I very much enjoyed The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, the book I described to a couple of people as “Jesuits in Space!” said like the Muppet Show’s Pigs in Space:

Not that The Sparrow was funny even though there is some humor, maybe because it is kind of bleak and I needed to inject some levity? Whatever the case, it got someone I know to read it and she is halfway through and was thinking of giving up but I hinted at some interesting things to come and she just might manage to keep going.

The Saprrow is not a new book but in case you haven’t heard of it, here’s the scoop. Not too distant future and musical radio broadcasts are picked up coming from the area of Alpha Centauri. They are able to weed out all the noise and discover it is compltely alien not some accidental earth signals bouncing around. The fact that in the news today is a story about radio signals Russian astromers picked up is just a little freaky. The Jesuits (in the story) decide to launch a mission to invesitgate the signals.

The main mover and shaker of the entire expedition is the priest, Emilio Sandoz, an extremely talented linguist. He believes that since everything is falling into place so quickly and easily that God must be behind it all. Just shy of two years later the small crew sets out to the place we eventually learn is called Rakhat.

The story jumps back and forth from before to after and the terrible thing is, as I am getting to know and very much like everyone on the crew, I also know that Emilio Sandoz is the only one who returns alive from Rakhat. What happens to the others and Emilio is so traumatic he is unable to explain to the Father General of the Jesuits. And we watch as Sandoz struggles with his faith and what he sees as God’s betrayal while we wait for the revelation of events.

This is a First Contact story. In an interview Russell said she had been thinking about Columbus and early European explorers and wanted to examine first contact but felt she had to set it in space because there really aren’t any unknown cultures left on Earth. She does a brilliant job of it too. The fascinating details of learning a completely foreign language and encountering a completely foreign culture is fraught with unknowns, misunderstandings and assumptions.

The people from Earth interpret things based on their own frame of reference and it often turns out to be completely wrong. Of course they mean well and they think they are doing the right thing according to their own beliefs and ethics but this gets them into trouble and also causes trouble for others. For instance, the simple act of planting a small garden so they could have some familiar food sets into motion events with unforeseen and horrific consequences for themselves and their hosts and eventually the entire planet of Rakhat.

The Saprrow is a fat book with great storytelling and lots of pieces that fit together nicely. I had only a few quibbles. Some of the characters are a little too good to be true. Also, Emilio’s climactic confession is devastating but the next day he is miraculously better — no more migraines or nightmares and all the other PTSD stuff he had been dealing with is gone. It’s a bit too easy. Nonetheless, an enjoyable and worthwhile read. I know there is a sequel and I had decided I was not at all interested in it, but the more space I put between me and The Sparrow the more I wonder if perhaps I might want to read it after all. Because after everything, Emilio goes back to Rakhat and I can’t imagine why he would do that. If you have read the sequel, is it worth it?