Jesuits… In… Space!!!: Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow

Copyright © 1996 by Mary Doria Russell. All Rights Reserved.

If the title of today’s post caught your eye, it’s describing my reaction to the premise of a novel written by Mary Doria Russell known as The Sparrow.  I thought of religious-minded people sent to explore the unknown, to make contact with alien civilizations and expand their perspective of God.

What I got was a rip-off.

Now, let me be clear: there are some excellent points and some poignant inner conflicts that Mrs. Russell does get into the story.  It’s just that the story overall comes off as disjointed and a little too heavy for a good sci-fi read.

Basically, it’s the reverse of my review of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

The story follows a failed secret expedition organized by the Catholic Church to a distant alien world, having discovered it via captured radio signals.  If the above sentence makes sense to you, don’t worry.  It gets better.

This story is mostly about the Jesuit linguist Emilio Sandoz and his crisis of faith after his experiences with beings from another world.  We do get to see how his fellow human beings interact with the extraterrestrials and learn a little about their well-developed culture.  But the majority of this story is about one man, his crisis of faith, and uncovering the true horror of what he experienced.

This is a philosophical novel, plain and simple.  And while I admit that it isn’t inherently bad, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting, nor did it truly engage me.  Not to mention some of the dialogue comes off as too self-aware or cliché, and some characters get page after page of backstory, even if they’re only around to serve as another viewpoint to the main action.

If you want to read a story about faith, then read this book.  Otherwise, avoid at all costs.

Bibliography: Russell, Mary Doria.  The Sparrow.  New York: Villard, 1996.

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