The Sparrow Summary
The Sparrow is a science fiction novel about a doomed Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat.
- Father Emilio Sandoz, the mission’s sole survivor, recounts the events on Rakhat in a series of hearings after his return to Earth.
- On Rakhat, Emilio and his crew befriended members of the Runa species and felt they were serving God. But several crew members died, and Emilio was taken captive by members of Rakhat’s dominant species, the Jana’ata.
- Emilio was ritually mutilated and repeatedly raped by the Jana’ata, destroying his faith. After unwittingly murdering a Runa, he was returned to Earth by members of the next mission.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1295
The Sparrow shifts between two connected narratives. The first narrative is the story of the priest Emilio Sandoz’s return to Earth and the Jesuit leadership’s inquiry into what happened to him on the planet Rakhat. These hearings occur between December 2059 and August 2060. The second narrative, beginning in 2019, is the story of the mission itself.
The novel begins in 2059. Emilio Sandoz, the lone survivor from the Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, has returned to Earth, triggering a storm of media attention. The Jesuit Father General, Vincenzo Giuliani, has brought John Candotti and Edward Behr to help Emilio through the hearings.
Emilio is a broken man. He suffers from malnutrition, debilitating headaches, night terrors, and mental confusion. His physical injuries include permanently mutilated hands.
The Father General begins the hearings to discover what happened on Rakhat. He explains to Emilio that after the mission secretly departed, the news of it became public, and a second mission, mandated by the UN, was launched. Members of this second mission eventually found Emilio in a state of degradation. The members of the second mission also reported that they had seen Emilio murder the young VaRakhati who had led them to him.
In subsequent hearings, Emilio recounts details of the mission. Emilio reports the details of first contact and the social structures of the two sentient species they discovered on the planet: the Runa and the Jana’ata. Whenever Giuliani brings up Emilio’s spiritual experience on Rakhat, Emilio becomes deeply upset.
Over time, Emilio’s mental and physical state improves. Eventually, Emilio shares the awful truth of what happened on Rakhat, reliving the deaths of his fellow crew members and describing the sexual violence he endured, the suffering that ultimately shattered his faith in God. This revelation is therapeutic for Emilio.
Woven throughout the narrative of the hearings in Italy is the story of the mission to Rakhat, beginning in 2019. Jimmy Quinn, a young astronomer at the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico, has been assigned by his manager to a “vulture”—someone who will analyze his work and develop artificial intelligence software capable of completing it. Jimmy seeks the advice of his friend, the priest Emilio Sandoz, who admits that he has been “done” by a vulture. He advises Jimmy to ask for someone good and recommends Sofia Mendes.
In his career as a priest, Emilio, a gifted linguist, was deliberately moved to various locations and cultures. During this time, he became adept at quickly learning new languages. After several years, his superiors had an artificial intelligence expert work with him to codify his language-learning ability. The “vulture” was Sofia Mendes: beautiful, intelligent, and impersonal.
During his time in Cleveland, Emilio met and befriended Anne and George Edwards. After his work with Sofia Mendes was complete, he requested to return to the slums of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A few months later, he convinced Anne, a doctor, and George, a retired engineer, to join him in his work there. George decided to volunteer at Arecibo, and it was there that George met Jimmy and that, through him, Jimmy and Emilio became friends.
Following Emilio’s advice, Jimmy forms and presents a plan to the Arecibo manager: let an experienced artificial intelligence expert codify his work and then compare the ability of the program to Jimmy’s ability. He suggests Sofia Mendes. His manager agrees, and Mendes, who is contracted by a broker, sees the gamble as her chance to earn enough money to end her contract early and become a free agent.
During Sofia’s time working with Jimmy at Arecibo, Jimmy falls in love with Sofia; he is devastated to realize that she and Emilio seem to have feelings for each other.
One fateful night, Jimmy discovers an extraterrestrial transmission—a kind of musical concert. He shares his discovery with Emilio, Sofia, George, and Anne. Emilio suggests the idea that God wants the group to go on a mission to reach out to the aliens, whom they call “the Singers.” Initially, even Emilio thinks this idea is somewhat of a joke. Eventually, however, the Society of Jesus commits to a secret mission to contact the Singers, and each of the friends agrees to join.
Other crew members are assembled: Marc Robichaux, Alan Pace, and, acting as the leader of the mission, D.W. Yarbrough.
Aboard the spaceship the Stella Maris, the Jesuit mission locates Rakhat, the planet that the transmissions originated from. The group lands in an uninhabited area, where they acclimatize to their new surroundings. Suddenly and inexplicably, Alan dies.
About two months after landing, the group leaves the lander and, using a small airplane, travels to the village of Kashan. There, they make contact with the Runa inhabitants. During first contact and the months that follow, Emilio has an intense spiritual experience. The crew members study the Ruanja language, the natural landscape, and the Runa culture.
D.W.’s health deteriorates, and in an attempt to access medical supplies left in the lander, Sofia and Marc crash the small airplane. They then fly the lander back to the village of Kashan. As a result, there is not enough fuel left to get back to the Stella Maris; unless they are able to manufacture more fuel, there is no way for the crew to leave Rakhat.
The group encounters Supaari VaGayjur, the Jana’ata merchant who owns trading rights with the village of Kashan. Supaari sees an opportunity to use “the foreigners” and their goods to his advantage, hoping to eventually break free of the limits of his social status.
In the following year, the crew settles into life in Kashan. In an effort to create a long-term food source, they plant a garden. The Runa, who traditionally gather their food, begin to grow gardens as well, and the gardens boost Runa sexual activity and reproduction. During this time, Sofia and Jimmy develop a romantic relationship; although it grieves him, Emilio gives them his blessing, sacrificing any future with Sofia. Sofia and Jimmy marry, and Sofia becomes pregnant.
Supaari finally takes George, Marc, and Jimmy to the city of Gayjur, carefully concealing them from any other Jana’ata. They return to Kashan to discover that both Anne and D.W. have been killed and eaten by some kind of predator.
Weeks later, a Jana’ata patrol comes to Kashan and demands that the Runa infants be handed over to them. When Sofia realizes that the Jana’ata patrol are killing the infants, she resists. This triggers a Runa rebellion, and in the violence, George, Sofia, and Jimmy are all killed.
Marc and Emilio are taken prisoner by the Jana’ata patrol. Supaari finds them and brings them back to his compound. He subjects them to a ritual hand mutilation, and Marc dies as a result. After several months, Supaari hands Emilio over to Hlavin Kitheri, the Reshtar of Galatna, in exchange for social status.
Hlavin Kitheri is an erotic poet and the Singer who originally inspired the Jesuit mission. Kitheri rapes Emilio, and in the months that follow, Emilio is the victim of repeated sexual violence committed by Kitheri and others. Emilio vows that he will kill the next person who opens his cell.
Emilio is unaware of the fact that a second human mission has reached Rakhat. The crew of this mission have found Askama, the young Runa with whom Emilio formed a strong relationship in Kashan. Askama leads them to Emilio, and it is Askama whom Emilio hurls himself toward the moment his cell is opened. Before he realizes what is happening, he has killed her. The crew, disgusted by Emilio’s degraded state and the death of Askama, put Emilio back on the Stella Maris and send him back to Earth.
Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1495
First published: New York: Villard Books, 1996
Subgenre(s): Science fiction
Core issue(s): Catholics and Catholicism; clerical life; conscience; faith; good vs. evil; problem of evil; suffering
Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit, the sole survivor of a mission to the planet Rakhat
Sofia Mendes, and
Jimmy Quinn, scientists on the mission
Anne Edwards, and
George Edwards, husband-and-wife team of scientists on the mission
D. W. Yarborough, the Jesuit leader of the mission to Rakhat
Marc Robichaux, a Jesuit crewmember
Vincenzo Giuliani, the father general of the Society of Jesus
John Candotti, Giuliani’s secretary
Edward Behr, and
Felipe Reyes, Jesuits investigating the aftermath of the mission to Rakhat
Askama, a young Runa, one of Rakhat’s sentient races
Supaari VaGayjur, a wealthy merchant, a Jana’ata, the planet’s other sentient species
Hlavin Kitheri, a nobleman-poet of the Jana’ata
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 of the Runa language, for its gender system is based not on sex but on whether the noun referred to is visible or invisible.
These misunderstandings multiply when the crew meets Supaari VaGayjur, a merchant from a nearby city who trades with the Runa but who is a member of Rakhat’s other sentient race, the Jana’ata, carnivorous, catlike creatures. It is the Jana’ata who produce the radio transmissions that first attracted the notice of Earth. Having grown somewhat bored with the gentle, unprepossessing Runa, Fathers Sandoz, Marc Robichaux, and D. W. Yarborough wrangle an invitation from Supaari to visit his city of Gayjur. In Gayjur, Sandoz senses that Supaari is being less than open with them: He keeps them out of sight of other Jana’ata and is primarily interested in making trade agreements with them to secure the rights to goods and supplies they brought from Earth. Sandoz is especially haunted by a brief scene he glimpses of three Runa seemingly being executed by the Jana’ata. On their return, the three priests are saddened to learn that scientists Jimmy Quinn and George Edwards have been murdered by poachers while tending the gardens that they had helped the Runa plant.
These deaths are the harbingers of the onslaught of horrors that conclude the novel. The Earthlings have noticed that the birth rate has soared among the Runa but do not realize that this is because of the richer diet provided by the gardens that the humans have taught them to cultivate. One day, Jana’ata soldiers arrive without warning and slaughter the Runa newborn—and prepare them as food. The two races are revealed as intertwined carnivores and herbivores, both of whom have evolved into sentient beings without ever having disengaged themselves from their original relationship of predator and prey. Sofia Mendes tries to rally the Runa to resistance, crying “They are few; we are many,” and in the resultant melee, all the humans are killed except for Sandoz and Robichaux, who are taken as prisoners to Gayjur. There Supaari tries to protect them by subjecting them to what is, for the catlike Jana’ata, a declawing operation. He does this because, in his culture, declawed individuals cannot hunt and therefore can be given refuge by any member of society willing to take them in. Supaari, not understanding human biology, does not realize that he is torturing the Earthlings. Robichaux dies from this operation, and Sandoz is left with grotesquely mutilated hands. Soon, Supaari, to earn the right to marry and procreate in his society, where population growth is rigorously controlled, betrays Sandoz, giving him to the aristocrat-poet Hlavin Kitheri to be a sex slave. After months of debasing sexual assaults, the priest decides to make a break for freedom by killing the next guard who opens his cell door. Unfortunately, the next person through the door is the Runa child, Askama, whom he had earlier befriended, arriving with the rescue mission from Earth.
The novel ends in a powerful sequence in which the father general of the Jesuits demands that Sandoz tell the committee of inquiry everything about his imprisonment and rape on Rakhat, holding nothing back, moving even the skeptical and sardonic Father Voelker to compassion.
Russell’s major theme is the inexplicability of suffering and torment, especially that of those who trust in God and, from a specifically Christian standpoint, seek to propagate the faith. Each of the Earthlings is good-hearted and well-meaning, and Sandoz has been called a saint, a favorite of God; nevertheless, all die or suffer abominably or both. However, Russell steers clear of offering an easy explanation, though she explores a number of possibilities: suffering as a test of faith, sorrow as a conduit to closeness with the deity, the necessity of God’s absence to give humans space to exist as free beings. The most challenging possibility surfaces in a conversation between Fathers Giuliani and Reyes in the final chapter. Giuliani insists that God cares for his children, citing Matthew 10:29, the famous verse about God noting even the fall of a sparrow. Reyes points out God notes the sparrow’s calamity but wonders whether he merely observes. Does he care about the fall? This question brings up a possibility hinted at throughout the novel in the failure of the crew to understand the alien races they encounter: Perhaps God is so different, so essentially alien in comparison with humanity, that humans cannot perceive his actions and reactions, much less grasp his motives.
Another Christian theme expressed passionately in The Sparrow is the call to withhold judgment as found in Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The media as well as Sandoz’s own order are quick to express disgust at his apparent lapse into carnality and child murder. Yet, by the novel’s end, readers know that Sandoz is truly innocent: He fought his imprisonment and molestation, and the death of Askama was a tragic accident during a justifiable attempt at freedom.
Sources for Further Study
- Hyland, Sabine. The Jesuit and the Incas. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Provides a worthwhile contrast between Russell’s interplanetary Jesuit mission and an actual one to the Incas, who may have partly inspired Russell’s Runa—a word sometimes used for speakers of the modern Incan tongue.
- Pearl, Nancy. Review of The Sparrow. Library Journal 126, no. 9 (May 15, 2001): 192-193. Reviewer calls the work a philosophical novel rather than a work of science fiction as it centers on the question of what good and evil are.
- Russell, Mary Doria. Children of God. New York: Ballantine, 1998. Russell’s sequel/completion of The Sparrow. Less engaging than the original, but it provides a satisfying end to the story as well as exploring new religious themes.
- Stableford, Brian. “Religion.” In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nichols. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995. Thorough examination of the treatment of religion in science fiction prior to Russell.