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The sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
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The sparrow (original 1996; edition 2004)

by Mary Doria Russell

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
5,280300836 (4.2)1 / 749
Member:bell7
Title:The sparrow
Authors:Mary Doria Russell
Info:New York : Ballantine Books, 2004.
Collections:Read but unowned
Rating:*****
Tags:adult, science fiction

Work details

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)

  1. 130
    Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (mrstreme)
  2. 112
    A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (prezzey)
    prezzey: Both are good solid science fiction novels featuring Roman Catholic monks.
  3. 61
    Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (sturlington)
    sturlington: Also about first contact with an alien civilization that humans cannot understand.
  4. 62
    A Case of Conscience by James Blish (kevinashley)
    kevinashley: Both of these books deal with the combined issues of first contact with aliens and religion, through the involvement of priests. Both leave open questions, and both are well-written.
  5. 30
    The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (GCPLreader)
  6. 20
    Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: Another Catholic priest deals with aliens
  7. 31
    The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss (Rivercrest)
    Rivercrest: Dazzle of Day explores the trials of community living and community choices in the same context as Sparrow; space flight, alien landscapes and religous exploration. It also has the same deft use of language, visual descriptions and charecter development. And though I love Sparrow and go back to it time and again, I like how the author ends Dazzle of Day better. Enjoy.… (more)
  8. 10
    Eden by Stanisław Lem (pitjrw)
    pitjrw: A much better book on the uncertainties, misapprehensions, and danger of first contact.
  9. 10
    Anathem by Neal Stephenson (quartzite)
    quartzite: Both books deal with key groups of people preparing to meet alien cultures with a bit of theology and philosophy thrown in.
  10. 00
    The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: Missionary priests deal with abuse, spiritual questioning and alien cultures
  11. 00
    Daniel Stein, interpreter: a novel in documents by Ljudmila Ulitskaya (spiphany)
    spiphany: A central theme of both books is the examination of faith, both within and outside of organized religion
  12. 11
    The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (Tanya-dogearedcopy)
    Tanya-dogearedcopy: First Contact sections of both novels are remarkably similar
  13. 00
    Wulfsyarn by Phillip Mann (AlanPoulter)
    AlanPoulter: Both feature an unusual mix of alien contact and religion
  14. 00
    Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon (Anonymous user)
  15. 11
    Archangel by Sharon Shinn (espertus)
  16. 11
    Under the Skin by Michel Faber (Anonymous user)
  17. 12
    Hyperion by Dan Simmons (tetrachromat)
    tetrachromat: Both juxtapose religion and science fiction. Hyperion is also [IMHO] a significantly better book.
  18. 01
    Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (JGoto)
    JGoto: Not quite as good, but some similar themes and an interesting read.
1990s (83)
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English (291)  German (1)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  Japanese (1)  All languages (295)
Showing 1-5 of 291 (next | show all)
What a truly amazing, incredible book that I stumbled upon from my book group. It blends science with the SETI program with faith called upon at the darkest moments with judgment by others who are the court of public opinion. The language is that of few words until a need for descriptions, allowing the reader's mind to begin to create the space between words. While some said it took a while for the plot to get going, I felt that it was almost like sipping a deep, full wine in the moments before the savory main course is served. It allows you to pause between sips and think about what you've just read and how it relates back to the whole story.

The author's understanding way back in 1996 to refer to the net" and discuss the importance of electronic communication between people is very insightful, and the extrapolating of using brilliant people in an indentured servant capacity to explore how the human mind works in order to give those jobs to AI robots is almost timely. Her knowledge of how human history changes and yet human nature does not is also quite well thought out.

Since the novel opens with the return of Emilio Sandoz to the condemnation of the court of public opinion, much of the structure of the book creates good, deep characters who then come together to be part of the tragedy of the novel. And you're not sure how the tragedy will unfold, but once the decision is made to send a hollowed-out asteroid to the planet, I was so very, very sad about the inevitability of the outcome.

The Jesuits are portrayed as smart people with human flaws (one has no sense of direction, another cannot look at Fr. Sandoz with anything but contempt) who still manage to pull off the explanation of the events on the planet with deep thoughtfulness and toughness when it is called for. Definitely one I will buy for my own shelves. I'm so glad I read this - it changed my life." ( )
  threadnsong | Jun 18, 2016 |
One of my favorite books ever. ( )
  euroclewis | Jun 8, 2016 |
When reading this book, one must put aside the science of physics and accept the story for the parable that it is. The Sparrow is a study in anthropology and theology, and is an examination of how simple misunderstandings can lead to tragedy and ultimate loss when alien cultures meet for the first time. This is something we have learned from our own history here on Earth. Russell takes that concept to the stars in a first-contact story that ranks up there with the very best of them. ( )
  ScoLgo | Jun 6, 2016 |
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – 4 stars
After reading A Thread of Grace, I was so impressed that I looked for other books by the same author. I was surprised to find that her first novel was not historical fiction but science fiction. The premise sounded so interesting; a first encounter made by Jesuits on a mission. Like most scifi, this book requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but the author goes a long way to make her science sound workable in the real world. The characters are engaging. Their conversations are believable and fun to listen in on. They refer to all the pop culture icons of our century: Star Trek, The Princess Bride, Young Frankenstein, etc. However the book is not light reading. The characters are constantly engaged in moral and spiritual dilemmas as they face other unknown challenges. The book is told in flashback so even as the story unfolds the reader already knows it will end tragically. There is a sequel and it’s definitely on my list.
( )
  msjudy | May 30, 2016 |
“But the sparrow still falls.”

The passage in Matthew’s gospel that describes God’s attention to even the one sparrow that falls never had so much meaning. Most quote Jesus’ words as a comfort, but the necessary revelation that God won’t reach down to stop the sparrow’s fall is usually lost in the safe glow. Mary Dora Russull, in her debut novel [The Sparrow], takes a close look at whether humans can recognize God, and in the recognition identify that he is more than preternaturally good or bad, that He is as complex as His creation.

There’s a lot more to [The Sparrow] than just the theological philosophy, which speaks to why it’s been such a popular book in literary circles. First contact with an alien race is made through the capture of a radio signal that is translated into music. Among the crew who deciphers the signal and then travels to find its origin is Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest. Ultimately, he is the only survivor from the tragic mission. The book shifts between the mission and Sandoz’ recuperation as he tells the Society’s leader what he and his team suffered on the the newly discovered planet Rakhat. So, the book is firmly set in the speculative fiction world – it won Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association Award.

Laid over the story is Sandoz’ crisis of faith, a cycle that has replayed itself several times throughout his life, with ever increasing depth and consequences. Reaching Rakhat and making contact with an agrarian people there, Sandoz reaches his faith’s highest pinnacle, finally making up his mind that God has led him throughout his whole life to this discovery, that God has finally filled his heart completely. Not everyone on the mission feels the same way – Anne Edwards, a doctor, posits a different effect at God’s introduction:

“Once, long ago, she’d allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God’s presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdom, was instructive either as myth or as history, she’d decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.”

Russell’s book owes something to H.G. Wells’ [The Time Machine] and the Morlocks and Eloi. It turns out that there are two different humanoid species that inhabit Rakhat, and how they’ve evolved through time leads to the Jesuit mission’s failure. Russell, with several anthropology degrees, uses the simplest of things to bring down the mission – a planted garden. In her brilliant hands, she brings about the near destruction of an entire species because the earth people plant seeds. Another concept Russell develops that owes to her education is the purchase and use of children as investable commodities. The abandoned or orphaned are snapped up by wealthy men who then develop the children, requiring them to sign a contract to repay the debt from their training with a lifetime’s earnings. The idea is an outgrowth of the consumer economy that we are living in today, but Russell follows the thread to the end. That such ideas populate this book is a testament to her intelligence, and to a non-literary background.

When the mission fails, Sandoz is imprisoned. But he’s also finally offered the opportunity to meet the being that created the music that was captured on earth in the radio signal – the signal that convinced him that God was moving him toward a purpose. In his chains, Sandoz thinks about what he will say:

“There are times, he would tell the Reshtar, when we are in the midst of life – moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness – times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us. It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or a sleeping child. If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all its unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to its higher truth. He would tell the Reshtar: When my people search for a name to give to the truth we feel at those moments, we call it God, and when we capture that understanding in timeless poetry, we call it praying. And when we heard your songs, we knew that you too had found a language to name and preserve such moments of truth. When we heard your songs, we knew they were a call from God, to bring us here, to know you.”

From the first pages of the book, though, it is clear that the mission failed. The question of how the mission failed takes up some space, but it is Sandoz’ broken soul that inhabits every line. As we learn more about Sandoz’s youth and early years, knowing that this Jesuit finally stretched his faith to the breaking point on Rakhat whips the tension up to hurricane levels. With the tension buffeting everything, and Sandoz about to meet the being that he thinks God spoke through to bring him here, Russell reveals the measure that would break him. Even in the moments just before the meeting, quoted above, Sandoz is at faith’s precipice, determined to share God. But then, he says of the meeting, “He had also discovered the outermost limit of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at that moment that he learned, truly, to fear God.”

Russell wraps up Sandoz’ cycle of faith and despair with the Society’s Father General trying to digest what the man’s been through:

“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, creation exists. … He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it be caring passionately about us, and remembering. …But the sparrow still falls.”

There’s hope and despair and abandon in that exegesis of the sparrow passage, the same mixture that threads throughout [The Sparrow].

Bottom Line: Finding God might be a deeper and more complex proposition than we are willing to live with.

5 bones!!!!!
All-time favorite ( )
1 vote blackdogbooks | May 20, 2016 |
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diBondone,GiottoCover artsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Maura E. Kirby
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Mary L. Dewing

quarum sine auspicio hic
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First words
On December 7, 2059, Emilio Sandoz was released from the isolation ward of Salvator Mundi Hospital in the middle of the night and transported in a bread van to the Jesuit Residence at Number 5 Borgo Santo Spirito, a few minutes' walk across St. Peter's Square from the Vatican.
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I don't understand, but I can learn if you will teach me.
"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, Felipe, 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!"
"...Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God's will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn't it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances," he continued with academic exactitude, each word etched on the air with acid, "is that I have no one to despise but myself. If however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God."
"'Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.'" "But the sparrow still falls," Felipe said.
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Book description
A novel about a remarkable man, a living saint, a life-long celibate 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.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0449912558, Paperback)

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being "human." When the lone survivor of the expedition, Emilio Sandoz, returns to Earth in 2059, he will try to explain what went wrong... Words like "provocative" and "compelling" will come to mind as you read this shocking novel about first contact with a race that creates music akin to both poetry and prayer.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:46 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Combining elements of science fiction and spiritual philosophy, this novel is a tale of the devastating consequences of a scientific mission to make contact with an extraterrestrial culture.

(summary from another edition)

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