It is rare for a novel to be published of the power and finesse of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, but for that novel to be a first publication is very special indeed. The Sparrow is an extremely moving, intelligent foray into the meaning of faith, the heights, and depths, of the human experience, told with complex, persuasive characterisation and technical accomplishment.
The Sparrow concerns the build up, events during and after-effects of a mission to a newly discovered planet, named Rakhat, where alien life is believed to exist. A young astronomer, Jimmy Quinn, discovers radio signals -- apparently incredible alien songs -- from Alpha Centauri while monitoring for the SETI program, and immediately tells his friends: a Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, a doctor Anne Williams and her engineer husband George, and Sofia, an emotionally crippled child-prostitute turned AI-programmer. When Emilio informs his superiors in the Society of Jesus, they decide that they need to meet God's other children, and with frightening speed, the small group of friends, along with the Jesuit priests -- the Texan ex-marine D.W. Yarborough, biologist Marc Robichaux and musician, Alan Pace -- are en route for Rakhat in a hollowed out asteroid at near-light speeds.
The group does not know what to expect: they intend only to observe, to meet the singers and to learn about them -- they mean no harm. But they are hopeless unprepared for the situation on Rakhat and stumble about with fatal consequences, unaware until too late of the consequences of their actions. And so it is that only Emilio Sandoz returns home, a man broken both mentally, physically and emotionally, to be quizzed by his superiors about what went wrong. What he did wrong.
Russell has structured this book in an interesting but extremely effective way. From the very beginning, we know that Sandoz and his colleagues have failed, that the mission was a disaster, as we are shown, almost participate in, Sandoz's slow return to some sort of health, and his explanation of what happened, in the face of suspicion, distaste and frustration on the part of his colleagues.
Juxtaposed against this, in alternate chapters, is the build up to the mission: how the Jesuits trained Sandoz, so that he is ideal for the mission before they even know about Rakhet; how Sandoz meets Anne and George -- who become almost substitute parents to him; how he meets and establishes a bond with the icy Sofia and what brings the five of them together in a Puerto Rican space observatory to listen in excitement to the voice of Hlavin Kitheri, a being four-light years away who will change Sandoz's life utterly.
These chapters of the build-up to the mission are particularly effective at establishing not one but several fully-fleshed out characters. Not all are necessarily automatically sympathetic: Sofia, for example is initially difficult to like, nevermind love, but nevertheless gradually you begin to care, very deeply, for all the group who finally make contact. Emilio Sandoz is particularly well drawn and stands apart as a complex fully-realised human being: a priest with turbulent, conflicting emotions, funny, witting, charming, determined but self-effacing, devout but not proselytising. And of course, this contrasts sharply with the later Emilio we see in the alternate chapters: bitter and broken, guilt-ridden, everything lost: even God. It is a shocking change, made all the more effective by the structure of flashback Russell uses.
And finally, we are taken, with the group, to Rakhat, and the chapters' hard divisions begin to blur as Sandoz relates in first person exactly what happens there as we simultaneously see for ourselves. And what we are told is terrible. Although the reader is at first lulled into a false sense of security -- with a few doubts perhaps -- Russell suddently delivers blow after awful blow until the final, complete, devastating truth is dragged from Sandoz, leaving him -- and the reader -- emotionally drained. This is extremely powerful writing, without compromises.
The Sparrow is an unusual and very special novel which operates on more than one level. A well-paced story and rich characterisation are often mutually exclusive in SF, but not here: this novel has both as well, as interesting concepts, style and a lingering thoughtfulness. Not for someone looking for a light, funny read, but for everyone else, a must-read.