The Sparrow
Mary Doria Russell
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Get Mary Doria Russell's *The Sparrow* delivered to your door! The Sparrow
Mary Doria Russell
September 1997
405 pages
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Mary Doria Russell's first novel has attracted a readership peopled, yes, by indefatiguable fans of speculative fiction, but also by those who have never before even considered browsing the sci-fi and fantasy aisles. It should come as no surprise, for The Sparrow is more than a well-crafted game of what-ifs; it is an exquisite work of fiction whose excellence transcends genre lines. Russell's story provides an engrossing study of human nature. The dichotomy of the human heart's fragility and its resilience play a significant thematic role in this astounding novel. Faith, hope and love are tested to their limits, and the ability of the soul to survive such tests is a thing hoped for but never assured.

Curled Up With a Good BookIn the early decades of the 21st century, a young SETI scientist is struggling to keep his job. The Japanese managers of the radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, would like to cut costs by having artificial intelligences supplant the humans who man the dish. Jimmy Quinn buys a short reprieve with an interesting proposition: a good AI analyst will pick his brains and construct a program to do his job, and for six months Jimmy and his AI alter-ego will work concurrently but independently. If the AI outperforms Jimmy, Jimmy goes, the AI stays, and the analyst and her broker get paid three times her normal fee. If Jimmy beats the program, he gets to keep his job and a point is proved about artificial versus human intelligence.

Jimmy Quinn's friend, the young Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, suggests the name of the AI vulture who did him. Sandoz's troubled and troubling youth didn't seem to make him the ideal candidate for the priesthood, but he's made a name for himself as a linguist and missionary. Ordered to cooperate with an AI analyst who would "codify and computerize" his talent for learning languages, Sandoz met Sophia Mendes, a cold and guarded woman whose own painful childhood has never resolved into a contented adulthood. Orphaned of her parents, Sephardic Jews, by ethnic cleansings in Istanbul, Sophia Mendes chose life -- by the age of fourteen, she was prostituting herself to survive. A French "futures broker" spotted her on the street, gave her a home, an education and a career, but bought her freedom. Privatized orphanages made such children more valuable in the monetary sense; it was the new capitalist style of slavery. If Sophia can create an AI that can do Jimmy's job better than Jimmy, she can buy out her broker and finally become her own woman.

Emilio's granted request to return to La Perla, Puerto Rico, gives him a chance to pay back his hometown for some of the pain his misspent youth gave it. Emilio asks Anne and George Edwards to come to La Perla. George is an engineer chafing at retirement and Anne is a doctor, and their skills would be put to good use. Emilio, Anne and George became friends when Anne took the Latin 101 class Emilio taught at John Carroll University while being AI-vultured by Sophia Mendes. Anne and George go to La Perla; the young astronomer Jimmy Quinn becomes a member of their little adopted family. When Sophia Mendes arrives, the sparks still fly between the AI analyst and the Jesuit priest, and Jimmy Quinn pratfalls headfirst into love with the diminutive, distant, beautiful programmer.

As the friendship of this little group grows, and as Jimmy prepares to bow gracefully away from the sparking attraction between Sophia and Emilio, the unbelievable happens. Jimmy discovers music coming from somewhere near Alpha Centauri, about four light years away. With that discovery, this motley group of friends takes the first step on a journey that will change their lives for better and for worse. The Society for Jesus, with the wealth and missionary zeal of the Catholic Church at its back, will undertake what no government or corporation wants to: sponsoring a manned spacetrip to Rakhat, the source of this interstellar music. Joined by several other Jesuits who are masters of diverse disciplines, the circle of friends embarks on a mission that will show them amazing joys, utter loss, and the hope that only faith can support.

Intelligent and emotional, The Sparrow is one of the most stunning works of speculative fiction in recent years. It plainly examines the gamut of human emotions, from the plumbless depths of lifelong love to the most harrowing guilt that can only come from causing the life of one you love to end. In Emilio, Russell brings to life a future Job, a man whose beliefs are put to excruciating tests. This is not a novel for the faint of heart; it is one for those who want more than anything for that core of themselves to be found strong.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Sharon Schulz-Elsing, 1997

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