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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
5,226292849 (4.2)1 / 746
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. 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)
  7. 20
    Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: Another Catholic priest deals with aliens
  8. 10
    Eden by Stanisław Lem (pitjrw)
    pitjrw: A much better book on the uncertainties, misapprehensions, and danger of first contact.
  9. 21
    Archangel by Sharon Shinn (espertus)
  10. 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.
  11. 00
    Wulfsyarn by Phillip Mann (AlanPoulter)
    AlanPoulter: Both feature an unusual mix of alien contact and religion
  12. 00
    Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon (Anonymous user)
  13. 00
    The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: Missionary priests deal with abuse, spiritual questioning and alien cultures
  14. 11
    The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (Tanya-dogearedcopy)
    Tanya-dogearedcopy: First Contact sections of both novels are remarkably similar
  15. 11
    Under the Skin by Michel Faber (Anonymous user)
  16. 12
    Hyperion by Dan Simmons (tetrachromat)
    tetrachromat: Both juxtapose religion and science fiction. Hyperion is also [IMHO] a significantly better book.
  17. 01
    Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (JGoto)
    JGoto: Not quite as good, but some similar themes and an interesting read.
  18. 01
    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
1990s (130)
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English (287)  German (1)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  Japanese (1)  All languages (291)
Showing 1-5 of 287 (next | show all)
“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 |
A first-rate read that nonetheless makes me want to slit my wrists, The Sparrow is challenging on many levels. Frank discussions of the problems of faith, the demands of religion and a science fiction soap opera narrow in the last 50 pages to something like Deliverance on Planet X. I'm glad I read it, I never want to read it again. ( )
2 vote bostonbibliophile | May 5, 2016 |
Russell’s engrossing tale involves a first contact mission spearheaded by intrepid Jesuits. The story is a fabulous mixture of science and faith, anthropology and humanity, spirituality and compassion. It actually helped me with some spiritual questions and some self-examination I was brooding over at the time. I loved it and can’t wait to read the sequel.

It was *so close* to being one of the best books I’ve ever read. However…. I just can’t bring myself to give this book 5 stars because of glaring problems with pacing and plot. The middle 200 or so pages drag horribly, are repetitive, and the plot stretches suspension of disbelief past the breaking point. Also, the characters are so precious, twee and stereotyped they set my teeth on edge - much like the group of characters in David Eddings’ “Regina’s Song”. ( )
  memccauley6 | May 3, 2016 |
This is an AMAZING book about the conflict between religion and science and what happens when humans interject themselves into alien culture. Best idea: "God get's all of the credit and none of the blame." ( )
1 vote kristina_brooke | Apr 15, 2016 |
This one made me feel all of the things - it shocked me, it inspired me, it broke my heart. ( )
  mamashepp | Mar 29, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mary Doria Russellprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
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.
Quotations
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.
Haiku summary

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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