The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell

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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.


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The Sparrowshifts 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...

(This entire section contains 1295 words.)

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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.


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