Russell, Mary Doria. 1996. The Sparrow. New York:  Villard.

Reviewed 26 April 1998

The Sparrow (cover) This is an extremely difficult book. Not because the author plays games with us, withholding information we need—she doesn't. Not because the prose is stilted, or mannered, or pretentious, or imprecise—rather the opposite. Not because the situation the author posits is implausible—again, rather the opposite. This is a difficult book because it asks difficult questions, and doesn't succumb to facile answers. Instead, the reader must find his or her own answers.

But reaching those questions is a lot of fun. We don't see exactly what questions are really at the heart of the book until over halfway through the book, because the characters themselves don't. Job didn't, either; Ms. Russell asks some of his questions, but in her own context. And that context is fascinating.

Emilio Sandoz is an early-21st-century linguist with a gift for picking up languages. He is also a Jesuit priest. The novel posits discovery of an extraterrestrial intelligence in the Centauri system (4.3 light years from here), with the traditional Jesuit response: send an expedition.

Ms. Russell is less interested in the traditional "let's look at alien government and show how much better it is than ours" voyage of discovery than she is in core anthropological issues, such as the biological basis of the society. (Given that she is, in fact, a professional anthropologist, this should not surprise anyone.) She builds wonderfully consistent societies for the Runa and their predators. Her biological, physical, and technological foundations (with one exception, and it's just a matter of a miscalculation that eventually zeroes out) fit together to make a complete whole seldom achieved in speculative fiction: the alien planet is really there, really alien—and really plausible. The human interactions with those societies are equally fascinating, and ultimately tragic.

The one weakness of this book is the limited range of human character types on display. The human characters are either wiseasses or stoics with no sense of humor. This doesn't undermine the book too much, because the human characters focus on Jesuit society. It does leave open the question of how this limited range of human characters realistically expected to interact with an alien culture in any mode other than the tragic. But that may be part of the point.

Overall rating: 5
The Sparrow should have won lots of awards, but it's much too difficult a book (because it asks difficult, uncomfortable questions) to do so. It's among the twenty best American novels published in the 1990s—regardless of genre, and including winners of the traditional awards (Pulitzer, NBA, and NBCC). Speculative fiction fans will have trouble finding it, though, because it's kept with mainstream fiction (along with Villard's other books). Villard deserves our support for taking a big marketing risk with this book.
Update, 16 Jul 98: The Sparrow earned the Arthur C. Clarke Award of the British Science Fiction Association as the best science fiction novel first published in England in 1997.
Additional Comments, 14 Oct 98: The Sparrow is in serious development as a movie property. Correspondence with the author has revealed that a script is quite far along; hopefully, Hollywood won't dumb this book down if the script ever gets produced.
Mary Doria Russell was selected as the John W. Campbell Memorial Award winner as best new novelist. This may be a futile award, however; it appears that her third novel (her second novel, Children of God, will be reviewed here within the next couple of months) may be completely outside of speculative fiction.

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