A few years ago, a friend recommended to me the book The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. Trusting that friend's word, I bought the book -- but then lost track of it when the book ended up in one box, and then another, when we moved to Syracuse and then back to Buffalo. I had forgotten The Sparrow completely until a month ago when the friend reminded me of it. So I set aside space opera for a bit to finally read it, and I was well and truly astonished.
If you know someone who reads "serious" fiction and won't give science fiction a second look, or even a first look, this is a book you can give them.
The Sparrow tells the tale of humanity's first contact with another world. A signal is detected from a planet orbitting Alpha Centauri, a signal that comprises an alien voice singing, and an expedition is mounted by the Jesuit order to go to Alpha Centauri and make contact with the aliens. Years later, Father Emilio Sandoz returns to Earth as the mission's sole survivor, whereupon he is required by a Jesuit board of inquiry to explain what went wrong, despite the fact that he has been both physically and emotionally mutilated and violated.
What went wrong went horribly wrong.
The book is told on two different timelines: chapters set after Sandoz's return alternate with chapters set in the days of the signal's discovery. Thus, the reader is given the knowledge that the mission to Rakhat, the alien planet, is doomed before we ever meet any of the characters who will go there (save Sandoz). This imbues much of the book with a sense of impending doom that only becomes more intense as we get to know Russell's characters, who come alive on the page as few fictional characters do. These people seem real, and frankly, a good part of what keeps the pages turning is the terrible need to learn just how these vibrant people meet their end.
For the first half of the film, the dual-time setting device is a bit distracting, but as the events of the doomed mission gather momentum, it becomes much more effective. This is almost exclusively because of Russell's ability to make us care about her characters, and when their demises start to come, they are still somehow surprising.
I won't spoil the denouement of the book, aside to note that the mission fails not for simplistic reasons of good conflicting with evil, but because good people who intend nothing more than good things fail to note several things about the culture they are meeting. The book is a giant tragedy of unintended consequences.
Of particular interest is the book's spiritual dimension. Many of the characters are Jesuits, and Emilio Sandoz is presented as the most complex of these. His is not an easy faith; he constantly has to work at it, and his faith is nearly destroyed by what happens to him on Rakhat. Russell takes a fairly unflinching look at the nature of religious faith, and it is to her credit that this look reveals neither an overall positive view, nor an excessively negative one. By necessity, the book provides few answers -- as, we suspect, it must.
I found The Sparrow quite a brilliant novel.