Emilio Sandoz is a remarkable man, a living saint and Jesuit priest who undergoes an experience so harrowing and profound that it makes him question the existence of God. This experience - the first contact between human beings and intelligent extraterrestrial life - begins with a small mistake and ends in a horrible catastrophe.Sandoz is a part of the crew sent to explore a new planet. What they find is a civilization so alien and incomprehensible that they feel compelled to wonder what it means to be human.The priest is the only surviving member of the crew, and upon his return, he is confronted by public inquisition and accusations of the most heinous crimes imaginable. His faith utterly destroyed, crippled and defenseless, his only hope is to tell his tale. Father John Candotti has been charged with discovering the truth, but the truth may be more than Earth is willing to accept.
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Stephen, in a review, writes, "6.0 stars. This book was beautifully written and the best way I can think to describe it is emotionally devastating (but in a good way). Nominally, it is a book about "first contact" with an alien race but the heart of the story is the age old question, "How can someone believe in a just, loving God when such horrible things happen to good people?"
Great summary, Stephen, thank you. Emotionally devastating? To be sure. But in a good way? Not on your life. I'll tell you, brother, this book took its toll on me.
Beginning to read this book and knowing from the publisher summary that only Emilio Sandoz was going to return from the mission created a real tension for me that only tightened as the book went on. It was impossible not to get attached all of the members of the crew. A crew that one cannot help but like even more as the story unfolds. Surprisingly, there is not an asshole among them. Each in their own way, I grew fond of of them all. The author fully develops and brings nearly every character to life brilliantly.
There is not a lot of excitement from the beginning and thru most of the book. But somehow, the suspense builds. Again, much of this time is spent in wonderfully developing the characters. Characters all of whom will come to some horrible end. And horror is the only way to describe it. Horror especially for Emilio:
"Emilio, what happened to you out there? What changed everything?" "Don't ask me, Vince," Sandoz said bitterly, "Ask God."
And that is the quintessential one of many such questions about God.
“God would not have brought us this far to let us down now.”
Oh Father Sandoz, you poor SOB. You have no idea. And we the reader have no idea either. We do not know exactly what that ordeal was till nearly the last chapter of the story. Did I mention there was a certain tension that builds throughout? All the way to the bitter and I mean bitter end. Emilio says earlier in the book that his entire life would be viewed as before and after that event.
While God is central to the theme of the book, that should not dissuade anyone from reading this masterpiece if a god or notion about one is not central to your thinking or beliefs. This is a book much more about spirituality and a lot less about christianity or dogma. The book is about morality but not the in-your-face kind. At first, because of an Inquisition-like atmosphere that Emilio finds himself in back on Earth, we think the book might be about Fr/Dr Sandoz's morality. But Sandoz challenges us all to judge neither him nor even his tormentors: “There are no beggars on Rakhat. There is no unemployment. There is no overcrowding. No starvation. No environmental degradation. There is no genetic disease. The elderly do not suffer decline. Those with terminal illness do not linger. They pay a terrible price for this system, but we too pay...and the coin we use is the suffering of children. How many kids starved to death this afternoon, while we sat here? Just because their corpses aren’t eaten doesn’t make our species any more moral!”
It took me 15 years to pick this book up but only one day to read it. The thought of a book about a clutch of Jesuit priests on a mission to Alpha Centauri did not exactly grab me. But, once it did, I could not put it down. It was wonderful from beginning to end. Most would probably agree the book is not for youngsters. But for me, this was some of the best, non-linear storytelling, ever penned. Was the book believable? Not really. But then neither are fairy-tales and that does not in the least diminish my enjoyment of them.
- Robert "Hey Audible, don't raise prices and I promise to buy lots more books."
A complex exploration of hope challenged
On the face of it, the Sparrow is a novel about humanity's first contact with an alien race, a disastrous expedition to Alpha Centauri that leaves only one survivor, a Jesuit priest named Father Emilio Sandoz. Underneath, though, Mary Doria Russell creates a nuanced, multi-layered novel that poses some serious questions about the nature of faith and morality.
The story builds suspense by cutting back and forth between the Church’s interviews of the spiritually and physically broken priest, who initially refuses to talk, and the events of the past, proceeding from the time when the aliens are first discovered (and the Church recognizes an opportunity for itself). We know that things are destined to go wrong, but not exactly how, except for a few pieces of foreshadowing. Does the tragedy of the mission hinge on one mistake -- or many?
Russell takes her time setting up the story, which might try the patience of some readers, but illuminates the minds of a small, tight-knit group of well-constructed characters. We see the initial sense of scientific and spiritual mission, the optimism of the interstellar travelers as they near their destination, the months of exploration of the edenic planet Rakhat and the first encounters with the childlike Runa. However, as the story unfolds, we begin to see the outlines of a significant difference between the humans and the aliens that neither side manages to perceive fully, each with its own innate view of how life is meant to function. I found the conception of an alien species’ alternate biology and culture reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s works.
Religious themes often feature in First Contact novels, because, of course, the very presence of other intelligent beings would raise important questions about the “design” of the universe. Could we get a new glimpse of the Ultimate Creative Force by meeting fellow travelers? Or is there a hubris in hoping? What commonalities should be embraced? What differences accepted? In The Sparrow, these issues are central, though you don’t need to be Catholic or even religious at all to relate to them. The priests here may belong to an old tradition, but theirs is one that embraces science and rationality, seeking God somewhere in the DNA of the universe rather than in supernatural encounters. Indeed, conversations between Father Sandoz and a strong-willed agnostic character named Ann show that the boundaries between belief and lack of it aren’t easy to define.
At the heart of the book, though, is the question of shattered faith. What happens when what we hope for fails us, and the universe cruelly turns on us, as it does for Father Sandoz? Do we let go of the piece of wreckage we’re clinging to and allow ourselves to silently sink below the cold waves? Or do we reach for the helping hand that others offer us, even though it forces us to face the pain and weakness we carry? Russell, admirably, doesn’t offer an easy out for either Father Sandoz or her readers.
A few things hold me back from a five star review, however. First of all, there are a lot of plausibility issues, the main one being that a visit to another inhabited planet would never unfold with so little planning or caution (I mean, think about the bacteria). Secondly, though I liked the characters, their quirks and banter get a little too precious at times.
Overall, though, I think The Sparrow is well worth a read for anyone who appreciates science fiction that isn’t about blazing guns or astrobabble, but tells a contemplative story focused on age-old human questions.