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…and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.
When the novel opens, we meet Father Emilio Sandoz, sole survivor of a failed Jesuit mission to Alpha Centauri. That’s right. Priests in Space. Using a dual narrative structure in alternating chapters, we go back to learn how this bizarre mission came to be, while in the “present” we follow the efforts of Emelio’s religious superiors to find out what happened to the broken man. And Emelio is broken, in both mind, faith and body. There are terrible rumors about what happened to him on the alien planet they visited, but Emelio is too traumatized to explain the mission’s colossal failure. Watching the efforts of this broken priest to come to grips with his experiences is a grueling thing to read. But knowing the end somehow does not detract from the other narrative, which is how it began and unfolded. It seems that a signal is picked up at a remote radio observatory in Puerto Rico; a signal that sounds like singing. But it is singing that could not possibly be from earth. The technician who discovered the signal is friends with Father Emelio Sandoz, a parish priest working in the slums of Puerto Rico. Emelio, the technician Jimmy, and a handful of other vividly drawn and achingly real characters end up signing on to be the ones to find out where the signal is coming from. This is a novel that deals with issues of religion, but rather than being preachy, it is a fascinating look how other people use faith to try and understand their experiences. Religion and science fiction could be a tough sell on their own, much less in the ingenious combo you get here. But Russell uses the formal framework of religion to tap into the truer issue of what it means to have faith, and the science fiction framework to examine what it means to be human. I’ve read this book twice, and both times it made me cry, but left me immensely satisfied.
Check the BPL catalog for this title: The Sparrow