The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

Selected by one of my book clubs, this is not a book I would normally read, although I like science fiction. First published in 1996, one of the parallel storylines takes place twenty years later (which is not too far off from where we are now), when a young engineer in Puerto Rico intercepts signals from a distant planet that are recognisably music. The news is leaked and the world blazes with curiosity about this new culture. While the U.N. dithers, the Jesuits—famous for their explorers and first contacts with civilisations—put together a mission to that planet to learn about the culture that produced such remarkable music. The mission includes the engineer who first discovered the signal (Jimmy), a husband and wife team who bring engineering and medical skills respectively (George and Anne), an artificial intelligence expert who excels in capturing knowledge (Sofia) and four Jesuit priests, with piloting, music, naturalist, and linguistic skills (D.W., Alan, Marc, and Emilio). The second of the parallel storylines takes place in 2059-2060 when the single survivor of that mission, Emilio, the young priest who is a genius with languages, returns severely traumatised, and the Jesuits try to draw the story out of him.

People who impose their religion on others have always made me uncomfortable, hence my reluctance to continue with a book about an evangelistic mission. However, I was seduced by the characters. Each one came so alive for me and seemed so much like people I know, that I couldn't help reading on. I adore these characters. And much to my relief, once they land on the planet, it becomes clear that they only want to learn about the alien culture, not convert it.

However, and not unexpectedly to one who has had Star Trek's Prime Directive drummed into her over multiple seasons and series, quite aside from all those Psychology and Anthropology courses, they cannot help but affect the culture they have come to observe. With, I should add, tragic consequences for everyone. As someone in my book club pointed out: there are always unintended consequences.

The details of the alien cultures (for there are more than one) are meticulously worked out and completely believable. Also, these details are presented in such a natural way that I never felt I was getting an information dump. Truly, this is a well-written book. All the more my disappointment when, about halfway through, the characters become subordinate to the plot. I understand that the machinations must work out, but I missed these characters that I had become so fond of. For example, the first death is wrenching, but after that the others are presented almost casually. I know that is true: the first death is the one you never get over, but I loved these characters and wanted the chance to mourn them.

I understand that there is a sequel: Children of God. I do not know yet if I will read it, even as I reiterate that this first novel from Russell is a remarkable accomplishment.

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