The Sparrow

Rating: +

Mary Doria Russell

This book falls in the class of science fiction books that focuses more on characters than on futuristic technology. The premise of the story is that life was detected in another galaxy and a mission was sent to make contact with this civilization. One member of this team was a Jesuit priest who is seen at the start of the book to have returned to Earth in a physically and emotionally ill state, and an unwillingness to talk about his experiences.

The story is broken into pieces, jumping back and forth in time between the past before the mission and the current time after the return from the mission. In the present, the Jesuits are trying to discover what is wrong with their colleague and what happened on the mission. In the past, we see the events leading up to the discovery of the aliens, the formation of the mission, and eventually the mission itself.

This book stands out because of the unique choices made. While there are hints of what is coming, the plotline is not predictable. Russell sets up scenarios where the "right" behavior isn't obvious, if there even is a "right" way to behave. The character interactions and team dynamics are interesting and realistic. I also liked the focus on understanding an alien civilization through their language rather than just through their biology or their technology.

The jumps in time were occasionally tedious, though. While they allowed the reader to get foreshadowing of what comes of the mission, they mostly presented the priest's reflections on his actions and choices. The reflections were used to explain the priest's motives without disrupting the flow of the action during the "past" plot line. I would have liked to see fewer of these digressions.

In all, though, this was a well-planned and well-written book. The issues raised were interesting twists on classic problems. I think the story would have appeal to even those who don't usually like science fiction novels, particularly because of the focus on characters and moral questions. However, the science was not glaringly unrealistic. I give this book a definite '+'.


Review written April 2001.


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