Garden of Gethsemane. The two women on the mission, Anne and Sofia, fit snuggly into the archetypes of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, respectively. Anne, while not being a virgin, is childless. She admittedly becomes the mother to the members of the mission.

Sofia has an awesome back story, going from privileged child to teen prostitute survivor to asocial genius software developer. However, the use of the archetype of repentant prostitute drives me nuts. Mary Magdalene is never described in the gospels as being a prostitute, nor is she the woman caught in adultery. This popular representation of her is wrong, but is unfortunately ubiquitous. This did not bother me as I read the book. Reflecting on and analyzing the characters afterwards, I realized how Russell clearly used this archetype of Mary Magdalene to fashion Sofia. Her character is great, but it still makes me moan.

The big reveal at the end feeds into the existential dilemma of Fr. Sandoz: if God exists, then how can evil be God’s will? If God doesn’t exist, then isn’t this deplorable situation the fruit of my own choices? Both questions lead to despair and hopelessness. It reminds me of the commonly thrown-about phrase, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” How do we discern which good intentions do not lead to hell? Even if we think we have a well-formed conscience and believe we are doing God’s will, we may still be making the wrong decisions.

I made the mistake of reading a lot of reader reviews of this book, and had to hold myself from speaking to a lot of the criticisms. One or two slipped out anyway. I think the amount of criticism signifies that the book accomplished its goal: to create a dialogue about the nature of moral ambiguity in a beautifully written piece of science fiction.

This is a five-star book. This is also the longest review I’ve ever written. The Sparrow evoked a lot of feelings and ideas. Clearly, I had some issues with it, but ultimately, I loved it. I think great literature asks profound questions and leaves us with ambiguity. The pursuit of the answers is beautifully summarized in this quote, “If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.”


icowrich   |   30 Nov 2013 @ 11:04

You consider A Canticle for Leibowitz to be a parody?

Stephen Poltz   |   30 Nov 2013 @ 13:57

Hi Rico,

To reiterate, my first sentence says, “…I love SF and Fantasy that questions, critiques, or parodies religion.” Note that I use the word “or”. I love “A Canticle for Leibowitz.” When I first read it in college, it changed my life. I have not posted a review of it yet because what I have is sorely lacking. I will be reading it again for a book club in a few weeks, and hope to have a revised review ready to add to this site. Being an agnostic cradle-Catholic , I love such things as how Miller points out that from afar, the Pope looks fine and regal, but up close, his vestments are ragged and moth-eaten, perhaps a critique of the state of papacy; the question of what becomes of a person who has been raised from the dead; the incorporation of science into religion; the moral dilemma of mutants; hagiography and the hunt for relics. So no, I don’t consider, nor did I ever intend to imply, that “Canticle” was a parody.

icowrich   |   01 Dec 2013 @ 16:13

I missed the “or.” Correction noted! What I loved about Canticle is how ambiguous Miller’s message seemed to me. It was at once a love letter and a scathing critique, and to this day, I don’t know what side of the question he lands on. I look forward to your review.

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