Re-reading “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell

Reviewed by Alder Fern

9780449912553

408 pp Ballantine Books

Books about the future always become artifacts of their own times. A novel of first contact written in 1992, published in 1996, and set between 2019 and 2060, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is a prime specimen. In 1992’s future, the Cubs still haven’t won the World Series, the internet is not really a thing (they use read-only tablets), but there is artificial intelligence, asteroid mining, and a moon base. And, crucially, there hasn’t been a sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

One of The Sparrow’s conceits is a Catholic Earth. The author doesn’t intend this as a distortion of reality, it’s just that most of the main characters happen to be Catholic, and the mission of exploration to Alpha Centurai is undertaken by the Jesuit order, in a deliberate parallel to the European exploitation of the Americas. Russell is deft with this aspect of the story, an openhanded and unflinching ambassador of her ancestral culture, and as a non-Catholic reader, I wasn’t troubled by it. The most fantastic element of the book isn’t the religion or the space travel but the way people behave; as you might wish they could, but know they never will. They’re not so much two-dimensional as they are half-people, all light and no shadow. Throughout the book, they are either roaring with laughter at a stream of banal jokes or are deeply, deeply serious about God and Everything.  

Despite this, the story becomes compelling when, halfway through, it begins to explore the new planet with a fine sense of weirdness and wonder. Russell was trained as a paleoanthropologist and researched Neanderthals, and creates a technological society based on the coevolution of two bipedal species, one predator and one prey. Great speculative fiction (with the almost pure exception of the works of Stanislaw Lem) is really about our own world, distorted just enough so we can see the familiar with new clarity.

The Sparrow went all the way to another solar system to bring clarity to a pattern that for many people is too close to home. The priest who becomes the sole survivor of the mission and whose recovery, back on earth, forms the core of the story believes he was being guided by God as he followed a faint radio transmission of beautiful music to the new planet, and through a series of discoveries and ordeals, finally met the composer, a member of the predatory ruling class, who raped him. It isn’t difficult to see an emotional parallel with the experience of parishioners, especially children, raped by their priests.   

In 1992, clergy abuse was the kind of thing people joked about but didn’t actually talk about. Perhaps because they didn’t know how. Speculative fiction author Franz Kafka wrote that a book should be an axe for the frozen sea inside us (a metaphor I hope assumes the existence of a boat inside us as well.) The Sparrow then is a handmade weapon with a crude handle and a sharp blade. You can see the cracks it left in the ice stretching out past the horizon.

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Alder Fern lives privately, and has work forthcoming in the Portland Review and Gone Lawn.