The Sparrow (novel)

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The Sparrow
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
AuthorMary Doria Russell
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction, Philosophical, Mystery fiction
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages408 pp
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3568.U76678 S63 1996
Followed byChildren of God 

The Sparrow (1996) is the first novel by author Mary Doria Russell. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree Jr. Award, Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis and the British Science Fiction Association Award. It was followed by a sequel, Children of God, in 1998. The title refers to Gospel of Matthew 10:29–31, which relates that not even a sparrow falls to the earth without God's knowledge thereof.


In the year 2019, the SETI program at Arecibo Observatory discovers radio broadcasts of music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. The first expedition to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music, is organized by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), known for its missionary, linguistic and scientific activities since the time of its founder, Ignatius of Loyola. In the year 2060, only one of the crew, the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, survives to return to Earth, and he is damaged physically and psychologically. The story is told with parallel plot lines, interspersing the journey of Sandoz and his friends to Rakhat with Sandoz's experiences upon his return to Earth.

Father Sandoz is a talented Puerto Rican linguist. He is described as of mixed Taíno and Conquistador heritage and character. Sandoz grew up in La Perla, a poor neighborhood in San Juan. He joined the Jesuits as a teenager. After several stints at Jesuit missionaries around the world, he returns to Puerto Rico. Several of his close friends and co-workers, people with a variety of unique skills and talents, have seemingly coincidental connections to Arecibo. One of them, a gifted young technician, was the first to hear the transmissions; another, Sofia Mendes, a Turkish Jewish artificial intelligence specialist, has the connections and aptitude to obtain a spacecraft and help pilot the mission. Sandoz, who has often struggled with his faith, becomes convinced that only God's will could bring this group of people with the perfect combination of knowledge and experience together at the moment when the alien signal was detected. Sandoz and his friends, along with three other Jesuit priests, are chosen by the Society of Jesus to travel in secret to the planet, using an interstellar vessel made with a small asteroid.

Upon reaching Rakhat, the crew tries to acclimatize themselves to the new world, experimenting with eating local flora and fauna, then making contact with a rural village, inhabited by a peaceful tribe of herbivore gatherers, the Runa. Though the Runa are clearly not the singers of the radio broadcasts, the Earthlings settle among them and begin to learn their language Ruanja and culture. Although Sandoz struggles with his attraction to Sofia, he finds greater spiritual meaning in his interactions with the Runa. The crew transmits all their findings via computer uplink to the asteroid-ship in orbit. One day, in an attempt to retrieve supplies from their landing vehicle for a sick crew member, the landing vehicle runs short of the fuel needed to safely return to the asteroid ship, and the crew must face the reality that they may never return to Earth.

When the Earthlings finally meet a member of the culture which produced the radio transmissions, he proves to be of an entirely different species from the rural natives, a Jana'ata who is an ambitious merchant named Supaari VaGayjur. Supaari VaGayjur sees in the visitors a possibility to improve his status, while the crew hopes to find an alternative source of fuel in Supaari's city, Gayjur. Meanwhile, the crew begins to grow their own food, introducing the concept of agriculture to the villagers. These seemingly innocent actions and accompanying cultural misunderstandings precipitate an outbreak of violence. Though not closely related genetically, the Jana'ata have evolved by aggressive mimicry to physically resemble the Runa, who are in fact their prey species. The human introduction of agriculture leads to a Runa baby boom which is harvested by the predatory Jana'ata. The humans are riven with guilt over their misguided action, and most, including Sofia, are killed when defending against the Jana'ata attack. Only Sandoz and one other human survive, and Sandoz endures capture, degradation, and a crisis of faith. Eventually found by Supaari, Sandoz's hands are disfigured and rendered useless in a Jana'ata practice meant to convey the honor and privilege of being dependent on another, a mutilation analogous to the practice of foot binding. The mutilation kills the other surviving crew member; Sandoz survives, though he is physically and spiritually traumatized, believing himself at fault for the death of his friends. Later, Supaari gives Sandoz to the Reshtar of Galatna, a poet and musician, in exchange for the right to have a wife and start his own lineage. Held captive by the Reshtar, Sandoz realizes the Reshtar is the source of the music that brought the humans to Rakhat and momentarily regains his faith; however, the Reshtar is only interested in Sandoz as a pet who is forced to sexually satisfy the musician, along with his friends and colleagues. It is later revealed that the Reshtar broadcasts songs about his sexual exploits, songs which may have been heard on Earth.

When Sandoz returns to Earth in 2060, his friends are dead, and his faith, once considered worthy of canonization by his superiors, has turned into bitter anger with the god who inspired him to go to Rakhat. Due to relativistic space-time effects, decades had passed while he has been gone, during which popular outrage at the United Nations' initial and highly out-of-context report on the mission, especially Sandoz's role in the tragedy, had left the Society of Jesus shattered, nearly extinct. The Jesuits shelter Sandoz from the media and help him recover physically, while the Father Superior selects a panel of Jesuit priests from around the world to help Sandoz come out of his shell and explain what really happened. Initially bent on discovering the truth, the other priests eventually recognize the great personal cost at which the journey came, and accept Sandoz's epic struggle with his faith. Over the course of several months, Sandoz painfully explains his story and begins his personal healing.

Similarities to other works[edit]

The Sparrow is similar to James Blish's science fiction novel A Case of Conscience. It also involves a Jesuit priest confronting an alien civilization. Mary Doria Russell has addressed this speculation:

I get this question all the time, because Blish's 1958 story is about a Spanish Jesuit in space. People have told me that the protagonist is named Ruiz-Sanchez, so they thought I must have named Emilio Sandoz in homage to Blish. In fact, Emilio got his name from the pharmaceutical manufacturer who made my son's cold medicine. Danny got a cold in 1992 when I started the book, and I noticed the name Sandoz on the medicine label and thought it sounded good. No symbolism or homage beyond that, I'm afraid![1][2]

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Nancy Pearl, in an article in Library Journal about book-club recommendations published five years after The Sparrow came out, felt that this book was mistakenly categorized as science fiction, and that it is really "a philosophical novel about the nature of good and evil and what happens when a man tries to do the right thing, for the right reasons and ends up causing incalculable harm".[3]

However, Pearl's comment about categorization as science fiction is at odds with the author's own assessment. In "Jesuits in Space," her afterword to the 20th-anniversary edition of The Sparrow, Russell repeatedly refers to the book as science fiction, and writes, "At the heart of religion, and at the heart of anthropology, and at the heart of science fiction, there are similar concerns, though there are differences in the kinds of stories we tell and the conclusions that we reach."[4] It's also worth noting that every award (see next section) won by The Sparrow was specifically a science-fiction award.

In the Catholic journal Commonweal, Paul Q. Kane writes that Russell has done her research on the early historic Jesuit missions and on Jesuit spirituality. He continues that she is successfully updating the stories of other important Jesuits who have sent men to distant lands or went themselves to foreign cultures to represent Christianity. "Russell subtly raises concerns about the ways in which sophisticated cultures tell themselves cover stories in order to justify actions taken at a terrible cost to others". This is also reflected in the way that Sofia has to buy her freedom from what she describes as an institution of intellectual prostitution; as well as the differences between the simple Runa who live in the countryside and the Jana'ata, who are the sophisticated city dwellers that created the beautiful music which triggered the mission originally.[5]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Film, television and theatrical adaptations[edit]

In March 2006 it was announced that Warner Bros. had purchased the rights to The Sparrow for Brad Pitt's production company, Plan B, and that Pitt himself would be playing the role of Sandoz with screenwriter Michael Seitzman adapting the novel to film.[10][11]

Since then, Mary Russell has revoked all film rights, believing that Hollywood cannot and will not make a film version of The Sparrow that is faithful to the book. She has written her own screenplay with her assistant Karen Hall, but has realized it has little to no chance of being produced.[12]

In 2014, AMC announced it was developing a television adaptation of the book.[13]

In 2021, Scott Frank announced his plans to adapt The Sparrow as a miniseries, to be presented on FX.[14] Johan Renck is being looked at to direct, with Frank, Renck, and Mark Johnson signed on as executive producers.[15]

Related works[edit]

Publication history[edit]


  1. ^ Russell, Mary Doria (2007-03-10). "Frequently Asked Questions". Mary Doria Russell. Retrieved 2008-05-02. [original link included this text:] If I ever read this story, I guess it didn't make much of an impression on me, because I don't remember it. I still haven't come across it...[dead link]
  2. ^ Russell, Mary Doria (2007-03-10). "Frequently Asked Questions". Retrieved April 5, 2017.
  3. ^ Pearl, Nancy (15 January 2001). "What Does Your Book Group Read Next?". Library Journal. 126 (9): 192. ISSN 0363-0277.
  4. ^ Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow ("20th Anniversary Edition with a New Afterword by the Author"), Ballantine Books (2016), ISBN 9780449912553
  5. ^ Kane, Paul Q. (28 February 1997). "Jesuits, far out". Commonweal. 124 (4): 27–28. ISSN 0010-3330.
  6. ^ "The 1996 James Tiptree, Jr. Award". James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award Council. Archived from the original on 2008-03-13. Retrieved 2008-05-03.
  7. ^ "1998 Winner". Great Britain: Arthur C. Clarke Award. Archived from the original on 2009-04-17. Retrieved 2008-05-03.
  8. ^ "The 2001 Kurd Laßwitz Award" (in German). Archived from the original on 2008-04-16. Retrieved 2008-05-03.
  9. ^ "Gaylactic Spectrum Awards - 2001 Information". Archived from the original on 2015-07-15. Retrieved 2008-04-26.
  10. ^ McClintock, Pamela (2006-03-10). "'Sparrow' in Warners nest". Retrieved 2008-04-26.
  11. ^ Kung, Michelle (2006-03-13). "Briefs...". Publishers Weekly. 253 (11): 10. ISSN 0000-0019.
  12. ^ Russell, Mary Doria (April 27, 2012). "Saying No to Hollywood". Retrieved June 8, 2012. Michael [Seitzman]'s adaptation made sense in the context of what Hollywood is likely to buy and/or produce, but it changed too much of the story for it to be satisfying to the many readers who genuinely love that novel. And I don't want to spend the rest of my life apologizing to people who would feel betrayed by a screen adaptation that didn't face up to the central issues of the story.
  13. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (October 2014). "AMC Network Narrows Field Of Drama Pilot Contenders With Producer Meetings". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  14. ^ Leah Schnelbach, "Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow Might Be Coming to FX". Article dated 2021-01-14 on, page found 2021-01-17.
  15. ^ Zorrilla, Mónica Marie (January 14, 2021). "'Queen's Gambit' Writer to Adapt Sci-Fi Novel 'The Sparrow' for FX". Variety. Retrieved March 25, 2022.
  16. ^ "Metaphor Releases Sci-Fi Rock Opera" (Press release). trope audio. Retrieved 2008-04-28.
  17. ^ "Metaphor Discography". Metaphor. Archived from the original on 2016-03-07. Retrieved August 25, 2016.

External links[edit]

The following links are to detailed reviews with many plot details.