Fiction — print. Villard, 1996. 408 pgs. Library copy.
Within the final two pages of the novel, Russell finally informs the reader as to the source of the title for her novel (quoted below) offering up the closing thought on religion in this science fiction novel. I stated in my thoughts on the first half of the novel that Russell is “in no way is Russell preachy or suggestive about how religion should play a role in the life of her readers” making it clear how and why religion does, or does not, work for each of her characters.
While overall I still think this to be true, there is something about the manner in which the novel ends that struck me as contrary to this previous assessment and left me slightly unsettled. I’ll save spoilers on the ending for discussion on Trish’s readalong wrap-up post, but I will say the internalized judgment on the part of Emilio follows an aspect of religion I, personally, reject and I am still unclear as to what Russell was trying to say on the topic.
“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. “No one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father know it.’ ‘But the sparrow still falls,’ Felipe said.” (pg. 401)
That said, I greatly enjoyed the ethical and, yes, spiritual journey provided by this book. It was a more challenging read than I anticipated it being – even after I reached the halfway point – but Russell’s beautiful writing and the ease of her transitions from the past (the year 2019) and the present (2059-2060) made it stylistically an easy one to follow.
“Do you think so, John? Was it your God?’ he asked with terrifying gentleness. ‘You see, that is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances,’ he continued with academic exactitude, each word etched on the air with acid, ‘is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of heating God.” (pg. 394)
The greatest mystery at the end of the first half of the novel was what exactly happened to Emilio, Anne, George, Jimmy, Sofia, Alan, and D.W. that would leave Emilio the only survivor from the journey to the planet. To be honest, I expected there to be more, for lack of a better word, Hollywood-esque explanations for each character’s fate but this is not that kind of book and I found myself loving it more because of that fact. (Hollywood optioned the rights for the film in 2006 but, apparently, Russell revoked them “believing that Hollywood cannot and will not make a film version of The Sparrow that is faithful to the book”. A sentiment I agree with. There is talk of making the book into a series on AMC, though.)
In the midst of the second half, however, the larger mystery becomes the structure of the society these explorers find on the planet. The Runa, a small-scale tribe of vegetarian gatherers, are the first to interact with the group, and they are the ones to set up the flow of communication by assigning the child, Askama, to learn English and teach Emilio the Runa’s language. The group is eventually introduced to the Jana’ata, another species on the planet that is similar to the Runa appearance-wise but are also more similar to the human visitors (i.e. they eat meat, live in cities, are “higher” intellectuals than the Runa, produce the music that first alerted alerted Earth to Rakhat’s existence in the universe) through the merchant Supaari VaGayjur.
The group’s growing friendship with Supaari and their attempt to introduce the Runa to agriculture sets of a chain of events that kept me turning the pages in fascination and surprise. Answers are teased out slowly, but the sheer wealth of details and the questions raised by the characters during the present time within the novel makes the rather slow pace worthwhile. No doubt, I missed more than a few details in her technical descriptions of the science behind the inter-stellar space journey and the planet of Rakhat. I can see why people reread this book again and again.
Will I read the sequel? I am still undecided, although I have added it to my to-read list for the time being. The ending left me unsettled enough that I’m curious, but I also doubt that I will get the answers I am hoping for given the interview with Russell I found tucked into my library copy of the novel. She sums up the sequel as “Emilio Sandoz goes back to Rakhat, but only because he has no choice. God is not done with him yet” and says the moral of The Sparrow is “even if you do the best you can, you still get screwed”. Hasn’t Emilio been through enough?
The interview also summarizes the novel as “a parable about faith – the search for God, in others as well as Out There”. Such description is one I whole-heartedly agree with. A beautifully written book filled with questions that challenged me, that made my enjoyment of this science fiction tale.