The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
The Sparrow is an interesting book. I’ve been describing it to my friends as “Jesuits in space”, which, while accurate, implies far more levity to the subject matter than in the writing. The premise is that in the near future we discover intelligent life only four light years away and the Jesuits immediately send a missionary/scientific expedition to their home planet. I have to say, I love this idea. It seems perfectly plausible to me that a well-funded religious group would be the first to reach out to our celestial neighbors.
Russell’s portrayal of the Jesuit priests and infrastructure seems fairly nuanced. I am not a Jesuit, so I do not know how accurate it is. This is important to note. The only thing I found out about Russell’s religious beliefs is that she is a convert to Judaism. This only has bearing in that I hope she did her homework. At the very least, the priests were well actualized characters and believable. I found that the characters overall did tend slightly on the Mary Sue-ish side, but they had just enough flaws to compensate.
Aliens can be a tricky thing to create. I thought the attention to their physiology was good. Russell took into account the ramifications of a tri-star system on the flora and fauna of a planet. The similarities and the differences were both pointed out and made sense within the story. As to sentient life, Russell’s aliens were very reminiscent of the Eloi and the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. She certainly made a far more complex relationship, but the precedent of Wells work meant that I accurately predicted where the overall dynamic was headed a full 150 pages before it was revealed.
Speaking of plot twists, reveals, etc, I wouldn’t read this if I were squeamish at all. There is some rather graphic violence in spots and it is not pretty. I’m not a particularly queasy reader but I had a hard time with a couple of passages. Overall, I enjoyed this work quite a lot and would recommend it (with the above warning in effect).