In The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell employs a plot convention dear to science fiction and fantasy writers for more than a century—that of humankind’s first encounter with an extraterrestrial race—to explore a lengthy roster of Christian issues and concerns: innocence and corruption; the role God does or does not play when things go horribly wrong for humanity; sex, birth control, and procreation; suffering; and confession.
Russell’s narrative hops back and forth between the present (2059-2060) and the past (roughly 2019-2040). As the novel opens, the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) is beginning an investigation into what went wrong with a mission sponsored by their order to Rakhat, an Earthlike planet recently discovered in the Alpha Centauri system, one technically advanced enough to send out radio transmissions of music, beautiful songs that delight all who hear them. The team of eight explorers consists of four Jesuits and four scientists from different backgrounds. A year after landfall, transmissions from Rakhat to Earth end. The Jesuits send a rescue mission, and these men learn that all the original explorers are dead except for the Jesuit linguist, Father Emilio Sandoz, who is found seemingly working as a prostitute. Furthermore, when the rescue team finds him, Sandoz kills the Rakhati child who led the humans to him. When this news reaches Earth, an international scandal ensues, and the father general of the Jesuits convenes a group of priests to question Sandoz and to piece together why the expedition went so horribly wrong.
Among the investigators is Father Johannes Voelker, who bitterly denounces Sandoz as a whore and a child murderer. Sandoz’s account is as follows:Upon reaching Rakhat, the Earthlings soon make contact with a race of sentient humanoids: the Runa, herbivores who partake somewhat of both simian and canine attributes and who are pastoral traders. The humans repeatedly fail to grasp essential differences between themselves and the Runa. For example, the Earthlings assume that the largest Runa are males and the smaller are females, when the opposite is true. Likewise, the humans have trouble grasping the grammar...
(The entire section is 890 words.)