The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
I decided to read this since I really enjoyed A Thread of Grace. When I first looked the novel up online, I was surprised to see that it was a science fiction story considering that A Thread of Grace was historical fiction. Since her historical novel was so good, I was kind of curious if her science fiction would be. Honestly, it's one of those books that could also be called a literary novel, but either way, I'm impressed since Russell did very well in both genres.
Like in Parable of the Talents, the last sci-fi novel I read, the reader already knows the outcome of the story in the beginning. The question is how did it get where it ends up. The novel begins in December of 2059 with Emilio Sandoz's release from the hospital. It is quickly revealed that he is the lone survivor of a space mission to a distant planet Rakhat, but not much is known about what happened in the end and why everyone else died or didn't return. Sandoz is a Jesuit priest so the Society of Jesus, who also sponsored the trip, take care of him and slowly get him to reveal the truth over the course of the novel. The story flashes back and forth between Sandoz's recovery and all the events leading up to the trip. One of Sandoz's friends, who works at the space station, discovers a signal from another planet, the crew gets assembled and trained, and leave to study the newly discovered planet. This all begins in 2019, and due to the planet's distance, it takes four years for radio messages to reach Earth, and 17 to actually travel between the planets (even though it seems like a year on the space ship). So by the time Sandoz gets back, 6 years have passed for him, but 38 for everyone on Earth.
In 2059/60, the priests and the world already know some of the very basic story, and can infere other things from Sandoz's appearance. It is obvious that he has been tortured and mutilated, but he is also seen as a villain (the reason why is explained later in the book) since he is called murderer and whore. Despite the horrible outcome, it wasn't foreseeable in the mission's interactions with the populace of Rakhat. The first few years are peaceful, and full of information with a few minor goofs and hickups here and there. Overall, however, they get along well with the villagers they live with. It isn't till much later after the tragic events occur that Sandoz starts understanding more about the underlying aspects of the culture, and how some of their actions have changed and affected the Runa, the species they are living with. I guess they forgot about that whole butterfly effect.
Additionally, Sandoz is dealing with severe psychological issues upon his return to Earth, and grabbling with his faith, wondering about the type of God he worships. With Russell's last novel, it turned out that the title was referencing a piece of religious writing (I can't remember if it was Christian or Jewish), but it's one of those titles that could be explained even without that verse since helping the Jews and fighting the Nazis in such dire conditions could certainly be seen as a sign of grace. Towards the end of the novel, I was really starting to wonder where the title The Sparrow came from - there weren't any birds, the space ship wasn't called that etc. Yet again, Russell was referencing a religious piece: "Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it" (Matthew 10, 29). Of course, the question Sandoz must ask himself if it is enough for him that God watches, knows and cares, or if he believes that God actually acts and causes things to happen. If that is the case, he is going to have find a way to reconcile that with what happened in Rakhat.
Russell continues Sandoz and Rakhat's story in Children of God, which I'll be getting next time I make an Amazon order.