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Publisher's Summary

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.

©2008 Mary Doria Russell (P)2008 Brilliance Audio

Critic Reviews

“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)

What listeners say about The Sparrow

Average Customer Ratings
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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Superbly Written and Thought-provoking

I've read and/or listened to this novel 3 times and I like it more each time. It's a thoughtful, engrossing first contact story with theological, moral and science fiction themes. The Sparrow tells the tale of a Jesuit mission to an alien world and, more specifically, the story of Father Emilio Sandoz, the lone survivor of that mission. His experience is life-changing, to say the least.

Russell writes interesting, highly plausible characters and she not only explores the theological implications of the book's events, she also creates a memorable alien culture.

David Colacci's reading is quite good. He starts a little uncertainly but quickly gains his footing, giving voice to the various characters without ever taking accents and dialects to distracting extremes.

I can't recommend The Sparrow highly enough but be warned: if you're the type of science fiction fan who wants action-packed space opera, this isn't the book for you. It's a book about people and ideas, not an action/ adventure story.

83 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

A complex exploration of hope challenged

On the face of it, the Sparrow is a novel about humanity's first contact with an alien race, a disastrous expedition to Alpha Centauri that leaves only one survivor, a Jesuit priest named Father Emilio Sandoz. Underneath, though, Mary Doria Russell creates a nuanced, multi-layered novel that poses some serious questions about the nature of faith and morality.

The story builds suspense by cutting back and forth between the Church’s interviews of the spiritually and physically broken priest, who initially refuses to talk, and the events of the past, proceeding from the time when the aliens are first discovered (and the Church recognizes an opportunity for itself). We know that things are destined to go wrong, but not exactly how, except for a few pieces of foreshadowing. Does the tragedy of the mission hinge on one mistake -- or many?

Russell takes her time setting up the story, which might try the patience of some readers, but illuminates the minds of a small, tight-knit group of well-constructed characters. We see the initial sense of scientific and spiritual mission, the optimism of the interstellar travelers as they near their destination, the months of exploration of the edenic planet Rakhat and the first encounters with the childlike Runa. However, as the story unfolds, we begin to see the outlines of a significant difference between the humans and the aliens that neither side manages to perceive fully, each with its own innate view of how life is meant to function. I found the conception of an alien species’ alternate biology and culture reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s works.

Religious themes often feature in First Contact novels, because, of course, the very presence of other intelligent beings would raise important questions about the “design” of the universe. Could we get a new glimpse of the Ultimate Creative Force by meeting fellow travelers? Or is there a hubris in hoping? What commonalities should be embraced? What differences accepted? In The Sparrow, these issues are central, though you don’t need to be Catholic or even religious at all to relate to them. The priests here may belong to an old tradition, but theirs is one that embraces science and rationality, seeking God somewhere in the DNA of the universe rather than in supernatural encounters. Indeed, conversations between Father Sandoz and a strong-willed agnostic character named Ann show that the boundaries between belief and lack of it aren’t easy to define.

At the heart of the book, though, is the question of shattered faith. What happens when what we hope for fails us, and the universe cruelly turns on us, as it does for Father Sandoz? Do we let go of the piece of wreckage we’re clinging to and allow ourselves to silently sink below the cold waves? Or do we reach for the helping hand that others offer us, even though it forces us to face the pain and weakness we carry? Russell, admirably, doesn’t offer an easy out for either Father Sandoz or her readers.

A few things hold me back from a five star review, however. First of all, there are a lot of plausibility issues, the main one being that a visit to another inhabited planet would never unfold with so little planning or caution (I mean, think about the bacteria). Secondly, though I liked the characters, their quirks and banter get a little too precious at times.

Overall, though, I think The Sparrow is well worth a read for anyone who appreciates science fiction that isn’t about blazing guns or astrobabble, but tells a contemplative story focused on age-old human questions.

62 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Brilliant First Contact Story

"Like many tales of disaster, this one is a series of reasonable decisions."

When Star Trek does first contact, it always seems to go reasonably well. Despite language barriers, cultural barriers, and physical barriers, communication and understanding are generally achieved.

In this story, all the ingredients for successful first contact seem to be in place: we understand the language, we have cultural elements in common, and both cultures desperately want to communicate. So, what went so horribly wrong?

This is a story told out of time. Be patient. You must walk a mile in these people's shoes in order to truly understand. Oh, and you MUST get the sequel (Children of God) to get to the whole story. It will be well worth the time.

When people who don't generally read science fiction ask me for a "literary" science fiction book, this is where I send them. The writing is intense. The characters are beautifully drawn and deep. The issues examined will haunt you. I wish it wasn't in the Sci-Fi genre because then more people would know this amazing work.

I am SO happy to see this available on Audible. For the usual reasons releated to copywrite, this brilliant tale has been on and off the Audible menu. This is an older work, so the audio quality is not up to more modern standards. But the performance is amazing. And it's here now, so I strongly suggest you get this and "Children of God" right away before they vanish again.

58 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Well-deserved award-winner

Stephen, in a review, writes, "6.0 stars. This book was beautifully written and the best way I can think to describe it is emotionally devastating (but in a good way). Nominally, it is a book about "first contact" with an alien race but the heart of the story is the age old question, "How can someone believe in a just, loving God when such horrible things happen to good people?"

Great summary, Stephen, thank you. Emotionally devastating? To be sure. But in a good way? Not on your life. I'll tell you, brother, this book took its toll on me.

Beginning to read this book and knowing from the publisher summary that only Emilio Sandoz was going to return from the mission created a real tension for me that only tightened as the book went on. It was impossible not to get attached all of the members of the crew. A crew that one cannot help but like even more as the story unfolds. Surprisingly, there is not an asshole among them. Each in their own way, I grew fond of of them all. The author fully develops and brings nearly every character to life brilliantly.

There is not a lot of excitement from the beginning and thru most of the book. But somehow, the suspense builds. Again, much of this time is spent in wonderfully developing the characters. Characters all of whom will come to some horrible end. And horror is the only way to describe it. Horror especially for Emilio:

"Emilio, what happened to you out there? What changed everything?"
"Don't ask me, Vince," Sandoz said bitterly, "Ask God."

And that is the quintessential one of many such questions about God.

“God would not have brought us this far to let us down now.”

Oh Father Sandoz, you poor SOB. You have no idea. And we the reader have no idea either. We do not know exactly what that ordeal was till nearly the last chapter of the story. Did I mention there was a certain tension that builds throughout? All the way to the bitter and I mean bitter end. Emilio says earlier in the book that his entire life would be viewed as before and after that event.

While God is central to the theme of the book, that should not dissuade anyone from reading this masterpiece if a god or notion about one is not central to your thinking or beliefs. This is a book much more about spirituality and a lot less about christianity or dogma. The book is about morality but not the in-your-face kind. At first, because of an Inquisition-like atmosphere that Emilio finds himself in back on Earth, we think the book might be about Fr/Dr Sandoz's morality. But Sandoz challenges us all to judge neither him nor even his tormentors: “There are no beggars on Rakhat. There is no unemployment. There is no overcrowding. No starvation. No environmental degradation. There is no genetic disease. The elderly do not suffer decline. Those with terminal illness do not linger. They pay a terrible price for this system, but we too pay...and the coin we use is the suffering of children. How many kids starved to death this afternoon, while we sat here? Just because their corpses aren’t eaten doesn’t make our species any more moral!”

It took me 15 years to pick this book up but only one day to read it. The thought of a book about a clutch of Jesuit priests on a mission to Alpha Centauri did not exactly grab me. But, once it did, I could not put it down. It was wonderful from beginning to end. Most would probably agree the book is not for youngsters. But for me, this was some of the best, non-linear storytelling, ever penned. Was the book believable? Not really. But then neither are fairy-tales and that does not in the least diminish my enjoyment of them.

49 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Far fetched book but good summer listen.

Let me start by saying I loved this book. I could not stop listening to it. My husband on the other hand hated this story (not a sci-fi fan)
You will enjoy this book if you like sci-fi and the posibilities of encountering other life forms. This story will make you think about God, if we are alone in the univserse and how we would react if we encounterd others forms of life.
A fun summer read that will make you think about the world and universe around you.

24 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Instantly one of my all-time favorites

Any additional comments?

Can't express fully how much I loved this book. It sounds like one that I'd maybe avoid: A sci-fi novel about a group of Jesuit priests and their secular colleagues who travel to a distant planet from which radio songs have been detected in order to spread the gospel and/or visit God's other children. But it starts from the end, when the sole survivor returns to Earth near death and is implicated in debauchery and the murder of a child. The revelation at the end of what's really happening on the planet is profound and deserves long contemplation. Plus the writing itself is stunning, both beautiful and smart.

The narration was perfect.

Bechdel test: Unsure.

20 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

just amazing

I've listened to a lot of audiobooks, but this transcends classifications. Not just a sci-fi story, but a deeply moving look into a man's soul. The characters are multilayered individuals and the problems they incur meeting an alien race are very realistic and much more believeable than in any sci fi novels I've ever read. It makes sense that the auther is a sociologist.And the narrator is absolutely perfect in every way, move over Scott Brick, there's a new King of audiobooks!

19 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Bland characters and contrived drama

The author's decision to focus a science fiction novel on the main character Sandoz' crisis of faith and crisis of guilt is ambitious and interesting, but the accidental event that catalyzes these crises falls short. It comes across as an awkward act of a cornered author, not an act of God or a sin of Sandoz'. This event also leads to a great deal of drama of Sandoz being accused of heinous crimes, but this seems quite contrived when we see that he could just clear up the matter with a few sentences.

There are other examples of the author sacrificing plausibility and character integrity for the sake of drama. For instance, the novel flashes between 2019, when Sandoz and crew visit the planet Rakhat, and 2059, when Sandoz is recuperating and telling his tale to the Jesuit bigwigs. This frame structure is just there to create suspense--we know that something horrible has happened but Sandoz won't tell the Jesuits (or us) why. But since Sandoz' reticence doesn't fit with his character and the events, the entire frame structure comes across as a suspense tactic.

Finally, the novel's pacing is odd, and not ideal for an audiobook. Most of the book is plodding, a cast of sanitized characters bantering blandly and thinking admiring thoughts of one another. Then the last quarter of the book is very rushed, with the events almost entirely told and not shown, as though the author were under deadline pressure.

17 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Good Story - Odd Audio Quality

My star rating reflects the audio quality - not story quality.

Actually, Im not quite done with this book, an hour/thirty listening time left. Im finding the story to be good, I like the characters, and it keeps my interest. Until about 3 hours ago, the narrator kept a nice pace, and I was comfortable with the listening experience.

Then, all of a sudden, it felt as though the recording was sped up fractionally. The pace is now a bit rushed, and, although it doesnt sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks, the narrator has begun to grate on me. Perhaps they were trying to meet a time-length goal, but the result has really damaged my ability to take in the story without being annoyed.

I definitely would recommend this book as sci-fi-lite. I found that the character-based storyline was a nice change from my preferred sci-fi genres, where the main goal is world-building and techno-expose. This was a nice leisurely exploration of alien encounters, but READ the book in hard copy, and skip this download.

16 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • S
  • 12-28-09

Not for me, maybe for you

I didn't really enjoy this book but could easily see how others would really like it and get a lot out of it. If you are looking for a book that explores the Catholic Church from a very critical but loving point of view thru hard sci-fi this book may be for you. But if you don't really care to deeply and critically spend a whole book exploring the depth of the Catholic Church and the way it interacts with the world and itself then skip it.

15 people found this helpful

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  • David
  • 03-20-22

Excellent

Very well written and thought provoking novel. Shocking, funny, challenging, spiritual, exciting and beautiful all at the same time. I'd highly recommend this to any person who is prepared to be challenged about what an alternative first encounter could be like.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • M. Woods
  • 02-11-22

Original idea and a good read

I really enjoyed this book - catholic priests in space ha ha - brilliant. Some really good ideas and a great yarn.

1 person found this helpful