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Not-Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

This isn't a book review, but I wanted to write about a book that's haunted me for months since I read it. It's Mary Doria Russell's 1996 novel, The Sparrow. I love science fiction, especially first contact themes, and this is just a masterfully written (although punishing and sometimes horrifying) example. Spoilers ahead, but this book was written almost 30 years ago and pretty much everything you're about to read is on the book jacket anyway.

In the near future, Jesuit priests are humanity's first point of contact with a newly discovered alien civilization. The discovery was made when a signal was intercepted of alien music and singing. As you can imagine, this is a monumental discovery for humanity. Not only is there music - an art form we thought was uniquely human - but the presence of a choir suggests that these Singers' anatomies must be somewhat similar to ours. They send a party of a few priests and a couple of others with valuable skillsets (piloting, anthropology, linguistics) to make first contact.

So the party finally arrives on the planet Rakhat. The first race of aliens they meet (the Runa) are gentle - but it turns out they're at the bottom rung of the social ladder on this planet. The ruling class of aliens, the Jana'ata, turn out to be dangerous predators who enslave the Runa and slaughter them for food. Eventually, in an unrelated ritual, our main priest becomes irreversibly mangled by the Jana'ata.

But the slow build to this grand reveal - that this alien civilization humanity was so keen to meet are actually very dangerous - is done masterfully, through flashbacks that are just as gripping as the leaps-forward to the present, when the priest recounts the harrowing details of the mission after he's returned safely (though traumatized) home, to Earth. In the flashbacks, we are basically witnessing the humans arriving in the Garden of Eden: a paradise that is too good to be true. It takes a while for the dangers to become apparent. But since these are told as flashbacks, we know the mission goes horribly wrong, since our priest is the sole survivor. And yet, arriving on this paradise, it's hard to imagine how our characters will befall such cruel fates.

The burden of knowing that only one party member survives to tell the tale of the mission created a sense of dread that was so gripping, I couldn't help but fly through the book. I needed to know exactly how our priest went from a charismatic man of faith to a shell of his former self, unsure if there even really is a god. (Hint: it's trauma!)

Sometimes an epilogue with a happy ending, far removed from the conflict of the story, feels like cheating. But this flashback method of telling a first contact story was so effective and way more believable. The more I ruminate on this book, the more I'm in awe of the pacing and plot progression.

Might add to this later, but that's all for now.