Does God Listen On An Alien World? – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I’ve got no back information about this book, or author, but… I really loved it.  Wow.  Philosophy, science fiction, humor, action… this book is a great read and I’m ashamed it took me so long to get to it.  Have you read (or seen) Contact?  Imagine that movie (or book), but with a much less disappointing ending.

The Sparrow
Mary Doria Russell
408 Pages
September 9, 1996

I’m going to get this out of the way up front… this book is tough.  From the first chapter, you find out that there is only one survivor from a mission to an alien planet.  No big deal.  Until the book starts introducing you to the rest of the cast and you realize… oh shit, these people are all going to the planet… and *sigh* they aren’t coming back… are they?
Well shit…
But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The book focuses most of its attention on a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz.  Upon his return to earth, he is scarred, both physically and mentally.  After a brief explanation of his condition, the book’s chapters trade between the past (that is 2019, when the mission leaves) and the future (2059, when it returns), as well as many chapters on the planet’s surface.
As the book hops around, you get introduced to many other characters.  Married couple Anne and George, distant Sofia, intelligent giant Jimmy Quinn, and their grouchy, deformed leader D.W.  Each character is fleshed out over the narrative and you grow to like all of them.
Even the aliens that you meet become important, interesting, and (mostly) sympathetic characters.  As strong as the plot and the writing is, the strongest aspect of the novel is the characterization.
The build up to the take-off is very interesting, what with the introductions to the characters and the interrelationships that occur, but to me the strongest part of the novel is when they land on the alien planet, named Rakhat.  It is on this planet that many of the philosophical questions and ideas get raised.  For instance…
The idea of organized religion versus the role of the individual in religion.  The role of an all-knowing God in the development of the human character.  Does God even exist on an alien planet?  If He does, does He care?  But all these questions boil down to the basic one that most people consider:
Is there a God?  And if there is, how can he let bad things happen to people?  And that’s the crux of almost their entire time on Rakhat.  Despite all these big questions, the story flows well and never feels preachy, or overdone.
There’s a sequel out there, but I’m comfortable with just having read this one for now.  The novel stands out on its own as an excellent work (as long as you don’t try to consider it a piece of hard science fiction).

One thought on “Does God Listen On An Alien World? – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

  1. Is there a God? Who knows. But there certainly is spirituality. I think it might be self comforting. We wouldn’t want to be ungrateful. I can’t imagine being a priest on another planet. Must read.

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