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Literature: The Sparrow
They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God.

They meant no harm.

The Sparrow is a science fiction novel by Mary Doria Russell.

Twenty Minutes into the Future, a SETI technician is trying to prove that his job shouldn't be automated. He picks up a strange signal from near Alpha Centauri, transfers it to audio, and discovers that he's listening to choral music transmitted over radio waves.

While the United Nations is fussing about the appropriate measures for approaching extra-terrestrial intelligence, the Jesuits scrape together a ragtag missionary team and a STL spacecraft. The team leaves behind everything they know, forms deep bonds, and meets a peaceful and doe-like alien race. Then everything goes horribly wrong.

The story is told by the only survivor of the original team: their linguist, father Emilio Sandoz. He's returned to Earth physically and emotionally shattered. Rakhat is undergoing a massive social upheaval, the UN team that followed the Jesuit team has vanished, and no one on Earth has any idea what happened.

The book is something of a Take That to current historians; it holds that no matter how careful and respectful people are during first contact with a very different culture, misunderstandings are inevitable, and terrible consequences are likely. However, don't assume it's just a Writer on Board tract—the story is beautifully written and heartbreaking.

The sequel Children of God shows the fallout from the original team's ill-fated trip to Rakhat.


Provides Examples Of:

  • Alien Sky: Rakhat has three suns (Alpha Centauri is a triple star) and two moons.
  • Aliens Speaking English: Averted. Learning each others' languages fuels much of the plot and character development.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Though unspoken, Sofia and Emilio have a deep love for each other. Jimmy Quinn's love for Sofia is also unrequited until they get married on Rakhat, largely due to being the only two people who can (i.e., human, unmarried and not a priest).
  • Author Avatar: Anne and George are partly based on Russell and her husband.
  • Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: Fr. Sandoz, repeatedly, when he's sold to the prince.
  • Big Eater: Jimmy.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The novel is, in part, about this trope; it is very easy to assume an understanding of another culture without actually possessing it. Inter-human interactions, on the other hand, tend to be heavily influenced by Gray and Grey Morality.
  • Boldly Coming: As rape.
  • Brains and Bondage: Sandoz is made the concubine of an alien poet and songwriter. This is an honor for the alien. Not so much for Sandoz.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Sandoz.
  • Celibate Hero: Sandoz, who is faithful to his vows. All the Jesuit priests on the mission honor the vows.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: The Runao are conditioned to serve the Jana'ata. In every sense of the word. Including the Twilight Zone sense of the word.
    • After some jarring injustices, one of the humans teaches the Runao the old Earth adage of "We are many, they are few". The Jana'ata that are there to hear this being chanted, understandably, flip out and try to pull a Total Party Kill; their entire civilization hinged on the Runao never making that connection (the Runao outnumber the Jana'ata population something like 10:1 at least, even if they are pacifist herbivores).
    • In the sequel Children of God, the Jana'ata's fears are proven exactly right and they are almost hunted to extinction by the Runao.
  • Culture Clash: The inter-species version.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Sofia Mendes. Which makes her transformation into a Knight Templar by the end of Children of God that much more tragic.
  • Faith Heel Turn: Happens to Sandoz — or does it?
  • Fantastic Religious Weirdness
  • Fingore: The most obvious sign of how Sandoz was affected by the mission is that his hands have been carved into to create the illusion that they're supernaturally long and delicate, leaving the muscles and nerves completely pulverized. Apparently Jana'ata anatomy is better designed for this procedure.
  • First Contact
  • Foregone Conclusion: You know from the first chapter that the mission to Rakhat ended catastrophically and the Sandoz is the only survivor to make it back to Earth. You also know he's destroyed physically and spiritually. The rest of the book is about how that happened.
  • God-Is-Love Songs: Hoo boy, subverted.
  • Good Shepherd: Sandoz is pretty much the model priest, at least before...things...happen. A number of the other Jesuits are also portrayed very sympathetically as well.
  • Happily Married: Anne and George.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Jimmy and Sofia.
    "Sofia and I have a deal," Jimmy told them. "She doesn't say anything about basketball and I never mention miniature golf."
  • I Come in Peace: What the humans wanted to be. Reality, unfortunately, was more complex...
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Or at least a co-sentient species eater. Population control, and all.
  • In Mysterious Ways: One interpretation of the end.
  • Kill the Cutie: By the protagonist, at the beginning of the novel. (Note that this is a different cutie from the one listed above in Break the Cutie. It's that kind of book.)
  • The Mafia: Plays a background role throughout much of the first book, and a more central role in the sequel.
  • Mind Rape: And physical rape. And spiritual rape. Ow.
  • Must Have Caffeine: Coffee is several characters' drink of choice, especially Sofia, who likes "awful damn Turkish mud". They take lots of coffee with them to Rakhat. Coffee beans become a trade item, and then a plot point.
  • Red Light District: Sandoz is found serving in an alien brothel at the beginning of the book.
  • Servant Race: The Runa.
  • Superior Species: The Jana'ata, at least to the Runa. Of course, all this is in flux at the end of the book. Children of God is about how the Runa not only overthrow the Jana'ata, but damn near render them extinct.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: As you might be able to tell from the tropes listed, pretty far on the cynical end. Whether there is any hope at all left at the end is an interesting question left to the reader.
  • Straight Gay: The one member of the exploration team you would least expect. Another is Mistaken for Gay.
  • Survival Mantra: "I am Mendes."
  • Squick: Some of the events that happen towards the end.
  • The Pope: Shows up in Children of God. He is a brilliantly gifted African, Gelasius III. He comes to tell Fr. Sandoz that he got into the priesthood in the first place because of his memories of Sandoz, who as a young priest had lived with and aided his family.
  • Translation Train Wreck: About those songs...
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: The chapters alternate between the original team's mission to Rakhat and Sandoz being interrogated about the aftermath. The sequel Children of God is more like Four Lines, All Waiting as it traces the fallout of the mission and the war it sparked among multiple groups of people.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: The book alternates between present-day scenes and Sandoz's retelling of the story of the Rakhat mission.
  • Zero-G Spot: Anne and George have one suggestion: duct tape.

Priscilla HutchinsArthur C. Clarke AwardCryptonomicon
Space WolfLiterature of the 1990sSpeak
SpaceforceScience Fiction LiteratureSprawl Trilogy

alternative title(s): The Sparrow; Children Of God
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