Many moons ago I read Dreamers of the Day for CBR4. I loved the prose, and marveled at the rich character development even if my review isn’t as effusive (the book has grown on me over time). The author, Mary Doria Russell, has received positive reviews over the course of the many Cannonball Reads, so I decided that I wanted to jump back in with this author. I put The Sparrow on my library request list, and when the email came in that it was ready I picked it up and eventually got around to reading it, without reminding myself what the plot was (I tend to go back and work through an author’s oeuvre from the beginning after I’ve discovered I enjoy their work, and The Sparrow was Russell’s first book).
The Sparrow tells the story of a not too distant future (which we are nearly already in thanks to this book being nearly 20 years old) in which extraterrestrial life has been discovered on a not too far away planet and the team that assembles to make first contact. The story ping pongs back and forth between 2019 and 2060, and eventually the years in between. One of the time periods is full of hope, and one is full of despair. The despair of our main protagonist, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz was almost more than I could bear. But we’ll get to that.
Russell imagines a near future where the United States is no longer a predominant world power having lost two economic wars with Japan. Poverty is rampant, indentured servitude has returned to common practice and so-called futures brokers mine ghettos for promising young children to educate in return for large chunks of their lifetime income. Science and space travel are accelerated from the reality we know today, with near space asteroid mining and improved medical care. It is to this world, where specialists are hired to automate human work, that the Singers are first heard by a scientist about to be replaced. He shares the news with a ragtag assortment seemingly brought together by God, and the adventure is off.
But we hear about it after knowing it all ends in tears. And throughout much of the book, as we piece together the pain Emilio has suffered, and are eventually told what happens to his friends we are constantly asked by the author to ruminate on what it means for our faith, and for the faith of the characters. We are also asked to examine the opinions we hold of our history’s own ancient explorers and what lengths groups like the Jesuits have gone to in the name of knowledge. What has been the cost?
I would suggest this book to almost anyone. Even though it has religious overtones (Judaic and Catholic) and is science fiction. It is written in poetry, and for that alone, and for the thinking it requires I am all in. However, you should be warned that this work might trigger you if you cannot handle the killing of young people and sexual abuse. That was perhaps the one thing that threw me off while reading, was that nearly all of the characters who interact with Emilio in 2060 to one extent or another engage in victim blaming. I think now upon finishing the book that it is supposed to show us that these characters cannot imagine what Emilio endured, but to this reader it made me angry at the characters several times, and often had me deciding to put off continuing into a 2060 chapter for fear of running into it again.