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The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Black Swan, 6.99, paperback, 1998. ISBN 0 552 99777 3.)

There are books born to win prizes and this is one of them. Whether or not The Sparrow is SF is another matter. It certainly isn't packaged as SF, at least not in the UK market. There's a tastefully blurred montage on the front of a sparrow set against a nebula in a night sky; and the book is issued in B format under Transworld's literary Black Swan imprint.

The small and personal story of polyglot Jesuit missionary Emilio Sandoz mirrors the greater story of Western Civilisation from the dawn of the New World onwards. They went for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm.

Only this time the New World is literally a new world, another planet set four light years away in Alpha Centauri whose inhabitants attract the interest of Earth by broadcasting their hauntingly beautiful, quasi-religious music into space. How or why this music is broadcast is never clearly explained, but then very little is explained in The Sparrow. A fact it takes a while to recognise as the book is thick with concrete detail, the shapes of objects, the tastes of food and textures of clothes...

Faced with the prospect that God might have more than one set of children in the universe, the Jesuits do what they do best, send a mission into space against all odds, not to convert the aliens but to learn from them. The team that Emilio collects together is beautifully drawn, entirely believable and utterly, fatally flawed. Like humanity really.

This is a tragedy seen from two angles, before and after. Before ex-slumkid Emilio lands on the distant planet and years afterwards, when his tortured, Christ-like body is returned in a hollowed-out asteroid to be kept alive by the Jesuits, while the world's media camp outside trying to discover whether the half-dead priest is, as many of the landing party thought, really a saint or just a sexually-depraved child murderer.

It would be very easy to pick holes in Mary Doria Russell's basic plot. After all, planets that have conveniently Earth-like atmospheres, abundant plants that are edible to humans and roughly human-sized bipedal aliens that can learn English are easy to criticise.

Not least when the aliens live in an apparently low-tech world but are able to broadcast their singing four light years across the galaxy. But Mary Doria Russell is a paleo-anthropologist who speaks six languages and has written scientific papers on bone formation; you get the feeling that when she plays with narrative logic it's intentional. A reflection of the absurdity of upstart apes trying to understand the mystery of God - if he exists, of course.

If science fiction is fiction that relies on science to create a framework, then this isn't SF. This story could have been set in apartheid South Africa, in Nazi Germany, in Puritan America or Inquisition Spain and worked just as well.

This is a book about apartheid, about the cruelty of politics and about redemption. There are shades of Nadine Gordimer in The Sparrow, shades of Isaac Singer, but the book this reminds me of most is Jill Paton Walsh's novel Knowledge of Angels, a historical novel that wasn't.

There's the same simplicity of style, the same Godlike perspective. Both books are parables about religion and about the ability of humans to cause evil while trying to do what is right. There's no doubt - at least to me! - that The Sparrow is a hundred pages too long and could have done with more careful editing, but the book is so beautifully written it can almost afford the indulgence.

Review by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.

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© Jon Courtenay Grimwood 21 April 1998