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Literature / The Sparrow

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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.

20 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:

  • A Date with Rosie Palms: When Jimmy asks Emilio how he deals with not getting any sexual action, he straight-up tells him that masturbation is acceptable.
  • Alien Sky: Rakhat has three suns (Alpha Centauri is a triple star) and two moons.
  • Alien Gender Confusion: An amusing example as Earth explorers make First Contact with the deerlike Runa. Both peoples are going by size; the Earthers think the smaller Runa who do most of the child care are women. Meanwhile, the Runa think the taller Earth people are women.
  • 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 brother-sister 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).
    "Sofia, I am painfully aware of the fact that I am, for all practical purposes, the last man on earth —"
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  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Anne, the team doctor, describing what goes on in an emergency room.
    "In the space of an hour sometimes, you get a crushed chest, a gunshot wound to the head and a kid with a rash."
  • Artistic License – Physics: See also Writers Cannot Do Math below.
    • It would take an incredible amount of energy to accelerate an asteroid to relativistic velocities, even with a highly efficient fuel like antimatter.
    • Shortly after the ship is launched, George notices that the ship time and Earth time are already starting to differ. In reality, relativistic effects don't become apparent until around 50% speed of light, which would take around one year to reach with a constant 1g acceleration.
  • Author Avatar: Anne and George are partly based on Russell and her husband.
  • Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: Fr. Sandoz, repeatedly, after he's been sold to the Reshtar.
  • Big Eater: Jimmy.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The novel is, in a great 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.
  • 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. It's extra salt on the wounds when Sandoz realizes that the poetry and music that brought the humans to Rakhat were about (often violent) sex—and that Sandoz's numerous rapes become the material for the alien poet's new and triumphant works.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Sandoz.
  • Broken Bird: Emilio.
  • Celibate Hero: Sandoz, who is faithful to his vows. All the Jesuit priests on the mission honor their 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 25:1, even if the Runao 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.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Anne has shades of this.
  • 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 between each finger to the wrist, in order to create the illusion that his fingers are supernaturally long and delicate, leaving the muscles and nerves completely pulverized. Apparently Jana'ata anatomy is better designed for this procedure.
    • Even in the case of the Jana'ata, it leaves the hands useless (the Jana'ata just don't risk bleeding out and experience far less pain from the procedure). The uselessness is the point, it's a status symbol for someone of extreme power and wealth... it indicates that the wealthy person can afford a useless dependent.
  • First Contact
  • Foregone Conclusion: You know from the first chapter that the mission to Rakhat ended catastrophically and that 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.
  • From Bad to Worse: Father Alan Pace dies. The Jesuit team gets stranded on the planet. Anne and D.W. are poached and eaten. Jimmy, George, and (supposedly) Sofia are killed. Runa babies are murdered by the Jana'ata. Runa babies are fed to Marc and Emilio. Marc and Emilio are mutilated. Marc dies and Emilio is alone, stranded on an alien planet, all of his loved ones having died because of Emilio's desire to visit Rakhat. And then it gets worse.
  • God-Is-Love Songs: Hoo boy, subverted, in a heartbreakingly complex fashion.
  • Good Shepherd: Sandoz is pretty much the model priest, at least before...things...happen. Most of the Jesuits are also portrayed very sympathetically.
  • 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....
    • The prologue hammers in this point, stating: "They went ad majorem Dei gloria: for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm."
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: When Anne asks what an ionosphere is.
    "Sorry. I've heard the word but I don't know what it is, really. I'm a doctor, Jim, not an astronomer!"
  • 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. In fact, it's that cutie who kills this other 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.
  • Omniglot: Sandoz and Mendes both know quite a few languages.
  • Red Light District: Sandoz is found serving in an alien brothel at the beginning of the book. At least, the Contact Consortium thinks it's a brothel. It's later revealed that Sandoz was a sex slave held in the Reshtar's harem. The Catholic Church's investigating team that questions Sandoz repeatedly insult him by assuming he was a volunteer, but later begin to catch on.
  • Sex Slave: Jana'ata nobles keep both concubines from their own species and from the Runa. Sandoz is sold into sexual slavery by Supaari based on a misunderstanding, and it's heavily implied that this also happened to the second human party who made it to Rakhat and rescued Sandoz, since they abruptly disappeared without a trace and Supaari worries that he inadvertently created a 'market'.
  • Shout-Out:
    • There are a few Star Trek references:
      • Anne first does this when asking how to land on the planet.
      "We could ask Scotty to beam us down."
      • When she later asks what an ionosphere is.
      "Sorry. I've heard the word but I don't know what it is, really. I'm a doctor, Jim, not an astronomer!"
      • When George encounters the natives of Rakhat for the first time.
      "Shit. On Star Trek, everybody spoke English!"
    • After discovering the ET signal, Jimmy says scientists would have expected a series of primes.
    • During his recovery, Emilio admires his new gloves and says that "everyone will be wearing them." Father John, his assistant and confidant, recognizes it as a Princess Bride reference.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Straight Gay: The one member of the exploration team you would least expect. Another is Mistaken for Gay.
  • Survival Mantra:
    • "I am Mendes."
    • Marc's gentle "Deus vult." It makes things worse/more painful.
  • 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.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye:
    • Fr. Alan Pace dies of an unknown medical condition shortly after arriving on Rakhat.
    • This is also a For Want of a Nail. Fr. Pace, the team's musicologist, was British, with some recognition of class structure. He might have picked up on Supaari's marginal status, and realized that his ambitions might endanger the landing party.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: The book alternates between present-day scenes and Sandoz's retelling of the story of the Rakhat mission.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: There seems to be several discrepancies with regards to special relativity.
    • As mentioned in Artistic License – Physics above, relativistic effects won't become apparent until the ship reaches around 0.5 c, which will take over a year with a constant 1g acceleration.
    • After just a short time, the ship is traveling so fast that three days on board corresponds to a whole year on Earth. This would make the trip to Alpha Centauri just a few weeks long to people on board, not months or years.
    • Also relating to the above, a Lorentz factor of 120 corresponds to a velocity of 0.999965 c, which would require an incredible amount of energy. If the ship is decelerated upon reaching the planet, and then accelerated and decelerated again for the return trip, then the energy requirements would be astronomical due to the large delta-''v''.
    • Finally, a ship with a constant 1g acceleration would only reach around 0.95 c by the time it gets to Alpha Centauri, or 0.88 c if it starts decelerating halfway. For 2g acceleration, those values are 0.98 c and 0.95 c, respectively.
  • Zero-G Spot: Anne and George have one suggestion: duct tape.

Alternative Title(s): Children Of God