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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
4,717253998 (4.2)1 / 632
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)

aliens (125) anthropology (30) Arthur C. Clarke Award (27) book club (34) Catholicism (61) Christianity (37) faith (40) fantasy (67) favorite (22) fiction (597) first contact (122) Jesuit (33) Jesuits (125) linguistics (23) literature (20) novel (85) own (35) read (89) religion (309) science fiction (1,015) sf (157) sff (44) space (29) space exploration (21) space travel (91) speculative fiction (52) spirituality (25) Theology (32) to-read (113) unread (45)
  1. 110
    Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (mrstreme)
  2. 102
    A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (prezzey)
    prezzey: Both are good solid science fiction novels featuring Roman Catholic monks.
  3. 61
    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.
  4. 41
    Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (sturlington)
    sturlington: Also about first contact with an alien civilization that humans cannot understand.
  5. 10
    Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (JGoto)
    JGoto: Not quite as good, but some similar themes and an interesting read.
  6. 10
    The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: Missionary priests deal with abuse, spiritual questioning and alien cultures
  7. 10
    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
  8. 21
    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)
  9. 21
    Under the Skin by Michel Faber (Anonymous user)
  10. 10
    Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon (Anonymous user)
  11. 21
    Archangel by Sharon Shinn (espertus)
  12. 00
    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.
  13. 00
    Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: Another Catholic priest deals with aliens
  14. 00
    Eden by Stanisław Lem (pitjrw)
    pitjrw: A much better book on the uncertainties, misapprehensions, and danger of first contact.
  15. 01
    Wulfsyarn by Phillip Mann (AlanPoulter)
    AlanPoulter: Both feature an unusual mix of alien contact and religion
  16. 01
    Hyperion by Dan Simmons (tetrachromat)
    tetrachromat: Both juxtapose religion and science fiction. Hyperion is also [IMHO] a significantly better book.
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English (248)  German (1)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  Japanese (1)  All languages (252)
Showing 1-5 of 248 (next | show all)
When I picked The Sparrow to include among my list of favorite books to re-read this year, I remembered being intrigued both by the plot and pacing of the story as well as by the themes explored. Re-reading the book allowed me to revisit an intriguing story while also thinking more deeply about challenging issues that Russell explores through her characters. The story tells of a mission to the planet Rakhat by an eclectic group of explorers - Jesuit priests, a doctor, an engineer, a linguist, and others. The explorers encounter two species and gradually piece together how society on Rakhat differs from society on earth. The story is told through flashbacks from an explorer who has returned to earth, and Russell does an amazing job of world building and developing complex characters.

However, it is the themes that underlie the story that sets this book apart from other similar exploration novels. One of the priests, Father Emilio Sandoz, firmly believes that God has created the opportunity for him to visit another society. At one point, he reflects on this: "Why, he had once wondered, would a perfect God create the universe? To be generous with it, he believed now. For the pleasure of seeing pure gifts appreciated. Maybe that's what it meant to find God: to see what you have been given, to know divine generosity, to appreciate the large things and the small. . ." (p. 253).

However, both Emilio and other members of the group struggle to understand God's role in some of the tragedies that occur. When Anne, the doctor in the group, questions why God would have allowed one of the expedition members to die, Father Marc Robichaux attempts an answer in a sermon at the funeral: "It is the human condition to ask questions like Anne's last night and to receive no plain answers. Perhaps this is because we can't understand the answers, because we are incapable of knowing God's ways and God's thoughts. We are, after all, only very clever tailless primates, doing the best we can, but limited. Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.. . The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne's are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God."

Russell doesn't provide easy answers to the questions that are raised in this book, but she does us all a service by exploring them from the perspective of multiple characters and by allowing enough space for us to reaching our own conclusions. This is a book that I could re-read often and still find new layers. ( )
2 vote porch_reader | Jul 5, 2014 |
Excellent character development. That's mainly what the book is about, the personal and theological development of a priest in space. Sure, because of the space part, it's listed as SF. In a way, of course, it is, but to me, this is no more SF than Kushiel's dart is romance. All the other SF I've read is about the SF things; this book is about the inner workings of the mind of Emilio Sandoz, Jesuite priest and linguist. Quite frankly, you could pick up the story and place it somewhere on earth without aliens, and it wouldn't change much.
It took me a little bit of time to get into it, get to know the different characters, but from that moment on I loved it. The only reason I'm not giving this 5 stars is because the aliens don't feel as real to me as Emilio does. It really feels as if the book is shifting gears every time it's describing the aliens or even taking their point of view. I like the aliens, and Russell clearly thought about their culture. It just doesn't feel as fleshed out, as deep as Emilio does. As a result, they feel a bit flat, as if they are just there to provide the riddle of what happened to Emilio, not because they have merit in their own right.

Still, I bought this book on paper today, even though I already bought the ebook, just because I wanted to have it... ( )
  zjakkelien | May 14, 2014 |
The author studied cultural, social, and biological anthropology, and it shows in this literary/science fiction novel. The story opens with a Jesuit priest resting and recuperating and facing repercussions after coming back to earth as the lone survivor of an exploratory expedition to another planet. He finally opens up and tells his story from the beginning, weaving a vibrant and fascinating tale both of his experiences here on Earth in the slums of Brazil and the amazing people he meets as well as his experiences on another planet meeting other life forms and trying to understand their culture. ( )
  michellebarton | May 8, 2014 |
It’s hard to describe how I feel about The Sparrow. I give it high marks, four of five stars, and consider it one of the most beautiful–and disturbing–books I’ve read in recent memory.

In the not so distant future of 2019, humanity receives a transmission of alien origin, tracing it back to a star system not too far from Earth. While the world considers, Jesuits plan a trip, gather a team, and travel to the planet of the singers heard in the transmission.

On the planet Rakhat, the source of the songs heard in the transmission, the motley crew of priests, an engineer, doctor, and linguists discover a beautiful world, of colorful species, sentient and otherwise.

Up to now, the plot has all the indications of good science fiction. As the story progressed, and I fell deeper into the lives of Russell's characters, the science fiction became less the plot and more a plot device to move along a deeply moving story.

Deeply moving, and also at times deeply painful. Taking place in 2019 and in 2060, at the beginning and the end of the expedition. The technique is a fascinating, providing constant foreshadowing and allowing comparison of the progress and change as events happen, characters change, and explanation of what and why. While initially the contraposition was confusing, as the stories draw closer together in time the effect is enlightening.

While nothing in the book is salacious, glorifies violence, or profanity, be aware that there are moments where the content is difficult, heavy, and disturbing, though all of it fits and builds to a beautiful story. ( )
  publiusdb | Apr 29, 2014 |
rabck from Waterfalling for one word challenge; TBC book; For the tag game. I usually don't like scifi, but this novel was compelling, with a twist of spirituality to it. When music is heard from a nearby galaxy in 2016, four Jesuit priests and four commoners with specific abilities are tapped to make the trip to Rahkat. The novel alternates between 2016-2020; the prep years and remembrances of the only survivor, priest Emilio Sandoz, who was sent back to Earth after being found by a second delegation from Earth. The novel tests faith, beliefs, different cultures, what happens if "discoverers" even inadvertently affect the local culture as they try to observe it. Overall an excellent novel with the ending that as Emilio calls it earlier - the facts are right, but the facts (why) are also wrong. ( )
  nancynova | Apr 14, 2014 |
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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
and
Mary L. Dewing

quarum sine auspicio hic
liber in lucem non esset
editas
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."
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Wikipedia in English (3)

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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:06:30 -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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