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.