Sparrow (Russell)

The Sparrow 
Mary Doria Russell, 1996
Random House
405 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780449912553

It is the year 2019. From an outer space listening post on Puerto Rico come the sounds of exquisite singing—emanating from a planet that will be known by earth as Rakhat.

While the international community debates endlessly about sending a mission, a scientific team of eight Jesuits quietly launches its own.

What they discover on Rakhat makes them question the very basis of what it means to be human. Four decades later, Emilio Sandoz, the sole survivor, attempts to tell what happened. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—August 19, 1950
Where—Elmhurst, Illinois, USA
Education—B.A. University of Illinois; M.A. Northeastern
   University; Ph.D. University of Michigan
Awards—The John W. Campbell Award, 1998
Currently—lives in Cleveland, Ohio

Mary Doria Russell was born in suburban Chicago in 1950. Her mother was a U.S. Navy nurse and her father was a Marine Corps drill sergeant. She and her younger brother, Richard, consequently developed a dismaying vocabulary at an early age. Mary learned discretion at Sacred Heart Catholic elementary school and learned how to parse sentences at Glenbard East High; she moved on to study cultural anthropology at the University of Illinois, social anthropology at Northeastern University in Boston, and biological anthropology at the University of Michigan.

After earning a doctorate, Russell taught human gross anatomy at Case Western Reserve University in the 1980s but left the academic world to write fiction, which turned out to be a good career move.

Her novels have struck a deep chord with readers for their respectful but unblinking consideration of fundamental religious questions. The Sparrow and Children of God remain steady sellers, translated into more than a dozen languages. Russell has received nine national and international literary awards and has been a finalist for a number of others. She and her family live in Cleveland, Ohio. (From the publisher.)

From a 2005 Barnes & Noble interview:

• I honestly think getting up early gives you cancer. You should definitely sleep in as often as possible.

• Coffee is good for you. Don't believe anyone who says different. All research concluding that coffee is bad is seriously flawed in scientific design.

• Here's how you know when you're grown up: you decide if you get to have a pet. You don't have to ask anyone else's permission. I just got myself a 4-year-old miniature dachshund named Annie from She makes me laugh out loud first thing in the morning, and at least half a dozen times a day after that.

When asked what book most influenced her career as a writer, here is her response:

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (1935). I saw the David Lean movie Lawrence of Arabia when it first came out in 1962. I was twelve then, and ripe for hero worship, living in Lombard, Illinois, but ready to imagine a larger world than the Chicago suburbs. I found a musty old copy of Seven Pillars, and to this day I remain fascinated by the book and the man who wrote it. I can name a number of direct effects of reading the book.

Initially, I became interested in archeology because of Lawrence's early work, and that led me to anthropology, which sustained my interest through three degrees and years of professional work. I keep my hand in by editing the professional papers of friends in the field.

Lawrence taught me that speaking more than one language opens doors to experiences you'd miss if you only speak English. Over the years, I've studied Spanish, Russian, French and Croatian fairly formally, with less studious stabs at Latin, Hebrew, Italian and German. Each one has led me places I'd never have gone other wise. My study of Croatian led directly to the adoption of our son Daniel in Zagreb—so Lawrence is Dan's sort-of godfather!

I learned that intentions are irrelevant and regrets are useless: it doesn't matter what you thought would happen, or that you meant no harm. Unintended consequences of good intentions are a theme I return.

Lawrence taught me that how you write is as important as what you have to tell about. Choice of word, rhythm, detail, editing and overall structure make Seven Pillars literature, not just a military history or personal memoir.

There are echoes of Lawrence's experience in Deraa in my first novel, echoes of his war guilt in my third. I'm beginning research for a novel about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, and will come full circle: T. E. Lawrence will actually be a character in that one.

I also caught the colon habit from reading Lawrence's work: quod erat demonstradum. (Interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews 
Powerful... Father Emilio Sandoz [is] the only survivor of a Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, "a soul...looking for God." We first meet him in Italy...sullen and bitter.... But he was not always this way, as we learn through flashbacks that tell the story of the ill-fated trip.... The Sparrow tackles a difficult subject with grace and intelligence.
San Francisco Chronicle

A notable achievement... Russell shows herself to be a skillful storyteller who subtly and expertly builds suspense.
USA Today

Two narratives—the mission to the planet and its aftermath four decades later—interweave to create a suspenseful tale.
Seattle Times

It is rare to find a book about interplanetary exploration that has this much insight into human nature and foresight into a possible future.
San Antonio Express News

If you have to send a group of people to a newly discovered planet to contact a totally unknown species, whom would you choose? How about four Jesuit priests, a young astronomer, a physician, her engineer husband, and a child prostitute-turned-computer-expert? That's who Mary Doria Russell sends in her new novel, The Sparrow. This motley combination of agnostics, true believers, and misfits becomes the first to explore the Alpha Centuri world of Rakhat with both enlightening and disastrous results.... Vivid and engaging... An incredible novel.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Russell's debut novel...focuses on her characters, and it is here that the work truly shines. An entertaining infusion of humor keeps the book from becoming too dark, although some of the characters are so clever that they sometimes seem contrived. Readers who dislike an emphasis on moral dilemmas or spiritual quests may be turned off, but those who enjoy science fiction because it can create these things are in for a real treat.
Science Fiction Weekly

The dense prose in this complex tale may at first seem off-putting, but hang on for the ride; it's riveting! —Jennifer Henderson

An enigma wrapped inside a mystery sets up expectations that prove difficult to fulfill in Russell's first novel, which is about first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The enigma is Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit linguist whose messianic virtues hide his occasional doubt about his calling. The mystery is the climactic turn of events that has left him the sole survivor of a secret Jesuit expedition to the planet Rakhat and, upon his return, made him a disgrace to his faith. Suspense escalates as the narrative ping-pongs between the years 2016, when Sandoz begins assembling the team that first detects signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and 2060, when a Vatican inquest is convened to coax an explanation from the physically mutilated and emotionally devastated priest. A vibrant cast of characters who come to life through their intense scientific and philosophical debates help distract attention from the space-opera elements necessary to get them off the Earth. Russell brings her training as a paleoanthropologist to bear on descriptions of the Runa and Jana'ata, the two races on Rakhat whose differences are misunderstood by the Earthlings, but the aliens never come across as more than variations of primitive earthly cultures. The final revelation of the tragic human mistake that ends in Sandoz's degradation isn't the event for which readers have been set up. Much like the worlds it juxtaposes, this novel seems composed of two stories that fail to come together.
Publishers Weekly

Brilliant first novel about the discovery of extraterrestrial life and the voyage of a party of Jesuit missionaries to Alpha Centauri. Russell lays down two narratives: One begins in 2059, in the aftermath of the mission; the other in 2019, when a young astronomer intercepts a transmission of haunting songs from Alpha Centauri. In the latter, a linguist and Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz swiftly organizes a group of Jesuits and civilian specialists to turn an asteroid into a spaceship. The ship will reach the singing planet, called Rakhat, in four years of passenger time, even though 17 years will pass on Earth. In the narrative beginning in 2059, therefore, the mission's only survivor, Sandoz himself, is only a decade older. But he is a broken man physically and spiritually. The mission began well: Rakhat was beautiful and bountiful, and the men and women from Earth lived peacefully alongside a gentle and dreamy race, rather like the eloi of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, here called the runa. Then, inadvertently, the visitors improve the local diet, causing a surge in births among the Runa; suddenly, another, fiercer race appears to put things right. It seems that the Jana'ata raise the Runa like rabbits. The newborn are slain and eaten, as is the party from Earth, except for Sandoz, who is taken to the strange capitol city and sold into a brothel. There, he is raped repeatedly by the great poet who wrote the angelic songs that fetched the Jesuits in the first place. A startling portrait of an alien culture and of the nature of God as well, since, in his utter humiliation and in the annihilation of his spirit, Sandoz is reborn in faith. Shades of Wells, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Arthur C. Clarke, with just a dash of Edgar Rice Burroughs—and yet strikingly original, even so.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. How do faith, love, and the role of God in the world drive the plot of this story? One reviewer characterized this book as "a parable about faith—the search for God, in others as well as Out There." Do you agree? If so, why?

2. This story takes place from the years 2019 to 2060. The United States is no longer the predominant world power, having lost two trade wars with Japan, which is now supreme in both space and on Earth. Poverty is rampant. Indentured servitude is once more a common practice, and "future brokers" mine ghettos for promising children to educate in return for a large chunk of their lifetime income. What kinds of changes do you think will occur by the twenty-first century—with governments, technology, society, and so on? Do you think America will lose its predominant status in the world?

3. Do you think it likely that we will make contact with extraterrestrials at some time in the future? What will the implications of such an event be? We've always viewed Earth, and human beings, as the center of the universe. Will that still be the case if we discover alien life forms? How will such a discovery change theology? Does God love us best? Will such a discovery confirm the existence of God or cause us to question his existence at all?

4. If, sometime within the next century, we hear radio signals from a solar system less than a dozen light years away from our own, do you think humankind would mount an expedition to visit that place? Who do you think might leadsuch an expedition? If you had to send a group of people to a newly discovered planet to contact a totally unknown species, whom would you choose? Is the trip to Rakhat a scientific mission or a religious one?

5. The Sparrow tells a story by interweaving two time periods—after the mission to Rakhat and before. Do you think this makes the story more interesting and easier to follow or more difficult to follow? How does this story differ from other stories you have read?

6. Why do you think Sandoz resists telling the story of what happened on Rakhat?

7. A basic premise of this story is an evaluation of the harm that results from the explorer's inability to assess a culture from the threshold of exploration. Do you see any parallels between the voyage of the eight explorers on the Rakhat mission and the voyages of other explorers from past history—Columbus, Magellan, Cortez, and others—who inaccurately assessed the cultures they discovered?

8. Despite currently popular revisionism, many historians view the early discoverers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries not as imperialists or colonists but as intellectual idealists burning to know what God's plan had hidden from them. Do you agree? Does this story make you reconsider the motives of those early explorers?

9. One of the mainstays of the Star Trek universe is the "prime directive" which mandates the avoidance of interference in alien cultures at all costs. Would the "prime directive" have changed the outcome of events on Rakhat?

10. In an interview, the author said, "I wanted readers to look philosophically at the idea that you can be seduced by the notion that God is leading you and that your actions have his approval." What do you think she means by that? In what way was Emilio Sandoz seduced by this notion?

11. The discoverers of Rakhat seem to be connected by circumstances too odd to be explained by anything but a manifestation of God's will. Do you think it was God's will that led to the discovery of and mission to Rakhat, as Sandoz initially believes? If that's the case, how could God let the terrible aftermath happen?

12. How is Emilio Sandoz's faith tested on Rakhat? One reviewer suggests that in his utter humiliation and in the annihilation of his spirit, Sandoz is reborn in faith. Do you agree? Consider Sandoz's dilemma on page 394. Did God lead the explorers to Rakhat—step by step—or was Sandoz responsible for what happened? If God was responsible for bringing the explorers to Rakhat, does that mean that God is vicious?

13. One reviewer wrote, "It is neither celibacy, faith, exotics goods, nor (as Sandoz bitterly asserts) the introduction of one of humanity's oldest inventions that leads to the crisis between humans and aliens. The humans get into trouble because they fail to understand how Rakhat society controls reproduction. In short, they fail because they fail to put themselves into the aliens' shoes." Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?

14. Is confession good for the soul? Do you think Emilio Sandoz will ultimately recover—both as a man and as a priest—from his ordeal?

15. Why do you think it's so important to Emilio to stand by his vow of celibacy when he so obviously loves Sofia Mendez?

16. The Jesuits saw so many of their fellows martyred all over the world throughout history. Why aren't they more sympathetic in dealing with Sandoz—a man victimized by his faith?

17. What is this story about? Is it a story about coming face-to-face with a sentient race that is so alien as to be incomprehensible, or about putting up a mirror to our own inner selves?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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