The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell

We are constantly recommending and loaning out books to friends (okay, well, Jonathan more than I) and this book is borrowed from some of those folks. What they had was actually the "advance reader's edition," which comes without the fancy cover art and without the final proofreading, and makes you feel all cool like you're getting the jump on everyone else (even if the book was published in 1996).

The story is of a Jesuit mission in 2019 to a planet called Rakhat. A telescope in Puerto Rico spends its spare time scanning input for SETI, and suddenly the work pays off with some gorgeous music coming from the Alpha Centauri region. A hodgepodge of characters are brought together and form the team that will go to Rakhat to establish Earth's first extraterrestrial contact. The reader immediately finds out that the mission goes horribly awry because one Father Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor, and he returns to Earth in a state almost worse than death. The story is told in flashbacks as Sandoz gradually recounts to the Jesuits what happened. It is, ultimately, not about Rakhat at all, but about one man's sincere and desperate search for God in the face of unimaginable circumstances.

The prose is well-written and for the most part reads easily. There is a fair bit of intellectual snobbery and showing-off (just about every character in the book is startlingly brilliant in one way or another), but if you manage to forgive the book for that, it is actually quite touching and even occasionally funny. The source of the title is revealed in the book's final pages, Matthew 10:29 - "Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it." As someone rightly points out, the sparrow still falls. This book is a pretty good attempt at dealing with the ultimate question of how to worship a just God in an evil world. (Or, in Emilio's case, two evil worlds.) I would even recommend it to someone who hasn't gotten a satisfactory answer to that question yet.

Fed to robyn's brain | November 03, 2004