The Sparrow Read-along: week three

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On Rakhat, Emilio dances God, transported by the beauty of the alien world and the challenge of learning to communicate with the Runa. On Earth, Vincenzo Giuliani is determined to save the priest who fell from grace.

Welcome back to the SciFiMonth Read-along of Mary Doria Russell’s classic debut, The Sparrow. We finally get to know the inhabitants of Rakhat this week, but we’re still in the honeymoon phase of first contact…

First contact at last! What are your initial impressions of the cultures of Rakhat?

I had forgotten the non-plot-critical Rakhati world-building and I’m finding it magical. As with the little allusions and clues dropped in the first week’s reading about Emilio’s hands, there’s so much going on in our first week on Rakhat that isn’t actually spelled out. With the benefit of reread goggles, it’s all there on the page but I’m very curious to see what everyone else makes of it.

One of the things I’m loving is the differences in Runa vs Jana’ata culture. The Runa are basically a race of cinnamon rolls, right? Hug piles, artists, intensely social, and living what seems to be a free and easy lifestyle. I’m also enjoying the various misconceptions at play: of course Emilio and Sofia are children (…which would worry me more except that I’m pretty sure that gets ironed out); of course Chaypas is a man (tut tut, Earthlings with your expectations of sexual dimorphism and gender roles).

The Jana’ata are more industrialised and intensely structured. I note that for all the very specific descriptions of the roles available to the first son, second son and unexpected third son, there’s no mention of daughters – so I’m assuming the worst in terms of the role of women in their society. Given the emphasis on status and ambition, it all bodes terribly ill for a small group of aliens stranded on a corner of their planet – even if I didn’t know how it turned out, I’d be full of foreboding.

Emilio and Anne have a briefly-serious conversation about faith. How did Emilio’s comments on faith (“some poetry is tragic”) resonate for you – in terms of your own beliefs and/or in terms of what we know the future holds for Emilio?

I’m not religious (true story: as a baby, I tried to avoid my own baptism), but Emilio’s pitch to Anne worked well enough for me. I don’t need God in my life, but if I felt that gap then hell yes I’d need the freedom to get mad at him. Still, while “some poetry is tragic” is a far better line than “perhaps God needs us to cry His tears” (which is far too dysfunctional), both leave me uncomfortable. I don’t find tragic poetry a more comforting idea than random chance when it comes to things beyond a person’s control going horribly wrong.

…but I was really enjoying their conversation until I thought about Emilio’s future. My heart is absolutely rent asunder by Emilio’s journey from faithful agnosticism to brimming with love for God to feeling abandoned and betrayed. I rather doubt he sees his experiences as poetic now.

We’ve had many different perspectives on Emilio this week and learnt more about Vincenzo Giuliani. How have your perceptions of these characters and their motivations changed? What outcome do you predict in the present day narrative?

I’m going to blithely skip most of this question because I know what’s going to happen. Giuliani is a fascinating character for me: he routinely makes me so angry (his early decision that the mission went wrong when they included women; the way he tries to manipulate Emilio), but I’m slowly coming around to accepting him as just another flawed, complex human being.

Learning more about his background (illegally wealthy) explained neatly why his perceptions of past Emilio are the opposite of the Emilio we have seen; but I appreciate that he has been open-minded enough this week to start recognising this for himself. I was also – perhaps unfairly – surprised by his compassion and willingness to care for present Emilio. So it’s been a big week for me in terms of being willing to give Giuliani a bit more consideration, even if I still don’t like him very much.

There’s a little bit of me wondering who the hell is actually running the Society of Jesus with Vince spending all his time on a remote Neapolitan estate caring for Emilio though!

“[Cain] made his sacrifice in good faith. Why did God refuse it?”
There have been some terrible moments for Emilio as he has reflected on his experiences on Rakhat. What do you think he meant when talking to Brother Behr about Sofia – and do you think Ed understood him correctly?

think Emilio was talking about his willingness to sacrifice his love for Sofia to remain celibate and devoted to God – and I think his self-identification with Cain relates back to his (misplaced) sense of guilt over Marc’s death, although it may equally refer to events we haven’t seen yet. Still, I’m not sure Behr has all the context to hear it in the same way. And I’m not actually certain that’s what he meant! So this is another point I’m curious to hear others’ opinions on…

Anything else you’d like to reflect on?

…I had totally forgotten that the Jesuit bankrolled a first contact mission in response to erotic poetry. Whatever else this book has to say about God, it’s pretty certain it thinks He has a sense of humour.

Also, I invite you to imagine the rage monster that stomped around my brain in response to Giuliani’s arguments for not publishing Sofia’s work. Set the fucking patriarchy on fire, I can’t be doing with judgemental bullshit that discards a woman’s work because she was abused as a child. GRAAARGH.

Discussion Schedule

We’re nearly finished now – our target to begin discussions of the final act (and look back on the book as a whole) is Wednesday 27th November for Chapters Twenty-seven – end. Please – no spoilers until then!

Discussion prompts can be found on the Goodreads group.


The following SciFiMonth crew are joining me:

Feel free to join us from your blog, in tweets (tag @SciFiMonth and #TheSparrow) or pile into the Goodreads group to share your reactions.