The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Space traveling Jesuits? Sure, why not? The book was published in 1996, and is very highly reviewed. It won a few awards and is a reading group favorite apparently. There are slight spoilers below so if you plan to read this book, you may want to stop reading this.
Why I read this book? A local reading group started at the library and this book was on their list for February. I planned to join the reading group so I had to read the book. I also might have believed I was an alien from Mars for a few years as a child. If those weren’t good enough reasons to read it, the Mars One project has been in the news a lot lately and I have always been fascinated by all things space.
What I liked: The characters were extremely well developed. The only human character that seemed to flat to me was Johannes Voelker. The two timelines were easy to follow and I enjoyed getting to see the “flashbacks” in relation to what was going on in the “current” time line. In reading the reviews and reader’s questions, I found a lot of emphases was placed on the religious aspects of the book. In reading the actual story, I didn’t think the religious aspects were played up any more than necessary to characterize a group of predominately Jesuits on a space mission. What I did find fascinating was the ruthlessness Supaari displayed toward the end of the book to get permission for the basic (human) rights to a family and children. This aspect of how humanistic the “alien” was isn’t really called out in the reader/discussion questions.
What I didn’t like: While I think Russell handled characterizing the Rakhat natives well through the context of how absolutely wrong humans can be, overall the alien races seemed meshed together in two blobs. The only stands outs were Askama, a child, and Suparri. I also thought the deaths of the other crew members with Sandoz were rushed. The reader knows up front that Sandoz is the sole survivor and just barely. Once on Rakhat, one crew member becomes ill and dies and later on another crew member becomes very ill, but survives. Toward the last couple of chapters we find out a poacher takes out a few crew members and the rest are wiped out in a riot. They were on Rakhat for several years and I would have liked to see them die off slowly instead of whittling it down to Sandoz in a few pages toward the end.