Book Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
The observatory in Arecibo finally picks up a signal from ExtraTerrestrial lifeforms. While the world debates what to do, the Jesuits have already sent their first mission.
The book tells the story of the people around the discovery and their life before it, of the mission, and its aftermath and consequences.
Written using multiple timelines that converge only later in the book, Russell manages to keep you on your toes about the events still to come, despite in some sense already knowing what happened… Or, at least, knowing some of the facts, but none of the details and more importantly their meaning.
(Finished reading 2020.09.19: Spoilers Below)
I liked it a lot. It’s a strange beast though: definitely a scifi story, with an intriguing handful of “science inventions”, it is nonetheless not a story about those. Maybe that’s what makes it a really good scifi story; it’s really about the people, not the science.
Thinking back, I am reminded of the way LeGuin used to build stories: imagine a society (or, hey, more than one), a set of conditions (technological, scientific, etc.) and then explore what it means for real people to live in that setting. What it means to society to work within that framework.
It’s a first contact story, for sure. And the discovery of Kashan, of its biosphere and ecology first, and of the VaKashani right after that definitely shapes the story (boy, does it shape it, even in unexpected or at the very least sudden ways)… but that’s not the heart of the novel.
While reading, I remember being often surprised by the warmth, the non-judgy way Russell writes about the feelings, the drives, the desires and wishes of the characters. It’s a light touch, while at the same time never shying away from talking about deep, even painful stuff.
Doria Russell might be a lapsed Catholic (according to her wikipedia page), but for sure she put a lot of thought into themes like faith, God, celibacy, etc.
Reading the book, I felt Anne Edwards was probably the closest thing to a self-insert character, albeit not a 1:1 match probably.
I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a warm, intelligent and empathic book about a people and what drives them, around a first-contact situation.
And, I want to credit my friend Judd whose warm endorsement of the book made me pick it up: thanks Judd!
Top image courtesy of Wikimedia