Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
It has been a while since a book made me cry.
The Sparrow begins with a concise prologue, so unassuming that I overlooked its significance. Within this prologue, however, is a reminder, a sort of caveat that hangs over the book:
The Society [of Jesus] asked leave of no temporal government. It acted on its own principles, with its own assets, on Papal authority. The mission to Rakhat was undertaken not so much secretly as privately—a fine distinction but one that the Society felt no compulsion to explain or justify when the news broke several years later.
The members of the Jesuit Rakhat expedition are amateurs. They are brilliant priests and scientists, to be sure, but none of them are astronauts, and they are amateur anthropologists and diplomats at best. So much of our history of space travel has been dominated by government organizations that sometimes we forget civilians, with the right technology and resources, can venture into space too. The Rakhat expedition is the first of its kind; Emilio's linguistic adventures with remote groups of humans are the closest anyone comes to having first contact experience. The outcome of the expedition is a sobering reminder to those who eagerly await our first visit to an inhabited planet: we're human, so we are probably going to screw it up.
This is a message not of pessimism but of realism. The Sparrow, its religious themes notwithstanding, is overwhelmingly about realism and not denying the facts of the moment. There are two interleaved stories linked by one man, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, although the Emilio from one story seems nothing like the Emilio of the other. In 2060, Emilio is a broken man trying to recover from degrading, dehumanizing trauma. His expedition to Rakhat was twenty years earlier by Earth's count, but thanks to the effects of relativity, it has only been a few months since he was rescued—and though forty-five years passed on Earth while he was gone, he only spent three years on Rakhat. Emilio is the sole survivor of an ill-fated voyage of discovery, a victim of cultural miscommunication and physical assaults, and a prisoner of his guilt and self-pity.
After the disappointing anti-linear narrative that was Time's Arrow, MDR's use of flashbacks is a nice reassurance that non-linear storytelling still works. Moreover, MDR's attempt to use foreshadowing and dramatic irony to create suspense works where Martin Amis' fails miserably. The Sparrow begins in 2060, with Emilio rescued and returned to Earth. He is incoherent and inconsolable, but the reports from the rescue team include scandalous, horrifying facts: they found him in the equivalent of a brothel, and he killed the child who guided them to him. The Emilio Sandoz of 2019, the dreamer, the community activist, is not capable of such actions. How does he become the broken man we meet at the beginning of the book? Every moment spent on the story of the expedition is tainted by the knowledge that everyone except Emilio dies, knowledge made all the more tragic by MDR's great characterization of Jimmy Quinn, Sofia Mendes, and Anne and George Edwards.
I didn't expect to fall for the love triangle between Jimmy, Sofia, and Emilio. I groaned at first, worried that this subplot might derail parts of the larger story. If anything, the love triangle had the reverse effect, for it added another dimension to Emilio's struggle with his faith in God. He goes to Rakhat because he knows that, somehow, he has spent his whole life preparing for this mission. And until now, his vow of celibacy has never troubled him, unlike some priests. But he never really confronts the issue until they arrive on Rakhat. He acknowledges the attraction is there, which is better than an outright denial, but he does not confront his feelings. As a result of their proximity on Rakhat, however, he can no longer ignore the budding romance between Jimmy and Sofia, and Emilio realizes he must make a choice. He does not seem to find this choice difficult, but it is telling. Emilio is a man of God. Despite his threats during his recovery to leave the Society, he has always placed his faith in having a purpose as revealed to him by a higher power. This philosophy gives him strength—and so when it fails him, it is all the more devastating.
This juxtaposition of religion and exploration fascinates me. MDR draws explicit comparisons to other missionary activities where priests have met resistance, torture, even death. This is slightly different, however, because any remote tribe of human beings is still a group of humans. There is still, at some level, a basic shared frame of reference. The Runa and Jana'ata, in contrast, are literally alien beings. In her depiction of them, MDR brings to bear her education in her cultural and biological anthropology, much to her credit. The predator-prey social hierarchy of the Jana'ata and Runa, respectively, along with the strict population controls is a depiction both alien yet easily comprehensible. The Rakhatians are not as terrifyingly different as, say, the Oankali from Lilith's Brood, yet they are no less dangerous. If anything, their moments of human-like reactions disarms the expedition. It becomes all too easy to forget that a person like Supaari is not merely a merchant of a foreign land. He is a predator, one with different rules. The Runa and Jana'ata both share some traits in common with humans, but they are not human.
It's this discrepancy, and his failure to keep it in mind, that threatens Emilio's faith. From the beginning, the Rakhat expedition feels like it is blessed. First there is the miracle of detecting the radio transmissions and realizing what they are. Then the Society confirms Emilio's choice of his friends as members of the expedition—even Anne, stubborn and reticent, eventually decides to go. They find an appropriate asteroid and make the journey to Alpha Centauri without issue. The planet's atmosphere and vegetation are hospitable; D.W. and Alan Pace's health problems aside, the expedition members live comfortably on Rakhat for several years. (The lack of explanation behind D.W. and Alan Pace's issues bothered me, because everything else in The Sparrow is so meticulous and pertinent to the plot.) The Runa are amiable hosts; even Supaari's overtures are promising. After so much good fortune, everything goes bad at once. D.W. and Anne die; then Jimmy, Sofia, and George; and finally Marc. The Jana'ata crack down on the Runa village where the expedition has been staying, and Marc and Emilio become dependent upon the good will of Supaari. But Supaari has always wanted only one thing from these foreigners: the status necessary to earn breeding rights. He uses Emilio as a bribe, and Emilio changes hands, becoming a sexual plaything and curiosity of the Jana'ata elite.
And the question Emilio asks is the foundation of theodicy: why? Why has God forsaken him? The answer, if you can call it an answer, is the same as most theodicies—free will, etc. But The Sparrow is not a work of theodicy, at least not on a broad, philosophical level. It is instead one man's attempt at theodicy, but an emotional one grounded in his need to recover from a trauma I can't adequately imagine. Watching MDR break down Emilio is a harrowing, slightly pornographic experience. Setting this tragedy against the backdrop of all the optimism and exuberance of first contact and exploration adds another perspective, transforming a single person's tragedy into a human tragedy on a grander scale. Although not emphasized much, it is clear that the actions of the first Rakhat expedition have upset the balance of power on Rakhat, with the Runa rising up against the Jana'ata. Once again, a human civilization has touched another civilization and brought ruination.
It sounds rather dark, doesn't it? Truthfully, The Sparrow is a dark tale. But in such tales, particularly set against the challenges and differences provided by science fiction, we often find the most human of stories. There is loss, chance for redemption, always the struggle to survive, to understand, and to grow. The Sparrow is tragedy, is triumph, is many other things—but they do not start with "tr," so mentioning them would spoil the alliteration. I still maintain, however, that the atmosphere of The Sparrow is not pessimistic, just realistic. Mary Doria Russell sends Jesuits and scientists into space, fallible human beings without much experience in alien contact. There are mistakes—terrible mistakes—but she never takes the easy way out by laying blame upon a single group. The Jesuits aren't evil missionaries; the scientists aren't calculating, inhuman explorers; the Jana'ata aren't heartless predators. With a complex plot and characters to match, The Sparrow reminds us that things will go wrong, and it isn't the mistakes you've made that matter but the ones you avoid by learning better.