The Sparrow was just, well, it was just one of those books. One where it isn't a commentary on whether it is good or bad, but one where I found I could only read a small bit of it each day. It got down to a chapter a day after I had a mostly sleepless night worrying about what was going to happen. I wanted to plow through and find out, but I also wasn't willing to let myself get as engrossed as I could have been, if that was going to be the outcome.
Part of the problem is that Russell does far too good of a job at creating tension, at letting us know the horrific end of the story without context, letting us make our own judgements, just as some of the characters do, without knowing the whole story. I imagine part of the shock people had at the end comes from how they, like the Jesuits questioning him, interpreted the sparse known facts about Sandoz and his actions.
One of the only things I knew about this book before I sat down with it was that it was science fiction about Catholicism, and that peaked my interest right away. One of the many ideas I'm developing for a science fiction/fantasy directed reading group is a set of books about either religion and science fiction, or if I can find enough, specifically about Catholicism and science fiction, so I was more than eager to sit down to read this.
And now I'd be happy to include this book in that grouping, difficulty and all. Russell has written sensitively and interestingly about assumptions, religious and non-religious, and the proportionate and disproportionate results of misunderstanding.
Earth has picked up recordings of music bouncing off the moon of a nearby (in astronomical terms) planet, and as a Jesuit priest was present at the discovery, they become interested in quietly launching a mission (made up of about half Jesuit priests and half laypeople) to meet those who transmitted it. Sandoz, the lone survivor, is found there many years later, in circumstances that provoke outrage and blame without full understanding. He returns to Earth broken, faith twisted, body betrayed, to face more or less an inquisition.
And yet, there are such moments of joy and humanism here amongst the assumptions, and at their core, all the Jesuits do want to understand, even when they thought they had already understood. Jumping backwards and forwards, we know the expedition goes horribly awry, but no real idea why or how. We meet the other members of the expedition, most of whom come to vivid life, and are the types of characters it is easy to love.
We see them arrive, meet some of the inhabitants of the planet, and see as they stumble towards understanding a vastly alien culture, unable to entirely notice all their own underlying assumptions. Knowing what will happen, but no idea how to get there, gives everything an underlying horror, as you wonder what if what is happening at any given moment was the precipitating factor, or whether it is truly innocuous.
Russell is exploring faith and the idea of being guided in complex and devastating ways. Different kinds of religion and relationships to the Divine are under the microscope, tested to the fullest as they try to incorporate the alien.
Still, I couldn't read large chunks at a sitting. That's a testament to this book's power, not a complaint.