Mary Doria Russell,
The Sparrow
(Fawcett Books, 1996)

Mary Doria Russel's novel The Sparrow explores the nature of religious faith, how some people have a need for a deity in their lives, and how for some people this need can be very great indeed. In a similar vein to the classic works of Ursula Le Guin, to which it has been favorable compared, the novel is dominated by a single central protagonist: Father Emilio Sandoz. This Jesuit priest persuades the superiors of his religious order in Rome to mount a private and secret expedition to the newly discovered planet of Rakhat, in orbit about the double star Alpha Centauri. The book is essentially Sandoz's story, which is told in flashback from the perspective of his present where, fighting physical and mental breakdown as well as a physical handicap, he awaits in disgrace the commencement of the Jesuit inquiry into the disaster that the expedition became. He is to be the inquiry's sole witness because he alone, of eight, returned alive.

At the beginning we meet Sandoz as a young Catholic priest and linguist who also works among the poor and destitute, a state which he himself was born into but managed to overcome with the help of others. Among his friends is the young astrophysicist who detects and records the very first transmission from Rakhat. Sharing this astonishing news with a small group of his friends (including Sandoz) makes them the first people on Earth (the year is 2019) to hear the sounds of an alien civilization -- the sound of voices singing. It is this small group of friends (which includes a sixty-something doctor and her engineer husband) who will eventually comprise a large proportion of the expedition's small crew.

This all sounds like a highly improbable plot line, and so it is, but this very improbability is cleverly used as a plot device within the novel. Thus, again and again as the coincidences accumulate, the question is asked: is it merely coincidence or the hand of God? While Sandoz's answer (shared by the three other Jesuit crew) is unequivocal, the other four crew members, one of whom is an attractive young woman, tend towards agnosticism.

The ship which transports this unlikely group is a hollowed-out asteroid converted from its original purpose of mining the asteroid belt. Relativity effects mean that the seventeen years that elapse on Earth during the course of the voyage are perceived as six months by the crew. They arrive, land, meet alien inhabitants of the planet and set up a precarious outpost. Sandoz interprets everything that happens in divine, even mystical terms, and his experiences are manifestly so intense that everyone is drawn, even if not converted, to his view. Then it goes wrong, spectacularly and bizarrely, so that we follow Sandoz as he descends from divine mystical heights into hell.

In this, her first novel, Mary Doria Russell uses the character of Father Sandoz as a lens with which to examine some of the dark, often dead-end, alleys that can await those who insist on a purely religious interpretation both of their lives and of this universe. For Sandoz, and the people who sent him on the expedition, everything is governed by the will of God for the straightforward reason that acceptance of what they perceive to be the only alternative governor, blind chance, makes everything meaningless. The novel plays out the struggle between these two perhaps false alternatives against a backdrop, and with imaginative surprises, that only science fiction can offer.

The Sparrow is much more than a first-contact novel, containing as it does such additional highly combustible ingredients as sexual jealousy, priestly celibacy, religious fanaticism and people who believe that the Creator of the universe has singled them out for a special purpose. Combustible certainly, but Russell keeps a lid on it all throughout, so that the novel could be said to glow with a rich incandescence.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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