The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book was a huge surprise for me. A friend had loaned it to me, along with several other books, and I was looking for books to read on my annual go-to-a-cabin-on-the-beach-and-read-and-sleep vacation, so I threw this one into my bag. The premise sounds intriguing - first contact of humans with an alien species, and the team sent to the planet is comprised of 4 Jesuit priests, a doctor, an engineer, an astronomer and an AI specialist. It was the Jesuit priest idea that piqued my interest - and I'm a sucker for "first contact" books, too.
So, I started reading, expecting an interesting, but normal, such story. Imagine my surprise and delight when I got that plus a whole lot more! This is not just a first contact sci-fi story - it's an exploration of God, faith, prayer, predistination and the problem of pain (as CS Lewis deals with in The Problem of Pain) disguised as science fiction.
The story is told in alternating chapters of the present (2059) and the past (several years earlier). We first meet the only surviving member of the team, Emilio Sandoz, who is emotionallly and physically broken. Between chapters of the Jesuits trying to help (and debrief) him, we get chapters introducing the characters and how the first contact happened and how the mission came about. So, you're immediately set to wondering about what happened, and how did Emilio get in such a state? As you read further and further, the feeling of dread really starts hanging over you. This is not necessarily an easy book to read, because of the story and the themes - it's not a "they lived happily ever after" kind of book! But, it has jumped to my list of top 10 books I've ever read!
I was utterly captivated by the book - the style of the writing, the construction of the book, and, of course, the overall theme: if God is a loving God, and we are "doing his will" why do HORRIBLE things happen to us? Did God allow it? Did God send it? Does God not care about the pain? These are questions I have struggled with my whole life. This book doesn't answer any questions, but it certainly presents the problem in a very powerful way. Don't get me wrong - this isn't some boring theological treatise - this is a rip-roaring sci-fi tale, with a VERY interesting and original alien planet, and can be enjoyed just for that. But, I think most readers will also be touched by the theme of the book, and will be left pondering some very heavy ideas...