The Sparrow

Oh what an absolutely wrenching, gut-wrenching read.

How could I not have read this sooner? When will my request for the sequel, Children of God , come in? Should I read the sequel? What if it doesn’t live up to the first book?

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself but forgive me, I only just finished this book last night and I was floored by it. And I had blissfully ignored all the reviews on Google Reader that were about this book, so I had absolutely no expectations, except for the fact that it is considered a masterpiece and is on many lists which I can’t recall at the moment, so excited I am about writing this review. Ok perhaps that does count as some sort of expectations about this book.

Because I had picked it up several times at the library in my old neighbourhood. And put it back on the shelves because of two very different reasons. One, a very valid one, is that that very copy was a rather old, slightly tattered book. I don’t expect pristine copies of library books but this one looked like it ought to have been retired years ago. Two, perhaps not so valid, is that it involved religion, and Jesuits, and I’m never all that comfortable with reading fiction that has religion as a centerpiece. (I grew up in what Singapore calls a ‘freethinker’ household. In other words, my parents are not religious, although both sets of grandparents are/were Buddhist/Taoist and many of my relatives are Christians or Catholics, as is my husband). So when a book has a Jesuit priest as a central character, I kind of hesitate. But the writing and the interesting premise just sucked me in.

Because right from the start, you already know that something terrible has happened. Father Emilio Sandoz has returned from somewhere, a wreck, both mentally and physically. He is the sole survivor of an expedition to the planet Rakhat, And we don’t quite know what has happened. The narrative switches from 2016, when the discovery of these extraterrestrials is just beginning, and 2059 and its aftermath.

Russell makes you fall for this motley crew, as she explores their friendships and kinship. It’s hard not to get sucked in. But it’s even harder when you know that something bad happened to the rest of them.

And yeah there’s also the planet Rakhat and its inhabitants and while they are very fascinating, this book was for me about the humans and the way they developed and discovered themselves and each other, and yes, about faith. In an interview with Bookslut, Russell talks about religion and SF, which kind of made me understand where she’s coming from a little better:

“Well, as Stan Schmidt once said, human beings have always told stories about alien beings, but in the past they were called angels and demons and elves and trolls. Folk tales and science fiction are often about what it means to be human in a large and terrifying and beautiful universe, so naturally they overlap a good deal. As for religion, well, the great monotheistic world religions address the same concern. And if God is real, and the ruler of the universe, then logically that sovereignty must extend to other worlds and their inhabitants. That’s a perfect set up for SF.”

I know those two words Science+Fiction can often make people back away in… fear, horror, but I do think The Sparrow would make for a great introduction to SF. It’s very well-paced, challenging, totally engrossing and thoughtful. Highly recommended.

This is my final read for the Sci-Fi Challenge, which I have thoroughly enjoyed.