My Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Rated 4/5 stars

Discovery is violent because of ignorance and misunderstanding, says Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow (in an obvious nod to Carl Sagan’s Contact).

In 2019, A Jesuit party makes contact with an alien species and travels light years to another galaxy to meet—a story of Religion versus Science. I guess the author assumes global warming does not annihilate the Earth by then (she also penned this in the mid-1990s, before global warming was taken seriously). 

The Sparrow makes the bold and thought-provoking prediction that aliens will seem as different to us as Native Americans seemed to Christopher Columbus—as in, not thatttt different. At one time, our Earth had been as unexplored as Space is now, and we wondered then what was beyond the ocean as we wonder now what is beyond the sky. Earth’s civilizations and cultures developed in similar ways in isolation from each other—so why can’t this be true for all of Space? Russell also makes the argument that discovery is always violent, equally for new continents as for new planets. (As a side note has anyone checked how violent the collision of the New and Old Worlds was according to the Christopher Columbus Wiki page!? Pretty sure I didn’t learn about it quite like this in my Grade 5 History class.)

Russell writes the most perfectly-executed, suspenseful and engaging build-up, and the most lazy unraveling. It’s as if she is so good at writing intrigue that she can only disappoint with the actual events; or as if she hates killing off her characters and so skims over it in the briefest of ways. It was a curious choice to hinge the protagonist’s unraveling and the book’s climax on rape (excuse the awful pun), when there were so many other great atrocities and tragedies, including murder, mutilation and the loss of love.

Favourite quotes:

• “If God is anything like a middle-class white chick from the suburbs… it’s what you do about what you feel that matters.”
• “Do you think we would have a name for… despair, if only you had experienced it?”
• “Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal.”
• “The trouble with illusions… is that you aren’t aware you have any until they are taken from you.”
• “I can explain it to you… but I can’t understand it for you.”