Trigger warnings for this novel can be found at the very bottom of this review.
My relationship with religion – specifically, Roman Catholicism as practiced in the Philippines – is a little complicated. Most of the time, I am ill at ease with it: Christianity, after all, is a very misogynistic religion, and in the years since I graduated from high school I have decided that I want to have as little truck as possible with a religion that punishes me for having breasts and a uterus. There is also the heavily homophobic slant as well, which I dislike not for my sake, but for the sake of my friends. Nor does it help that the Church interferes with politics in this country, sometimes directly, but often indirectly through politicians and interest groups, who block everything from better sex-ed and access to contraceptives to a divorce bill under the guise of religious piety. And do not get me started on the false sanctimony of certain individuals, who like to pretend they are superior to everyone else just because they attend Mass on a regular basis, but in fact are some of the most deeply unlikable people anyone could ever have the unfortunate privilege of knowing.
And yet, despite all of that, I am regularly drawn to it, as well. The history of Christianity fascinates me to no end, as does the art produced under its influence. And though there is plenty about Christianity’s approach to the world that I do not like, the philosophies it has produced and continues to espouse are still interesting. Given Christianity’s global reach and its pervasive presence in Western history and culture (and therefore, thanks to colonialism, in other histories and cultures as well), having some knowledge and experience of it, even if I no longer practice it, is handy because of the kind of insight such knowledge and experience provide.
Therefore, it is not entirely surprising that I was drawn to Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow. It jumps between two timelines: one set in 2019, and the other set in the 2060s. The thread connecting those two points in time is Father Emilio Sandoz, SJ: the only survivor of a disastrous Jesuit-funded and -led mission to the distant planet of Rakhat. As Sandoz recovers, he begins to tell the story of what really happened to him and to the expedition team sent to Rakhat, all while exploring questions about what it means to believe, and what it means to be human.
The first thing the reader needs to know about this novel is that it is quite slow for a sci-fi novel. There are no action-packed sequences or fight scenes; the only fight scene in this novel is not even shown, merely recounted at second-hand. It has more in common with movies like Contact and Arrival than Alien – especially with the former, which first screened in 1997 (though the Carl Sagan novel of the same title, and on which the movie was based, was published all the way back in 1985).
Also like Contact (both the film and the novel), The Sparrow looks at the intersection between religious faith and science. Unlike Contact, however, The Sparrow does more than just ask whether or not God exists, and whether or not the existence of aliens proves or disproves that. Indeed, as the reader progresses through the novel the aliens can sometime feel like they are merely an excuse for launching the Jesuit mission to some far-flung locale, as the Jesuits once did in the age of colonisation. This is made clear in the following excerpt, which is taken from the end of the Prologue:
The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God.
In the film version of Contact, the question of whether or not the existence of aliens proved to disproved the existence of God (or at least of a higher power, whatever said higher power is called) is important to the film. That is not so much the case in The Sparrow. Oh, it is still asked, of course, but the context is different. Instead of asking whether or not the existence of aliens is, in and of itself, proof or disproof of a higher power, it asks: How does contact with aliens alter our own belief in a higher power? That, in my opinion, is a more interesting and nuanced question than simply asking whether or not the existence of aliens proves or disproves a higher power’s existence, and the answer to it is played out across the entire span of the novel.
But the novel does not play a simple binary between belief and disbelief. Instead, it chooses to offer a more nuanced take on the subject by positing that belief is not without its risks. To believe in a higher power means accepting that said higher power has control over what happens to the self and to humanity as a whole, but this then leads to the question: If this higher power is as good and as wonderful as its proponents make it out to be, why does not it not do something about all the evils in the world? And that, right there, is the conflict at the heart of this novel: not the question about aliens and where they will fit in religion, but about what it means to believe in a higher power when caught up in harrowing events. Consider this excerpt:
“There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”
“So God just leaves?” … “Abandons creation? You’re on your own, apes. Good luck!”
“No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”
“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” … “‘Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.’”
“But the sparrow still falls,”…
This excerpt not only gives the source of the novel’s title, but also captures succinctly what its primary theme is about: the question of faith in places and moments when it feels like the higher power a person believes in is unreachable or unwilling to do anything. Being able to believe in a higher power can be wonderful and life-changing, as so many believers can attest, but it is not without its risks.
Those risks are tied into the second key theme of this novel: love. Many different kinds of love are explored in this novel via the characters: filial, platonic, romantic, and of course spiritual. The latter does take up quite a bit of space in the story, mostly because it intersects with all the others. This is best encapsulated in the following excerpt:
“… So I’m lying in bed, night after night… All night long, I would be thinking, What is happening here? And part of me would say, God is trying to tell you something, you dumb bastard. And another part of me would say, God doesn’t talk to punks from Puerto Rico, you know?”
“What makes you say that? …”
“…it’s not fair for God to play favorites. What makes me so special that God would bother to tell me anything, right?”
“So. Things kept happening, like God was really there, making it all happen. And I heard myself saying Deus vult, like Marc, but it still seemed like some kind of huge joke. And then one night, I let myself consider the possibility that this is what it seems to be. That something extraordinary is happening. That God has something in mind for me. … And a lot of the time, even now, I think I must be a lunatic and this whole thing is crazy. But sometimes…there are times when I can let myself believe, and when I do,” … “it’s amazing. Inside me, everything makes sense, everything I’ve done, everything that ever happened to me—it was all leading up to this, to where we are now. But…it’s frightening and I don’t know why…”
… “You know what’s the most terrifying thing about admitting that you’re in love?” … “You are just naked. You put yourself in harm’s way and you lay down all your defenses. No clothes, no weapons. Nowhere to hide. Completely vulnerable. The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe the other person loves you back and that you can trust him not to hurt you.”
… “Yes. Exactly. That’s how it feels, when I let myself believe. Like I am falling in love and like I am naked before God. And it is terrifying, as you say. … That God loves me. Personally.”
Framing spiritual love in a way that is no different from how any other person might frame love for one’s family or friends or romantic partner/s is, perhaps, one of the most fascinating aspects of this novel. It also echoes the aforementioned idea about faith: believing in a higher power can be a magnificent thing, just like finding love (whether that love is filial, platonic, or romantic) can be magnificent. But having that faith betrayed can be just like having love betrayed; it is like Icarus soaring too close to the sun, and having that joy, that ecstasy, all burned away – and the higher the flight, the harder the fall from grace, the more terrible the betrayal.
Aside from the beautiful exploration of the aforementioned themes, there are other reasons to enjoy this novel – most notably: the characters. The human contingent are a fun, clever bunch for the most part, though there are times when I feel like they lack a certain depth to them that is being masked by all the witty exchanges and snappy retorts. The aliens are equally fascinating, and their culture quite well thought-out. They might not be as thoroughly alien as some sci-fi aficionados might like, but they are still quite compelling and enjoyable to read about.
As I have mentioned earlier, the plot is al to slower than some readers might strictly like, given the focus on other ideas than simply violent first contact. But I enjoy the pace, not least because it does take time to consider and absorb all the weighty ideas that this novel attempts to tackle. The only issue I have with it is the way the story tends to change focus between the main plot and the characters’ pasts. The narrative drifts between the two in a way that readers who prefer a more structured approach to storytelling might not enjoy. For my part, I thought it was annoying at times, but it was quite easy to get used to – especially since I find the characters fun to read about. Other readers, however, might not be so patient.
Overall, The Sparrow is a lovely gem of a sci-fi story that tackles religion in a way that is not overly prescriptive or preachy, but instead encourages openness and critical thought. In a way, the aliens are almost incidental to the philosophy and ideas discussed in the story itself, but they too are equally fascinating to read about, and so are not more than just a narrative McGuffin to keep the story going. Readers with patience for a meandering narrative and characters who can come off as being clever for cleverness’ sake will likely find plenty to enjoy in this novel.