|Author:||Mary Doria Russell|
If I have my facts right, The Sparrow is Mary Doria Russell's first work of fiction. She was an academic before turning to writing for a living. It won several awards, and I can see why.
It's a story of mankind's first contact with intelligent life from another world. In this case we encounter radio broadcasts from a planet in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri, and an entirely private expedition is mounted and sent there by the Jesuit order before any other body can get things rolling.
Only one of the crew - Father Emilio Sandoz - survives and returns to earth, and the controversy around his return is challenging, to say the least. The book tells the story of the expedition to Rakhat, alternating between the present - after Sandoz's return - and the past - following the expedition directly.
On the plus side, Russell's writing is quite good, and her characters are, by and large, extremely vivid. Though this is a science fiction story, what it features is people and how they deal with events well beyond their control or understanding. We feel for Sandoz in his struggle to come to terms with what happened to him on Rakhat, and for those in his order trying to find out what those events really were.
The alien planet and culture are well described and believable, at least for me. Rakhat is different enough that understanding it isn't trivial, and yet similar enough that there is the basis for some understanding at all. This isn't Star Trek; everyone doesn't speak English.
In general the story is well told, well plotted, and well written, but I have two issues that hold me back from giving this book a really great review.
First, Russell disposes of some of her characters to abruptly, even some we have followed for a long time. Yes, real people do just die, sometimes unexpectedly, but I found that a bit frustration here. I had come to care about these characters over many pages, and found the parting more than abrupt in some cases.
Secondly there are some issues of logic and practicality that Russell ignores. The expedition makes no effort (that we are told about, in any case) to avoid contaminating Rakhat with organisms (of any size) originating on earth, nor do they adequately protect themselves from anything potentially hazardous to humans upon arrival. As a pragmatic manner, even a completely privately funded expedition of this nature would need to take a lot more precautions than are documented here. In truth, such precautions would probably have made the story impossible to tell, though. Contact and linguistic understanding would have taken years, not weeks, and much of the story would not even be possible. In that light I understand the lack of caution, but I lost the willing suspension of disbelief in a few places as a result.
I wish I could bring complex characters like Emilio Sandoz to life on the page the way Russell does. It gives me something to aspire to, I suppose.