Author: Mary Doria Russell
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Date of Publication: September 28, 1997
The Sparrow is this author's first novel and was published in 1996. She has subsequently published a sequel and three more novels. Mary Doria Russell earned a PhD in biological anthropology from the University of Michigan. She was raised as a Roman Catholic and has converted to Judaism. Her science background as well as her religious heritages are readily evident in this novel.
The Sparrow has a fascinating premise. What if an intelligent alien species was found and before earthly governments could respond, a religious order organizes an expedition to meet and greet these celestial neighbors? Ms. Russell uses the Jesuits as that order since they have a long history of missionary work. Francis Xavier, for instance, was the first Christian missionary to travel to China and Japan in the 1500s. A team of scientists and Jesuits is assembled and launched on an asteroid to the planet Rakhat in Alpha Centauri, the closest solar system to our own (4.37 light years away). The mission is a success on some levels but eventually accidents occur, conflicts arise and Father Emilio Sandoz, S.J. is the only survivor who returns.
This is science fiction of the highest order, suffused with a heavy dose of Ignatian spirituality. Ignatius of Loyola was the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jeuits) after an early life as a soldier. A mystical experience during convalescence from an injury lead Ignatius to a life of service to the Pope and to his fellow man. As the author states in the prologue: "The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God's other children. 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."
Father Emilio Sandoz is the main character, but there are many excellent secondary characters as well. One of the many strengths of this novel is the depth of all of the characters. The main purpose of The Sparrow, though, seems to be as a platform to look at difficult theological questions. Early on Sandoz is asked "How do you experience God?" to which he gives a straightforward Jesuit response: "I would have to say that I find God in serving His children." Russell also asks how do humans respond when confronted directly with the presence of God in their lives and what does it mean to find God? How do you reconcile the concept of God with evil that surrounds us as well?
The ending of The Sparrow was unexpected and disturbing. The Sparrow is a challenging read but very well researched and tremendously well written. The inclusion of basically a primer in Ignatian spirituality was unanticipated but appreciated. I'm glad I read this, I'm still thinking about it and I look forward to reading the sequel Children of God.