Every once in a while I read something that I didn’t like at all that I want to force other people to read because I found it disturbing, moving or good, even if I didn’t find it enjoyable to read. After all, whether we like something or not has relatively little to do with if a thing is good or bad. This is all to say that I found Mary Doria Russell’s critically acclaimed book The Sparrow to be absolutely heart wrenching and awful in myriad ways, but I still want you to read it.
I’m not selling this, am I? Let me try to intrigue you…
In the year 2019 humanity catches wind of an extraterrestrial strain of music from a planet that we’ll eventually come to know as Rakhat. While the UN argues over how to deal with this musical missive from space the Society of Jesus (a group of Jesuits) secretly plans and executes a mission to Rakhat (they use asteroid-ship called the Stella Maris to get there!).
Annnd things don’t go so well.
The narrative begins during a Vatican inquest into Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, the only survivor of the Society of Jesus’s trip to Rakhat. He is a broken man, physically and spiritually, having undergone a complete crisis of faith on Rakhat, where he and his crew made numerous mistakes in regards to first contact with an unknown society that end in tragedy.
As Sandoz’s story unfolds, we get a grisly reminder about why the Federation in Star Trek has the Prime Directive. The crew of the expedition meets the Runa, a simple and good natured race when they first arrive on Rakhat. They make friendly overtures and are welcomed into the Runa’s culture. It becomes clear early on that the Runa are not the creatures who sent the interstellar musical message, as they seem to have neither the culture not the inclination to create the kinds of music sent to Earth.
The crew makes insanely bad choices, though they intend to help, that lead to significant changes in Runa culture that draw the attention of the Jana’ata. The Jana’ata are the predatory and ruling species on the planet that have co-evolved with the Runa, but that exploit and abuse them regularly. The Jana’ata have a more advanced culture and are described as excessively hedonistic and oftentimes cruel.
When the Jana’ata intervene in the human crew’s involvement with the Runa the real story (in my opinion) begins. Philosophical questions about colonization, interfering with other cultures, spirituality and ultimately the gray areas between the blacks and whites of good and evil. It is clear that Sandoz means to to the right thing, but his (and his crew’s) actions lead to irreparable harm between not only the Jana’ata and the Runa, but also Rakhat and Earth.
I can promise you that there is no shortage of horror in what goes on when the Jana’ata arrive on the scene and it would be easy to view them as the villains of this story. After all, they are a group of predatory oppressors that commit unthinkable atrocities on the Runa and on Sandoz himself when he is captured by them (think Ramsay Bolton level cruelty and be careful if that’s a trigger for you). However, I think there is a subtlety here that we shouldn’t miss.
While the Jana’ata can be truly awful and the Runa are simple and sweet, the truth is that the crew of the Stella Maris are truly at fault. They land on Rakhat with almost no information about the culture they’re entering and begin changing it, with good intentions, but without regard for the consequences. I think this is the reason to read this book, especially in times such as our own.
The Sparrow speculates about what it means to do the right thing without forethought or a wider cultural lens. It considers what it means to impose centuries of corrupt morality on unsuspecting and unguarded cultures we do not understand. This is also a story about what happens when the predator is out-predatored. Christian “missionaries” and “explorers” have wreaked havoc on indigenous cultures throughout history and this story starts off in a way that suggests that this is a glorification of those goals, but quickly devolves into something much more complicated.
The novel is a self-contained conversation about the reality of morality: that it is in the eye of the beholder. And while I was absolutely gutted by the events that take place in the duration of the story, I appreciate the nuance of the dialogue. The book is well written and smart as hell, so even though I didn’t like it, it’s a good (if uncomfortable) read. Fans of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness will likely enjoy the philosophical aspects of The Sparrow.
For those who can get through The Sparrow and want to know more, there is a sequel, Children of God. I haven’t read it, because I’d had just about enough of Sandoz, Rakhat and the Jana’ata by the time I was done with The Sparrow, but you can read it for me. You remember that I told you I didn’t like this book, right? If you read Children of God, report back. I hear it’s about a revolution and we’re about due for one of those up in here.
Allison Carr Waechter is starting to long for fall and autumnal, witchy re-reads.