I think The Sparrow is one of the most depressing books I have ever read. Mary Doria Russell puts her characters through things no human being – even a fictional one – should have to endure. On the plus side, this is one of the most depressing novels I have ever read – and any novel that can invoke emotions like this one does, has to be worth reading.
The Sparrow is marketed as a literary novel rather than sf (in the UK at least), and although there is little detail in the way of alien technology and such, it is very much a story of first contact – the outcome of which is foreshadowed in the last sentence of the Prologue: ‘They meant no harm.’
Whether it is a Christian novel depends a lot on your definition; Russell herself, although raised a Catholic, became disillusioned and spent decades in ‘contented atheism’ before converting to Reform Judaism. I wouldn’t define it as a ‘Christian’ novel because God comes across as a vague notion rather than an actual being (possibly based on the author’s own experience of God/church/religion), but it certainly is a story of faith tested to near destruction, and of accepting God’s will through good and bad.
The story is essentially that of Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, who finds himself selected to be a missionary to Alpha Centauri, following the discovery of music being broadcast from somewhere in that system. Sandoz and his small crew go not with the intention of evangelizing whatever lifeforms they may encounter, merely to meet them.
At first, the story seemed to jump wildly from one timeframe to another, and I thought I was going to get horribly confused…. but before long it settled down into two interwoven plot threads – the mission to Rakhat, and the Vatican enquiry after Emilio’s return. (I did also get a little bit thrown by the existence of a character called Edward Behr, but that’s not important right now.)
The mission itself starts off well, but pretty much turns into a catalogue of ‘Things That Might go Wrong on a First Contact Voyage’, ultimately leaving Sandoz alone and at the mercy of an alien culture until the arrival of a rescue mission, which sends him back, on top of all his other troubles, to face the aforementioned enquiry.
The characters are realistically imperfect, the writing is good, and the story is, well, uncomfortable reading a lot of the time, but that is one of the things that sets The Sparrow apart from a lot of sf – the horrors Sandoz is exposed to are not wierd, alien horrors but very human ones, from the physical to the spiritual.
This is a book that really shows what intelligent science fiction can be like.