Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks

Thoughts on Mary Doria Russell’s novel “The Sparrow”

I just finished reading the 1996 science fiction novel “The Sparrow,” after seeing it recommended on one of the main page’s lists. While it was an excellent book in so many ways, I also found it really frustrating.

The meat of the story is about a mission to an alien planet to establish contact and learn about the people who live there. However, the reader knows from the very beginning that the mission was an unmitigated disaster in which almost everyone dies, so the source of tension is not wondering what will happen, but how and why.


As I drew near the end, I started to get very nervous that I wasn’t going to be satisfied with the conclusion. It got down to the last 20 pages or so of a 400 page book before the long-awaited disaster struck.

To my delight, the main plot question – why did the mission fail – was answered in a way that was very satisfying for me. Essentially, they missed a key aspect of the society that they were observing, something huge that they had a ton of hints about, but it was just too far outside their experience to guess at it. So if the story had just been tightly focused around this anthropological mission, I would unreservedly admire it as an excellently crafted science fiction novel.

However, the book had another layer to it that I was much less satisfied with. The sole survivor of the mission, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, was recovered in terrible physical and emotional condition. His hands had been horrifically mutilated, and his rescuers gave a damning report that he had been working as a prostitute and that he murdered a child in front of them. The accusations seemed…bizarre, considering how the character of Emilio was depicted, so naturally I was drawn into the book out of morbid curiosity for how this could possibly be true.

[SPOILERS] The answer turned out to be: the accusations weren’t actually true in any meaningful sense. Emilio was sold into sexual slavery completely against his will and brutally raped by his captors. Then at some point, he lashed out in self-defense at the first person who entered his dark cell, which turned out to be a child who was leading his rescuers to him.


[Still SPOILERS] As for the “why” of this situation, essentially it was just that Emilio trusted someone he shouldn’t have trusted. Except he had no choice. He had no one else to turn to; he knew no one else on the entire planet. And he really had no strong reasons to suspect this character would do such a thing; even for the reader, that character’s motivations are entirely opaque. [end spoilers]

So…what’s the point of all this? It’s clear that Russell’s primary moral goal was to demonstrate the dangers of believing in a God who actively interferes with human affairs. Emilio believed that God was guiding the mission, that God’s hand was in the numerous coincidences that led to its inception and initial success. And so he overextended himself, believing that God had a plan for them and would take care of them.


The problem, as I see it, is that that moral was adequately expressed by the fact that everyone else died, leaving Emilio alone to contemplate the consequences of his faith. Emilio’s mutilation and degradation just seemed oddly gratuitous. If it hadn’t been telegraphed from the earliest pages of the book, it would have seemed completely outside the tone of the rest of the book. It felt tacked on, just to make everything more edgy and grim.

So I was disappointed. There was so much awesome here – the characters, the worldbuilding, the anthropology, the spiritual themes – and I feel like it was all sort of ruined for me by a weird obsession with degrading the main character for no good reason.

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