Back in the summer I (Michael) sent a request to a trusted friend: “What science fiction novels would you recommend?” I received quite a large list, but the first book he recommended was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. This book was Russell’s first foray into fiction, as previously she had only written technical manuals and scientific articles. I have to admit I was skeptical at the premise at first. Basically, the story follows the attempts of a group of Jesuit priests to make first contact with an alien race on a distant plant. Though I was initially unsure about this plot line, Russell’s work makes for one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time.
The Sparrow follows two timelines. One takes place after the return of Emilio Sandoz from the expedition to the distant planet, tracing an inquiry as to what happened there. The other is years before the expedition, and over time, works its way up to what Sandoz is recalling in the inquiry. The book is masterfully written in a way where as you finish a chapter in one timeline, you are brought back to the other. I found myself pouring over the pages of this book in a way I haven’t in a long time. I don’t want to give much of the story away, but I will say that the spiritual implications of Russell’s work were what endeared this book to me most. The Sparrow ultimately deals with the problem of pain in a way that is truly challenging.
In Children of God, the story of Emilio Sandoz continues where we left off with him in the The Sparrow. Emilio is a man wrestling to understand where he is left in his relationship with God after coming to grips with what happened to him on the expedition. As the Jesuits (and really the Pope himself) want to return to the distant planet, there is also an attempt by those involved to help Sandoz face the demons he left on that planet. When I started this book, I was glad to see Sandoz starting to heal from the pain he experienced, but that joy was short-lived. In case you are interested in reading these books, however, I will promise that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I really cannot do justice to these two wonderful books. Russell’s work challenged me to see God’s truth reflected in fictional storytelling. As someone who argues hard for the fact that the Bible is the great anchor for the soul to stay moored to truth, it was encouraging to see the truth of Scripture used beautifully as the foundation for science fiction works. Please consider reading both The Sparrow and Children of God, and let me know what you think.