Jesuits in space: ‘The Sparrow’ by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jesuits in space! That alone would be enough for me to want to read this (how is it that this is the second/third SF novel I’ve read this academic year that features Jesuits?). The Sparrow is the tale of what happens when SETI finally pays off, and a Jesuit with his non-Jes friends birth this idea, which is funded by the Society of Jesus, to go and make first contact with an alien species whose radio broadcasts from Alpha Centauri they had encountered.

Their goal is not evangelism like the Jesuits of old. Indeed, amongst the crew of this interstellar expedition are in-the-open agnostics besides a quietly agnostic Jesuit. However, like the Jesuits of old, their purpose is to engage on this expedition ad maiorem gloriam Dei — that very reason for which the Jesuits exist to this day. They are explorers — a linguist, an engineer, an astrophysicist, a botanist, a musician, a doctor, and so forth. To the greater glory of God, they set out to find what wonders his creation holds in store for them on a planet they learn to call Rakhat.

This is not, then, what some fear — a novel that’s out to convert the reader to Catholicism or something.

Russell tells the story from both ends, which I think pays off very well, sort of like the obsessive foreshadowing of Homeric poems and mediaeval romances.

This is certainly a novel about faith. And psychological horror. About doubt. And the destruction of faith. And about wonder and glory and love (human and divine) and pain and sorrow. It is about finding faith and then being put through the wringer.

I read the ePUB version, and there some problems with the Latin, with ablatives coming out where there should have been nominatives. Not sure if the fault was the software, the publisher, or Russell, but the first two seem more likely, given the people the author thanks in the acknowledgements at the end.

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