Just Finished: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I had a very mixed reaction to this book. Published in 1996, it won awards and is still highly acclaimed. It didn’t quite work for me, though. The fact that it showed such promise (for my reading taste and subject matter interest) and didn’t deliver for me leaves me unable to recommend it. There is a sequel, titled “Children of God,” but I don’t think I’m going to make the time investment necessary to read it as well.

Briefly, the story is one of humanity’s first contact with an alien civilization and how an expedition is funded and sent by the Jesuit order to “learn” from God’s other children in the universe. The main character, Jesuit priest Emilio Sardoz, is an expert in learning languages, and drawn to the expedition by the fact that the communication received is in the form of “singing.” The musical quality of these songs is haunting and alluring and seems “inspired by God.” Sardoz is joined by several others on this mission, including the astronomer who discovered the signal, a brilliant and beautiful woman, Sofia Mendez- a kind of intellectual indentured servant in the future that this novel paints – an older married couple, one of whom is a doctor, and a few other “hard core Jesuits.” These people form a Tolkein-like Fellowship and journey to the alien civilization, conveniently located “next door” in the Centauri star system (roughly four light years from Earth, I think).

The novel takes place in two time lines, which is part of the reason I struggled with it. It begins in 2060 (the year the “mission” – or what’s left of it – returns to Earth. Through continued ‘flashbacks’ we also learn the sequence of events in 2019, when the discovery is made and the mission takes place. Part of the problem with this is that – when the reader is in the “2019 chapters” he already knows some of what’s going to happen to the mission, including which members won’t make it back. This taints the reading for me.

The other – and perhaps the main- problem I had with it was the kind of ‘casual’ or matter of fact approach to the mission, as though these discoveries were made and these projects were undertaken all the time. It was just too hard for me to suspend disbelief. There is no discussion or concern about “contamination” of the newly discovered world (or its contamination of the members of the mission). Well, it is brought up once, when an expedition member dies and there is discussion about burying him – “will his bacteria contaminate the ecosystem?” To quote Dr. McCoy in (I think it was) Star Trek III: “Hell of a time to ask!” The mission can conveniently eat native plants and animals, quickly picks up the language of the first race they meet (bipedal humanoids of course, but with tails).

This brings up one aspect of the novel that idid find fascinating, though. Russell created the two main races on the new world (the “Runa” and the “Jana’ata”) as having evolved as a predator-prey relationship, which I found very interesting. There’s just not enough of this type of stuff in the book, however. There is, if you’ll forgive me for putting it this way, “Too much God” in it. The sci-fi backdrop is really just the setting for a story of Sandoz’s struggles with belief and faith, which is fine if that’s the book you wanted to read. It wasn’t the book I was wanting or expecting, though. One thing it did do however, was kindle an interest in me to learn about the history of the Jesuits and their missions here on earth, particularly to the “New World” of our own planet’s Age of Discovery.

I’m beginning to ramble so I’ll end the post here. I welcome others’ comments or viewpoints on this books, though.


  1. April 17, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Hi Jay,

    You bring up a lot of good points in this review! 🙂

    It’s true that actual scientific protocols aren’t really followed very much by the Jesuit team. Though it’s been a while since I read The Sparrow, I think I recall that Sandoz’s team left Earth secretly and without scientific or government permission, in order to be the first to make contact with the aliens…I wonder if a more “official” mission team would have followed scientific research methods a bit more? (The team in Prometheus seems to tell us they would not have been, however!)

    I am willing to excuse a little bit of hand-waving or faulty science in the service of an interesting or gripping story, and so in my case, I couldn’t put The Sparrow down! But I know that differs for each person, and there are certainly cases where I have been distracted to the point of insanity by poor science! (Again, Prometheus.)



    • Jay said,

      April 19, 2013 at 5:26 pm

      Hi Taryn,
      I don’t know if you’re familiar with it or not, but there’s a podcast called the “Skeptics Guide to the Universe.” I listen to it sometimes,and in the 6/30/12 edition, they did a gaffe-by-gaffe run down of Prometheus. Pretty funny if it does run on a bit long. I looked it up again, and their ‘review’ starts about 7 minutes in. As a scientific person, you might enjoy it.


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