Yep. 3. Tres. What can I say, I’m going for last place. Fyrehaar may beat me to it., damn them.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is told in two alternating halves, both of them centered on Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit missionary. One half details Sandoz’s experiences back on Earth following a scientific exploration mission to an alien planet with a diverse team of scientists and other missionaries. The other half details how the space exploration mission came about, beginning with how the different team members came to know each other, how the alien planet was discovered, how the mission was put together, and what happened when the team arrived on the planet. If it was a movie, the scenes following the mission would be very dark and gloomy, probably with an overall blue hue to the film, with very somber dialogue and scenes of human despair; the other half would be very bright and colorful, with quick and witty dialogue, beautiful locations and people, and the overall tone would be one of exploration, adventure, and awe. Eventually, the two halves would meet, on the alien planet, as Sandoz retells the fateful events that occurred towards the end of the mission. The scenes prior to Sandoz’s return to Earth would take a dark turn, almost (almost) horror movie-style, while the scenes after his return would see the main character gain some clarity and peace. I see Alfred Molina in the starring role, but I guess those higher up see things differently. The tagline and plot synopsis would reference the overall themes of the book, which are religious faith clashing or coexisting with scientific discovery, the meaning of fate, and the difficulties of First Contact.
Without giving plot points away, I think that describes the overall feeling and story of the book.
At the center of it, the book is really about religious and philosophical inquiry set in the science fiction trope of meeting an alien race for the first time. Several of the characters in the book struggle with their faith when confronted with extreme adversity, asking themselves the typical question of why do bad things happen to good people, how can a path of fate or divine intervention lead to suffering, how can God allow bad things to happen. While I’m not an overly religious person, or a creationist, my own personal faith allows the possibility that something initiated that first super spark that put us here, that there are dusty blueprints sitting in some long-forgotten past. However, I don’t really think of God as sitting in a control room, watching over football games, deciding what babies are born alive or stillborn, watching people get married, and jotting down the names of murderers, thieves, and adulterers in a little black book. I think bad things happen to good people because shit happens, life is a crap shoot and often unfair, it is what we make of it, but it is also the random hand we are dealt. While the theological discussion in the book is interesting and well presented, it was not personally compelling and, because of that, I did feel like it slogged down the pace of the book. This is probably the complete opposite of what Russell was going for.
Much more interesting to me was the science fiction storyline that brings together a ragtag group of people as they make an amazing discovery, how they are able to explore the vast reaches of space, and what they find when they get there (though this is by no means completely new territory). I’m fascinated by science fiction stories of First Contact, even though I bet any First Contact with alien intelligent life would lead to violent confrontations and laser blasts in the face. Although the mystery of what happened to the science team on the alien planet kept me somewhat hooked, it’s not really that important (you know something happened right off the bat, you just don’t know how bad it got).
Overall, it was an interesting read, but not as important to me as it might be to someone else.