The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Let me be a bit real here. I was a bit anxious about reading this because it seemed to be yet another Jesuit first contact novel including aliens.
Now, let me be clear. I actually like religious ruminations when I'm in the right mood and when it's done well and when the context is backed up with solid world-building, whether local or extra-solar. Blish did it extremely well with his Jesuits and aliens. I was simply worried that this would be more of the same. Meaning of life and faith for the poor unsaved brothers from other systems kind of thing.
But actually, what I received was a prototypical near-LitSF that was erudite, humorous, full of likable and complex characters, and a full-blown excellent novel in structure, prose, and thriller-type twists.
And yes, there is also a lot about aliens, tragedy, loss of faith, and especially rape.
We know it's a tragedy before we even really begin. There are two timelines. Before. And after. The nearly saintly linguist-priest Emilio is the sole survivor of an 8-person mission to Alpha Centauri after a musical message gets decoded, luckily, by peeps bankrolled by the Vatican. He comes back mutilated, completely out of faith, calling himself the Whore of God (as in a reference to Beloved being the highest title in a harem), and who keeps everyone around him ignorant of the details.
We must learn about it the long way. But in the meantime, we're treated to present and past as others attempt to heal him and get him to talk and we're delighted by how fresh and funny and faithful he is early on.
The science bits aren't bad and Russell does a lot to keep it real, glossing over a few little issues such as power sources and stuff, but this isn't nearly as bad as some more recent LitSF titles I've read. This is actual SF with a deep and complex storyline about faith and tragedy and a really nasty surprise about the aliens. All three are intertwined.
No spoilers, but my god the end is pretty horrible. We're given a lot of great characters and characterizations, so losing them this way, and then seeing what Emilio had to go through, was damn rough.
A sparrow falling in the wood, but yet, the Father sees all, indeed.
My initial reservations were unfounded. Both atheists and the faithful can find wonderful things in here. Indeed, it's meant to be challenging as hell. And it is.
As for being a new-modern-classic for SF, I can definitely see it. Most of these other LitSF titles are lightweights in comparison.
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