The Sparrow Read-along: week one

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30 years ago, the Society of Jesus sent a ship to Alpha Centauri to make first contact with alien singers. Only one man survived, rescued and returned to Earth a physical and emotional wreck amidst rumours of murder and sin. But what really happened to Father Emilio Sandoz on Rakhat?

Welcome to the SciFiMonth Read-along of Mary Doria Russell’s classic debut, The Sparrow. This book captured my heart the first time I read it years ago, and I’m so excited to revisit it with friends. We’ll be reading across the course of the month with weekly discussion posts to share our joys and lamentations.

“They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm.” What was your initial/gut response to the Prologue?

Let’s face it, if your immediate response to ‘the Jesuits made first contact’ was WHAT CAN POSSIBLY GO WRONG the Prologue does nothing to reassure you. By the time I get to they meant no harm all I can do is scream into the void.

But I can’t really judge the Prologue on a reread, because I can’t remember how much sank in on first reading. Coming back to it (even after this many years), this is a tantalising set-up full of foreshadowing that carries a freight train full of FEELINGS.

How are you getting on with the split timeline and the many points of view? How about Mary Doria Russell’s predictions for 2019?

It’s funny how storytelling has changed over the years. When I first read The Sparrow I think I was steeped in multiple POV narratives; now, it seems increasingly rare and I know I sometimes criticise books for doing it – especially when it’s done purely to squeeze out some little plot-relevant detail.

It doesn’t bother me here though. Here the skips from person to person are illuminating character, rather than plot – although is it me, or is there one key point of view we’ve not had yet? Yes Father Sandoz, I’m looking at you. We always see him through others eyes, which is a great way of opaquing the question of what happened and why (I may be misremembering – I’m writing this without the book to hand).

…the world-building though. I’d forgotten this was set in 2019 (so there’s a happy accident) and it’s fascinating looking at what Mary Doria Russell imagined for her near-future and our present. From her stance in 1997 she had a worryingly good handle on sociocultural developments, projecting Arabic terrorism, Turkish civil war (which hasn’t happened, but she was right to assume the tensions with the Kurds wouldn’t resolve), and right-wing capitalism resulting in unpleasantly dystopian new norms like child indenture and the impacts of job automation. It feels like a recognisable nearly-now to me – not quite right, but disturbingly not that far out of true (…hell, how idealistic was I when I first read this? Yes, very).

Even her grasp of TV and communications isn’t wildly out, even if she was optimistic about where we’d have got to in space tech. Asteroid mining and microgravity stadia are narratively convenient, but I guess we need a few more decades to catch up!

What are your first impressions of the characters? Any favourites so far?

Oh, my poor heart. I love these characters so much. They deserve a hopepunk narrative – they have such good, strong, true hearts (friends, in case that Prologue didn’t warn you: this is not hopepunk. I’m so sorry).

I haven’t got much of a sense of Edward Behr beyond thinking Teddy Behr is a good name for him (cinnamon roll!), but I love Father Candotti. John is such a rough diamond – blunt, balding, but so very very compassionate, unable to look past another person’s distress. It’s far too easy to dislike Johannes Voelker, but I have far more complicated feelings about Vincenzo Giuliani.

We’re told Jimmy Quinn is adorable and we’re told why he’s adorable and then, well, he’s adorable – another cinnamon roll, all awkward and goofy. Sofia is an ice queen, and I really appreciated the glimpse into her difficult history to better understand where she’s coming from. I can entirely sympathise with her drive to just get things done when every minute she spends is a minute closer to gaining her freedom. She’s brilliant and terrifying in equal measure.

…but my heart belongs to Anne and George. Their relationship is everything – that soul-deep partnership of long years shared and mutual knowledge of themselves and each other. I love the way they banter, and I love how they adopt the strays around them. Their sense of humour and their gift for reading their friends – because they pay attention, because they care – is wonderful.

And I’ll save Emilio for another week 😉

From what we learn of Emilio’s training and what we see in the ‘present’ day (2050s), what do you make of the Society of Jesus as portrayed here?

What a bunch of bastards, eh?


No, I’m going to stand by that, although I’m only directing my disdain at the superiors. I appreciate discipline and I appreciate intellectual rigour, but I do not appreciate fucking with other people’s lives For Reasons without consent (no, I don’t consider Emilio joining the priesthood to be tacit consent). Maybe I’d be more sympathetic if I were religious or had military leanings, but I was raised to be awkward and have issues with male authority figures, so the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Emilio’s training is bad enough; the games Giuliani plays in the modern day to try and shake him out of his depression and force him to relinquish his guilt is a whole other flavour of terrible. Although Giuliani does seem to be coming from a place of compassion (and oh, compassion feels like a key theme already), I guess I’m not comfortable with the ends justifying the means. Or not these means, anyway.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share so far?

Pass me another box of hankies, I’m ready to go back in.

Discussion Schedule

The format is a casual buddy read – pace yourself to the weekly discussions, or zoom to the end if you Need To Know Why It Happened. The schedule is the earliest date to start a discussion to allow the crew to reach a similar point before we share our spoilery thoughts:

  • Wednesday 6th November | Beginning through end Chapter Eleven
  • Wednesday 13th November | Chapter Twelve – Nineteen
  • Wednesday 20th November | Chapter Twenty – Twenty-six
  • Wednesday 27th November | Chapter Twenty-seven – end

Please – no spoilers for future weeks’ chapters!

I’ll post discussion prompts each Sunday (ish) on the Goodreads group (and add a link on Twitter when they’re up). Feel free to answer them on your blog, in tweets (tag @SciFiMonth and #TheSparrow) or pile into the Goodreads group to share your reactions.


So far, the following SciFiMonth crew are joining me:

  • Lisa of Dear Geek Place | Week One |
  • Ash of Bookish Muggle Week One |
  • (and maybe Sarah of Hamlet and Hyperspace and Jess of Jessticulates – we’ll see)

Joining us? Let me know here or on Goodreads if you’ll be blogging and I’ll make sure to include you in the link-up next week!