I was talking the other day with a couple of people about our Favourite Books Ever and was reminded about the extraordinary and amazing book by Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (Black Swan) which first came out in 1996 but is one of those books that we always keep in the shop. I suggested that if they read it, it would end up on their FBE list too. It is not an easy book but I haven’t met anyone who was not just so very pleased they had read it. It won a slew of awards when it first came out: The 1996 James Tiptree Award, the 1998 BSFA Award and the 1998 Arthur C. Clarke Award and Russell has also won the Cleveland Arts Council Prize for Literature and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer of Science Fiction. This is one of those peculiar books that we shelve in both Science and General Fiction – people who declare that they never read any sort of science/fantasy/weird fiction are completely captivated by the startling mystery and power of this unusual and beautiful novel.
Set in the 21st century – between 20 and 60 years from now – The Sparrow is the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and talented linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who – in response to a remarkable radio signal from the depths of space – leads a scientific mission to make first contact with an extraterrestrial culture. In the true tradition of Jesuit adventurers before him, Sandoz and his companions are prepared to endure isolation, suffering – even death – but nothing can prepare them for the civilisation they encounter, or for the tragic misunderstanding that brings the mission to a devastating end. Once considered a living saint, Sandoz returns alone to Earth horrifically maimed, both physically and spiritually, the mission’s sole survivor – only to be blamed for the mission’s failure and accused of heinous crimes. The untangling and gradual discovery of why things went so wrong is fascinating and enthralling.
One of the reasons I think people who can’t be doing with aliens and ‘new planets’ find this book so interesting, is that in many peculiar ways this feels as much historical fiction as science fiction. The Jesuits did this already: heading off in the 15th century, before anyone else, to the uncharted shores and mysterious people (aliens) of the Americas, the New World, for the glory of their God and their own slightly less-elevated institutional and personal reasons. The Sparrow brings into sharp, thought-provoking relief just what such a collision of cultures, a collision of discovery on both sides that can encompass delight, suspicion, wonder, goodwill, distress and ignorance, can do to those on the front lines.
Mary Doria Russell is a former anatomist, has studied six languages, trained as a paleoanthropologist and is the author of scientific papers on subjects as various as bone biology and cannibalism. In this book and its sequel The Children of God (just as good but I didn’t feel I needed to read it to be satisfied by the tale) you can see her interest in languages and how they help us both communicate and obfuscate. It is frightening how we just get things wrong because we think that we know, that our viewpoint is the only one: one word, a sound, in one language can mean quite a different thing in another, with devastating results.
Written in clean, effortless prose and peopled with memorable, superbly realised characters who never lose their humanity or humour, The Sparrow is a powerful, haunting fiction – a tragic but ultimately triumphant novel about the nature of faith, of love and what it means to be ‘human’.
Bet it will end upon your FBE list too…