Jesuits … In … Spaaaaaaaaaaace!!! That’s the basic plot of the science fiction novel The Sparrow (1996) by Mary Doria Russell.
The novel proposes a future in which the exploration of new worlds, much like the age of discovery in the 1500’s & 1600’s, is led by a vanguard of missionaries. While this is a work of science fiction set in the future, it reads like a historical novel, perhaps because its story reads of historical experience such as that portrayed in The Mission.
The prologue of the novel sets the tone perfectly:
The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God
They meant no harm. – p. 3
The chapters alternate between those set after the mission and those during the preparation for and the time spent on Rakhat. In one set of chapters the experience of the only survivor of the mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, his hands maimed, his psyche destroyed, and his faith lost must face intense scrutiny from the media and his fellow Jesuits. These alternate with Sandoz and his friends and colleagues discovering signals from a distant planet of singers, and his efforts to form a team to travel to Rakhat to meet and live among these people. The joy of collegiality of the earlier chapters contrasts starkly with the hollow shell of a man that Sandoz is presented as upon his return to Earth. Yet as the book proceeds, the stories come together. As things go to hell in a handbasket on Rakhat, Sandoz is able to come to terms with the horrors he faced.
This novel works well due to its competently executed and complex characters. There’s Sandoz, from a background of poverty in Puerto Rico who grows up to become a priest and a talented linguist. Sofia, a determined, reserved woman of Sephardic heritage who serves as computer specialist and general contractor. Jimmy Quinn, the large, affable but shy astronomer who discovered the singers. Finally, Anne and George Edwards, a doctor and an engineer who though atheists are devoted friends of Emilio’s and share with him sardonic wit. Even the beings of Rakhat are given unique perspective and backgrounds, and presented realistically as sentient beings who happen to be predators and prey.
“The poor you will always have wit you,” Jesus said. A warning, Emilio wondered, or an indictment. – p. 53
Once, long ago, she’d allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God’s presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdom, was instructive either as myth or as history, she decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before… – p. 100
“Sailing is the perfect antidote for age, Reyes. Everything you do on a sailboat is done slowly and thoughtfully. Most of the time, an old body is entirely capable of doing whatever needs to be done while you’re cruising. And if the sea is determined to teach you a lesson, well, a young back is no more capable than an old one of resisting an ocean, so experience counts more than ever.” – p. 203