I am generally at least a little wary when approaching a novel by an author I haven't heard of before. This is especially true when the novel is a first novel and when it's clearly an SF novel (using standard SF situations and settings), but is marketed as literature. Such novels can be good, but often they don't work well as SF. (Some of Kurt Vonnegut's later works come to mind here.) Thus, I approached The Sparrow thinking "this might be quite good, though it'll probably make some of the mainstream-author-writing-SF mistakes." I'm delighted to say that I was wrong. The Sparrow is a superb novel, that functions as SF, while addressing a number of the concerns, and having a depth of theme, typical in good mainstream novels.
The story takes place in the next century. Radio telescopes pick up signals -- songs actually -- being broadcast from Alpha Centauri (from a planet later named Rakhat). While humanity in general tries to decide whether to send a mission to the stars, the Catholic Church quietly prepares a ship (using an asteroid purchased from the thriving asteroid mining industry) and sends a Jesuit mission to the stars. They go not to convert, but to learn. Yet, at the start of the novel, we find out that the mission has failed. More than that, the only survivor, Father Emilio Sandoz, has returned in disgrace, accused of prostitution and murder. The rest of the novel unfolds the story.
The novel works well on a number of levels:
The novel is filled with fascinating details. Russell has worked out the future Earth society in a believable amount of detail. Rakhat's flora, fauna, and intelligent species and their society are also well done. Finally, she clearly has a good understanding of the Catholic Church hierarchy; her Jesuit's and the way they interact seem quite believable. (She does a fine job, by the way, making her priests into real people, not just religious stereotypes. They experience doubt and sexual longing, like baseball, cuss from time to time, and are generally well rounded human beings.)
I can't recommend this novel too highly. This novel should be on the Hugo ballot, but I'd be very surprised if it does make it. Everyone who I've talked to who has read it has liked it a lot; but not enough people have read it yet.
At its best, SF can at times fuse the concerns, standards, and approaches of SF with those of mainstream literature. When done well, the result can please both genre readers and mainstream literature. Mary Doria Russell, if she decides to write more, should join the ranks of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Bishop, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Gene Wolfe as a write who manages to bridge this difficult gap.
(Please note, by the way, that I'm not trying to imply that the only way an SF book can be good is to try to also be good mainstream literature. There are other types of good books, addressing different concerns. I do think the very best SF though is that subset of "good SF" that is also "good mainstream literature.")
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