Nearly twenty years ago a debut novel took the genre world by storm, at least in terms of awards. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, BSFA, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and author Mary Doria Russell received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. It was a novel that walked a fine line in its themes between science and faith. The intersection between the two is not always a comfortable one and if anything can be a one-word apt descriptor of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Children of God it is the word uncomfortable. In trying to come up with a “completed” series of books for this column, I pored over my reading logs and it wasn’t long before these two books shouted to me from deep within my memory banks. So again, I’m stretching the definition of completed by including a book and its sequel, but these are excellent books that people should be reading even today — nearly 20 years after The Sparrow first published.
Set in the near future (2019), music from the closest star system to ours, Alpha Centauri, reaches Earth — specifically from the planet which comes to be known as Rakhat. Much of the novel is relayed in flashbacks from Father Emilio Sandoz in the year 2059, the only member of the expedition team sent to Rakhat to survive and return to Earth – decades after he left Earth for Rakhat. Other members of the missionary/crew include a young astronomer, an expert in AI systems, as well as two of Sandoz’s retired colleagues. Sandoz is scarred by his experiences, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The framework of the “present” with the damaged Sandoz and a Church shattered by the failed mission involves the investigation of the mission and why Sandoz is the only survivor.
An asteroid was used for the interstellar travel, but an emergency landing (as these things are wont to do in such situations) leaves the travelers stranded on Rakhat. Sandoz and his companions discover a primitive village, but they realize its inhabitants, the Runa, are not the aliens who sent the signal. When our missionaries do encounter the aliens who sent the signal, the Jana’ata, events continue to spiral in an uncomfortable fashion. The Runa are a more peaceful race with a lower technological level than humans and Jana’ata, while the Jana’ata are a more crafty and far less benign species who keep the Runa subservient to them. As a result of the human’s interaction with the Runa, and the expedition helping them to develop agriculture among other things, tragedy strikes. All but Sandoz and one other member of the missionary group (four other humans) are murdered by the Jana’ata in what could be called, in the most misleadingly benign of terms, a cultural misunderstanding. As a result, conflict between the Jana’ata and the Runa escalates.
Russell does so many things well in this novel, not the least of which is building sympathy for the characters as the group assembles and then is destroyed. We get to know and like these characters. More so, Russell constructs the novel in such a way that knowing Sandoz as the only survivor escalates the dread and mounting terror as the novel progresses from the early group assembly to their arrival on Rakhat. Despite any good vibes that may happen at those stages, it is ultimately colored by the tragedy that awaits them, a tragedy hinted at very early on in the novel. Even fifteen years after having read this book, I cringe at the discomfort the memories of the story awake in me. It was that damned powerful a novel. And the thing is…Russell (from what I recall) told her story in such tragic, elegant prose.
The second novel in this duet, Children of God, picks up the story of Emilio Sandoz as he continues to recover from the tragic events he experienced in The Sparrow. He comes into contact with an organized crime family and falls for a woman in the family, Gina, and leaves the priesthood. A second expedition to Rakhat is put together for which Sandoz educates the expedition members in the native languages spoken by the Jana’ata and the Runa. Understandably, he does not wish to go on this second expedition, for he plans to marry Gina.
As you might suspect at this point, when Russell shows a glimmer of hope or good this early in the story it is only a tease of what could be. Sandoz is abducted and abused by Gina’s ex-husband and forced to join the second mission to Rakhat in the hopes he can possibly set to rights all that went disastrously wrong during the first mission.
When Russell turns her story focus to Rakhat, she reveals another survivor of the first expedition: Sofia Quinn who was pregnant and still is. She is a prominent figure on the Runa side of the Jana’ata–Runa conflict that has escalated since the events in The Sparrow. Sadly, when Sofia’s child is born, she comes to realize he is autistic.
Russell also follows the storyline of Supaari, the ambitious alien who led to the first mission down the rabbit hole to its tragic fate. As a result of Supaari’s actions in the first novel, he was rewarded with betrothal to the equivalent of a princess, Jholaa, sister of Prince Hlavin, the person to whom Supaari “gifted” Sandoz. To further show how violent and cruel the Jana’ata are as a people, the marriage consecration involves Supaari forcing himself on his unwanting bride. Eventually, a child is born to Supaari and Jholaa but Supaari is almost tricked into killing it. This forces Supaari to leave his people and the ensuing conflict is devastating to the planet of Rakhat.
When Sandoz, against his will, does return to Rakhat, he is surprised to see Sofia not only alive, but leading the Runa forces against the Jana’ata. His arrival at this point provides to be as powerful a catalyst as did his first arrival on the alien planet, but there is of course the requisite discomfort and emotional turmoil. Russell does provide if not a glimmer of hope, perhaps a final positive not on which to end Sandoz’s tale.
As I pointed out earlier, Russell examines faith, specifically Christian/Catholic faith, under the most trying and harrowing of circumstances. She shows how one people, some of the inhabitants of Rakhat, mirror the practices of the church and take some of the beliefs into their own philosophy. In Sandoz, she’s created one of the more conflicted and scarred characters in SF in the past fifty years. Although many have compared these books to the seminal award-winning A Case of Conscience by James Blish, I haven’t read that book (yet). What I did find resonance in, specifically in the thin line between science and faith was Carl Sagan’s Contact. After all, of the many things that The Sparrow does is play out as a finely crafted first-contact novel, which is the primary thrust of Sagan’s novel. Russell raises issues to consider deeply rather than providing hard and fast answers to these questions.
I don’t see many people talking about these books now, which considering The Sparrow is nearly 20 years old and focusing on what is HOT and NEW is not too surprising. (I admit to being guilty of this syndrome myself, which is why I like to focus on books such as these two in this in this column.) Although The Sparrow received genre recognition and awards, the original publisher (Villard, an imprint of Random House) wasn’t exactly a genre imprint, so I wonder what kind of effect that has had on these two books. On the other hand, we are now only five years away from the future starting point of the story as begun in The Sparrow, which itself is a bit jarring. There was talk a year ago about a TV series coming to light on AMC, but I think that has stalled. The story resonated very powerfully with me when I first read it and I don’t doubt it had an impact on many others who have read these books. They are still very much in print (The Sparrow, Children of God) and Russell is still writing though she moved slightly away from Science Fictional stories. All that said, these are very powerful books that I can’t recommend enough.