Thinking about “The Sparrow”


Cover of "The Sparrow: A Novel"
The Sparrow: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

An old friend was talking about The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction novel that won quite a few prizes when it came out in 1996.  The book’s basic premise – a “first contact” story in which the Jesuits undertake a private space expedition to another planet on which life has been discovered – opened the door to questions of faith and reason as well as those of the clash of cultures.  The presence of two types of sentient creatures – two intelligent life forms – raises questions not dealt with on earth since the death of the neanderthals.

I’ve been pondering the ways my reaction would be different if I were reading it new.

  • The characters of the priests in the story and especially Fr Emilio would probably read differently after a decade of Church sex abuse scandals in the news.
  • The vast advances in neuroscience and primate studies would lead to thinking of biologically-based conflicts between different sentient species as much or more than cultural explanations.  Were the clashes a matter of inability to understand (a rational culture-based explanation) or pre-conscious body-based reactions?

The overall questions – and the surprising ways in which Russell works out her answers – remain just as relevant.  A 2008 interview reveals a little more of her own thoughts. If you have not read the book before, it’s worth picking up.


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