9 reviews

The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell

Published: 1997-09-08
Paperback : 408 pages
31 members reading this now
49 clubs reading this now
16 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 8 of 9 members
A visionary work that combines speculative fiction with deep philosophical inquiry, The Sparrow tells the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who leads a scientific mission entrusted with a profound task: to make first contact with intelligent ...
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A visionary work that combines speculative fiction with deep philosophical inquiry, The Sparrow tells the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who leads a scientific mission entrusted with a profound task: to make first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. The mission begins in faith, hope, and beauty, but a series of small misunderstandings brings it to a catastrophic end.
Praise for The Sparrow
“A startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction.”The New York Times Book Review
“Important novels leave deep cracks in our beliefs, our prejudices, and our blinders. The Sparrow is one of them.”Entertainment Weekly
“Powerful . . . The Sparrow tackles a difficult subject with grace and intelligence.”San Francisco Chronicle
“Provocative, challenging . . . recalls both Arthur C. Clarke and H. G. Wells, with a dash of Ray Bradbury for good measure.”The Dallas Morning News
“[Mary Doria] Russell shows herself to be a skillful storyteller who subtly and expertly builds suspense.”USA Today

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


From The Author

It was predictable, in hindsight. Everything about the history of the Society of Jesus bespoke deft and efficient action, exploration and research. During what Europeans were pleased to call the Age of Discovery, Jesuit priests were never more than a year or two behind the men who made initial contact with previously unknown peoples; indeed, Jesuits were often the vanguard of exploration. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. How do faith, love, and the role of God in the world drive the plot of this story? One reviewer characterized this book as "a parable about faith--the search for God, in others as well as Out There." Do you agree? If so, why?

2. This story takes place from the years 2019 to 2060. The United States is no longer the predominant world power, having lost two trade wars with Japan, which is now supreme in both space and on Earth. Poverty is rampant. Indentured servitude is once more a common practice, and "future brokers" mine ghettos for promising children to educate in return for a large chunk of their lifetime income. What kinds of changes do you think will occur by the twenty-first century--with governments, technology, society, and so on? Do you think America will lose its predominant status in the world?

3. Do you think it likely that we will make contact with extraterrestrials at some time in the future? What will the implications of such an event be? We've always viewed Earth, and human beings, as the center of the universe. Will that still be the case if we discover alien life forms? How will such a discovery change theology? Does God love us best? Will such a discovery confirm the existence of God or cause us to question his existence at all?

4. If, sometime within the next century, we hear radio signals from a solar system less than a dozen light years away from our own, do you think humankind would mount an expedition to visit that place? Who do you think might lead such an expedition? If you had to send a group of people to a newly discovered planet to contact a totally unknown species, whom would you choose? Is the trip to Rakhat a scientific mission or a religious one?

5. The Sparrow tells a story by interweaving two time periods--after the mission to Rakhat and before. Do you think this makes the story more interesting and easier to follow or more difficult to follow? How does this story differ from other stories you have read?

6. Why do you think Sandoz resists telling the story of what happened on Rakhat?

7. A basic premise of this story is an evaluation of the harm that results from the explorer's inability to assess a culture from the threshold of exploration. Do you see any parallels between the voyage of the eight explorers on the Rakhat mission and the voyages of other explorers from past history--Columbus, Magellan, Cortez, and others--who inaccurately assessed the cultures they discovered?

8. Despite currently popular revisionism, many historians view the early discoverers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries not as imperialists or colonists but as intellectual idealists burning to know what God's plan had hidden from them. Do you agree? Does this story make you reconsider the motives of those early explorers?

9. One of the mainstays of the Star Trek universe is the "prime directive" which mandates the avoidance of interference in alien cultures at all costs. Would the "prime directive" have changed the outcome of events on Rakhat?

10. In an interview, the author said, "I wanted readers to look philosophically at the idea that you can be seduced by the notion that God is leading you and that your actions have his approval." What do you think she means by that? In what way was Emilio Sandoz seduced by this notion?

11. The discoverers of Rakhat seem to be connected by circumstances too odd to be explained by anything but a manifestation of God's will. Do you think it was God's will that led to the discovery of and mission to Rakhat, as Sandoz initially believes? If that's the case, how could God let the terrible aftermath happen?

12. How is Emilio Sandoz's faith tested on Rakhat? One reviewer suggests that in his utter humiliation and in the annihilation of his spirit, Sandoz is reborn in faith. Do you agree? Consider Sandoz's dilemma on page 394. Did God lead the explorers to Rakhat--step by step--or was Sandoz responsible for what happened? If God was responsible for bringing the explorers to Rakhat, does that mean that God is vicious?

13. One reviewer wrote, "It is neither celibacy, faith, exotics goods, nor (as Sandoz bitterly asserts) the introduction of one of humanity's oldest inventions that leads to the crisis between humans and aliens. The humans get into trouble because they fail to understand how Rakhat society controls reproduction. In short, they fail because they fail to put themselves into the aliens' shoes." Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?

14. Is confession good for the soul? Do you think Emilio Sandoz will ultimately recover--both as a man and as a priest--from his ordeal?

15. Why do you think it's so important to Emilio to stand by his vow of celibacy when he so obviously loves Sofia Mendez?

16. The Jesuits saw so many of their fellows martyred all over the world throughout history. Why aren't they more sympathetic in dealing with Sandoz--a man victimized by his faith?

17. What is this story about? Is it a story about coming face-to-face with a sentient race that is so alien as to be incomprehensible, or about putting up a mirror to our own inner selves?

Suggested by Members

How does Emilio's faith change and has it been lost?
What could the team have done to avoid the tragedies that befell them?
Did Emilio's faith in God blind him from realities or did it help him to see things more clearly?
by tellmel (see profile) 12/03/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Inspires Discussion
by tellmel (see profile) 12/03/12
This book is bound to provoke discussion and disagreements about life, love, sex and God -- and not necessarily in that order.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Nancy F. (see profile) 04/15/14

  "The Sparrow"by Stephanie S. (see profile) 08/29/13

This book evoked a lot of lively discussion at our book club meeting. Wonderful writting coupled with thought provoking themes. I would highly recommend!

  "The Sparrow"by Mary G. (see profile) 05/31/13

If you are not a Sci-Fi fan, don't be turned off the synopsis of the book. I avoided reading this book for several years because I usually don't like Sci-Fi. This book has less to do with science... (read more)

  "Marking his fall"by Melanie P. (see profile) 12/03/12

A haunting and tragic tale of the intersection of faith, science and exploration.

  "Strange and Fascinating"by Jill C. (see profile) 02/26/10

A good book for those who don't read sci fi, because there are so many relatable themes. It's odd, but at times a real page-turner. The religious aspect is a bit heavy-handed, but that probably helped... (read more)

  "The Sparrow"by marla g. (see profile) 02/15/10

This book was an easy read with very likeable characters. I thought the writter did a great job developing the characters and was very descriptive of the various settings.

  "The Sparrow"by Tammy H. (see profile) 06/17/09

  "lacking something"by w s. (see profile) 06/13/09

the ending was somewhat unsatisfying

  "Good book to make you think outside the box!"by Jean W. (see profile) 05/30/09

This book will make you think about who else is out there and how we, as a society, would react to such a situation.

  "One of the best books our club has read."by Erika G. (see profile) 05/22/09

Very insightful and interesting book. Really makes you think about our society and how we perceive other societies and other species.

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