The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

A lot of people told me to read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It’s got space exploration and Christian theology! What a combo.

The result is a little harder to embrace.

The Story

It’s the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life, told in the pre- and post-contact story of the sole surviving member of the Jesuit expedition, Emilio Sandoz. The second expedition to the alien planet found Sandoz in a brutalized and scandalous condition, and returned him to Earth for someone else to sort out. The story alternates between the Jesuits trying to pull the story out of Sandoz and the historical timeline of the actual trip from Sandoz’ perspective (which started some 40 years earlier, due to the incredible length of space flight).

That’s right: Humanity discovers aliens and the first ones there are the Jesuits. It’s a purposeful parallel to the Jesuit missionaries who traveled to the New World. And like those early Jesuits, the inter-galactic variety didn’t do so well. (What we don’t know is whether the alien natives suffered the same fate as the New World natives; perhaps that’s explored in the sequel, Children of God.)


The story had a number of fascinating ideas, from space travel in mined asteroid to solving the world’s orphan problem with indentured servant-hood. It also had some ideas that didn’t make as much sense, such as humanity chancing first contact with aliens in person. I couldn’t shake the idea that the whole story of the mission didn’t seem like an intergalactic one.

But really the story isn’t about space and aliens, it’s about God’s will and the bad things that happen.


While the story had some interesting ideas, I found the back and forth narrative a little frustrating. It was kind of a tease, but in excruciating detail. I felt like the story was tricking me into following along, instead of just using a good story to keep me hooked.

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