The Sparrow (novel)

infobox Book |
name = The Sparrow
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = Cover of first edition (hardcover)
author = Mary Doria Russell
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Science fiction novel
publisher = Villard
release_date = 1996
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
pages = 408 pp
isbn = ISBN 0-679-45150-1
preceded_by =
followed_by = Children of God

"The Sparrow" (1996) is the first novel by science fiction author Mary Doria Russell.It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award, Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis and the British Science Fiction Association Award. It was followed by a sequel, "Children of God", in 1998. The title refers to Matthew 10:29-31, which relates that not even a sparrow falls to the earth without God's knowing of it.

Plot summary

The novel begins in the year 2019, when the SETI program, at the Arecibo Observatory, picks up radio broadcasts of music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. The first expedition to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music, is organized by the Jesuit order.

Only one of the crew, Father Emilio Sandoz, survives to return to Earth, and he is damaged physically and psychologically. The story is told in framed flashback, with chapters alternating between the story of the expedition and the story of Sandoz' interrogation by the Jesuit order's inquest, set up in 2059 to find the truth. Sandoz' return has sparked great controversy – not just because the Jesuits sent the mission independent of United Nations oversight, but also because the mission ended disastrously. Contact with the UN mission, which sent Sandoz back to Earth alone in the Jesuit ship, has since been lost.

From the beginning, Sandoz, a talented linguist born in a Puerto Rican slum, had believed the mission to Rakhat was divinely inspired. Several of his close friends and co-workers, people with a variety of unique skills and talents, had seemingly coincidental connections to Arecibo and one of them, a gifted young technician, was the first to hear the transmissions. In Sandoz's mind, only God's will could bring this group of people with the perfect combination of knowledge and experience together at the moment when the alien signal was detected. These were the people who, with three other Jesuit priests, were chosen by the Society of Jesus to travel to the planet, using an interstellar vessel made out of a small asteroid.

Sandoz tells about how the asteroid flew to the planet Rakhat, and how the crew tried to acclimatize themselves to the new world, experimenting with eating local flora and fauna, then making contact with a rural village – a small-scale tribe of vegetarian gatherers, clearly not the singers of the radio broadcasts. Still, welcomed as 'foreigners', they settle among the natives and begin to learn their language and culture, transmitting all their findings via computer uplink to the asteroid-ship now orbiting above the planet. An emergency use of fuel for their landing craft leaves them stranded on the planet.

When they do meet a member of the culture which produced the radio transmissions, he proves to be of a different species from the rural natives. An ambitious merchant, he sees in the visitors a possibility to improve his status, while the crew hopes to find an alternative source of fuel in the merchant's city. Meanwhile, the crew begins to grow their own food, introducing the concept of gardening to the villagers. These seemingly innocent actions and accompanying cultural misunderstandings set into motion the events which lead to the murder of all but Sandoz, and his capture and degradation.

Sandoz returned to Earth, his friends gone and his faith in God shattered. Due to relativistic effects, decades had passed while he had been gone, during which popular outrage at the UN's initial and highly out-of-context report on the mission, and especially Sandoz's role in the tragedy, had left the Society shattered and nearly extinct. As Sandoz painfully explains what really happened, his personal healing can begin, but only time will prove whether the same is true of the Society.

"Children of God", the sequel to this novel, explains many of the reasons behind the seemingly disturbing events. A central theme is the ways in which misunderstandings between well-intentioned people can lead to tragedy. []

"The Sparrow" and "A Case of Conscience"

"The Sparrow" is similar to James Blish's science fiction novel, "A Case of Conscience". It also involves a Jesuit priest confronting an alien civilization.

On her website, Mary Doria Russell addresses this speculation with the following statement:

"I get this question all the time, because Blish's 1958 story is about a Spanish Jesuit in space. If I ever read this story, I guess it didn't make much of an impression on me, because I don't remember it. I still haven't come across it, but people have told me that the protagonist is named Ruiz-Sanchez, so they thought I must have named Emilio Sandoz in homage to Blish. In fact, Emilio got his name from the pharmaceutical manufacturer who made my son's cold medicine. Danny got a cold in 1992 when I started the book, and I noticed the name Sandoz on the medicine label and thought it sounded good. No symbolism or homage beyond that, I'm afraid!" [cite web |url=|title= Frequently Asked Questions|accessdate=2008-05-02 |author= Mary Doria Russell|date=2007-03-10]

John D. Owen also commented on the coincidence:

"Being the generous fair-minded person I am, I'm quite prepared to believe that Ms Russell may merely have been guilty of the same kind of unconscious plagiarism that George Harrison fell into when he accidentally lifted the melody from the chorus of the Chiffons' old hit "He's So Fine" for his own song "My Sweet Lord"." [cite web|url=|title=A Case of Conscience for Mary Doria Russell|last=Owen|first=John D |date=1998|accessdate=2008-05-11]

Literary significance and reception

A reviewer at the Library Journal felt that this book was mistakenly categorized as science fiction, and that it is really "a philosophical novel about the nature of good and evil and what happenswhen a man tries to do the right thing, for the right reasons and ends up causing incalculable harm". [cite journal
last = Pearl
first = Nancy
date = 2001-01-15
title = What Does Your Book Group Read Next?
journal = Library Journal
volume = Vol. 126
issue = Issue 9
pages = 192
issn = 03630277

Commonweal believes that Russell has done her research on the early historic Jesuit missions and on Jesuit spirituality. They feel thatshe is successfully updating the stories of other important Jesuits who have sent men to distant lands or went themselves to foreign culturesto represent Christianity. They say that "Russell subtly raises concerns about the ways in which sophisticated cultures tell themselves cover stories in order to justify actions taken at a terrible cost to others". From the way that Sophia has to buy her freedom from what she describes an institution of intellectual prostitution to the differences between the simple Runa who live in the country side and the Jana'ata, who are the sophisticated city dwellers who created the beautiful music. [cite journal
last = Kane
first = Paul Q.
date = 1997-02-28
title = Jesuits, far out
journal = Commonweal
volume = Vol. 124 , p
issue = Issue 4
pages = 27–28
issn = 00103330

Awards and nominations

The Sparrow has received the following awards:

* The 1996 James Tiptree, Jr. Award [cite web| title = The 1996 James Tiptree, Jr. Award
url =
accessdate = 2008-05-03
* The 1998 Arthur C. Clarke Award [cite web| title = 1998 Winner
url =
accessdate = 2008-05-03
* The 1998 British Science Fiction Association Awards in the Novel category
* The 2001 Kurd Laßwitz Award [cite web| title = The 2001 Kurd Laßwitz Award
url =
language= German
accessdate = 2008-05-03
*1998 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
* The Sparrow and Children of God together won the 2001 Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame. [cite web
title = Gaylactic Spectrum Awards - 2001 Information
url =
accessdate = 2008-04-26

Film, television and theatrical adaptations

In March 2006 it was announced that Warner Bros. had purchased the rights to "The Sparrow" for Brad Pitt's production company, Plan B, and that Pitt himself would be playing the role of Sandoz with screenwriter Michael Seitzman adapting the novel to film. [cite news
last = McClintock
first = Pamela
title = 'Sparrow' in Warners nest
publisher = Variety
date = 2006-03-10
url =
accessdate = 2008-04-26
] [cite journal
author = Kung, Michelle
date = 2006-03-13
title = Briefs...
journal = Publishers Weekly
volume = Vol. 253
issue = Issue 11
pages = 10
issn = 00000019
accessdate = 2008-04-30

Related works

* James Blish's "A Case of Conscience" has also a Jesuit priest confronting an alien civilization.
* In Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Star" a Jesuit scientist finds out a faith-shaking fact about a supernova.
* Progressive/Symphonic rock band [ Metaphor] has produced a concept album/rock opera based on The Sparrow (with the author's permission). The CD was released in September, 2007. [cite press release
title = Metaphor Releases Sci-Fi Rock Opera
publisher = trope audio
url =
accessdate = 2008-04-28

Publication history

* 1996, US, Villard ISBN 978-0679451501, Pub date 9 September 1996, Hardcover
* 1996, US, Brilliance Corp ISBN 978-1561007080, Pub date 1 October 1996, Audio Cassette
* 1997, US, Ballantine Books ISBN 978-0449912553, Pub date 8 September 1997, Paperback
* 1997, UK, Black Swan ISBN 978-0552997775, Pub date 1 November 1997, Paperback
* 2008, US, Brilliance Audio ISBN 978-1423356288, Pub date 4 April 2008, Audio CD

External links

The following links are to detailed reviews with many plot details.
* [ First review of The Sparrow by R.W. Rasband] , Association for Mormon Letters.
* [ Second review of The Sparrow by Rasband] , with Russell's response.
* [ Review of Children of God by Rasband] , with commentary by Russell.
* Infinity Plus [ Interview] with Mary Doria Russell where she discusses The Sparrow.
* Mary Doria Russell personal [ website] .


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