Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Club: The Sparrow and Children of God

My godfather, Steve, was an incredibly fascinating and brilliant man. He could speak in depth about almost anything  engineering, weather, politics, religion, soccer you name it, he probably had an opinion (along with fact-based evidence as backup). I loved sitting around chatting with him, even though we didn't always agree.

Often, he would later follow up with emails containing his additional thoughts, or recommended reading material for me. Steve always made sure that I used my brain.

For years, our family had a team at the Relay for Life for the American Cancer Society. We'd camp out at Green Lake and take turns walking for 24 hours straight to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Steve never, ever missed this event. One night he and I were sitting around in camp chairs, waiting for our turn to hit the track, and we began discussing my love of post-apocalyptic, speculative science fiction (I admit I'm a little odd). I had recently read and loved Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which Steve had also enjoyed. He told me about a few other books in this genre he thought I would like, and when I got home I placed an Amazon order immediately.

Suddenly and tragically, cancer ended Steve's life before I could read his recommendations and pick his brain about them. The loss of my godfather broke my heart, but I'm so thankful that he pointed me toward these amazing books!

The Sparrow is the first novel by Mary Doria Russell. It was followed by a sequel, Children of God.

The story begins in 2019, when Earth picks up radio broadcasts of music from a distant alien world. The first expedition to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music, is organized by the Jesuit order, known for its missionary, linguistic and scientific activities. Only one of the crew, Father Emilio Sandoz, a priest, survives to return to Earth, and he is damaged physically and psychologically. The story is told in framed flashback, with chapters alternating between the story of the expedition and the story of Sandoz's interrogation by the Jesuit order's inquest, set up in 2059 to find the truth.

The Sparrow tells the story of Sandoz's journey to Rakhat and his subsequent settlement on the foreign planet, where he and his team learn the language and culture of the two native sentient species. Unfortunately, human intervention in this alien world leads to everything going horribly wrong, and when Sandoz returns to Earth all his friends are dead and gone, his faith shaken.

In Children of God, Sandoz returns to Rakhat against his will, and the planet is in a state of revolutionary war and the establishment of democracy. In the end, some argue that the expeditions have provided proof of the existence of God.

Russell is an amazing storyteller, and I was sucked into The Sparrow almost immediately. She combines mystery and suspense with flawless characterization, and gorgeous descriptions that tantalize the imagination. I was thrilled to be able to continue the saga with Children of God, which held my attention just as much as the first book did. They definitely aren't a light read, and probably aren't for everyone, but for me reading them was an incredible experience. As a former Catholic turned atheist, I enjoyed exploring topics like the existence and function of God, the meaning of life, the use of suffering and healing, and the delicacy and necessity of human relationships.

Steve and I often debated the existence of God and the role of religion in society, and I would give anything to be able to discuss my thoughts on these books with him. As it is, I can at least be grateful that he pointed me in the direction of these fascinating novels.

“There are times... when we are in the midst of life-moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness ― times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us. It may come as deep inner stillness or as a rush of overflowing emotion. It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or by a sleeping child. If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all it's unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to it's higher truth... When my people search for a name to give to the truth we feel at those moments, we call it God.” 
― Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow  
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