The sparrow

The sparrow / Maria Doria Russell. First published 1996.

This one’s something of a go-to

The sparrow is a multi-award winning philsophical “first contact” novel. If Tor is any indication, it’s fairly controversial in the sf community and I’ve even seen it called “torture porn”. It’s also one of those books whose sf status is the subject of some dispute. Nancy Pearl (the basis for the librarian action figure, among other things) claimed in a 2001 Library journal article that it was mistakenly classed as sf, saying it should be classed with general literature because of its philosophical content.


There’s a lot of crossover appeal here, and I recommend it constantly to non-sf fans, but being a “philosophical novel” does not disqualify something from being sf. If that was the case then everything Le Guin has ever written and most of Philip K. Dick’s work would not be sf. I can see putting it with fiction because of the crossover appeal, but claiming that it’s not sf goes a little too far. It was in the general fiction section at the library where I worked when I read it.

Plot summary

(the end of the novel is revealed in the first chapter. The plot is not so much an examination of “what” happened but of “why and how” did this happen)

In 2019 humans find the first proof of extraterrestrial civilization in the form of a musical broadcast. While the UN debates about how to deal with this, the Jesuits send an expedition to the world led by linguist and priest Emilio Sandoz.

Sandoz is the only survivor, and returns broken in spirit and physically maimed.

The novel alternates chapters between the investigation of the aftermath of the expedition and the story of the expedition itself.

So how is it?

The sparrow is an engaging read that raises lots of interesting questions about the nature of religion, intercultural communication, morality, the problem of evil, and good intentions. The central message of the sparrow is that right intention and right action are not enough to avert tragedy and atrocity.* It is not a happy book, but it is a good book.

Confronting the “torture porn” accusation first, yes, Sandoz is subjected to some pretty horrifying treatment. I struggle to call it torture porn because that treatment isn’t portrayed in an explicit or, and I can’t believe I’m actually going to use this word, prurient manner. It’s a book that deals, repeatedly, with the idea that good intentions aren’t enough, and can frequently lead to bad results or atrocities.

Russell has a PhD in anthropology (all the best sf is anthropological sf) and paints a convincingly different picture of an alien culture. Cultural misunderstandings that initially go unnoticed due to internalized assumptions about the way social interactions function are a major issue in the book, and Russell examines them very effectively.

It’s easy to read The sparrow as a religious book, and I’ve seen it classed with religious fiction, but it’s not necessary to do so. Yes, there’s discussion about the will of G-d and all that, but the underlying issues in the book are more generally moral rather than specifically religious. The person who first recommended it to me was definitely nonreligious, and as its appeal extends beyond sf fandom so does its appeal extend beyond members of the Catholic church. I’d hate to call The sparrow an “important book” but it is certainly a significant, thought-provoking one.

*Yes, I’m using Buddhist language to describe the moral message of a book about a Catholic priest. Russell is Jewish so there’s already an interesting religious fusion going on, and these concepts are practically foundational in Buddhism.


As I’ve said repeatedly, The sparrow is my go-to book recommendation for virtually any adult. When I was at a public library I saw more or less constant disparagement of sf and fantasy (and fiction in general, actually)* which made it more difficult for me to find book recommendations for people who asked, since that’s primarily what I read. The sparrow was the perfect solution to this issue, I’ve recommended it many times. Some people have loved it, some haven’t, but nobody has told me it was a bad recommendation. Those who disliked it have generally said that they were still glad that they read it.

Based on what I’ve encountered, The sparrow does seem to be more popular outside the sf community than within it. That’s unfortunate, because it is an interesting book and certainly worth the time.

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