The Sparrow, published in 1996, is a science fiction novel by Mary Doria Russell. It is the story of the discovery and exploration of the alien planet of Rakhat, but there is much more to it than this simple summary.
Russell's goal in writing this book was to examine what it would be like for modern-day people—brilliant intellectuals and scientists, even—to be in the position of 15th- and 16th-century European explorers, literally entering a completely foreign world. In her view, these explorers had noble goals, but were in "a position of radical ignorance," which inevitably affected their actions. Because of Russell's intense interest in questions of religion and faith, and because of their real life history of exploration, she had the Society of Jesus organize the mission to Rakhat.
The Sparrow goes beyond the issue of exploration. What makes it interesting, gripping, and even insightful is Russell's use of the story to explore a number of philosophical questions. Russell said in an interview that "the central theme is an exploration of the risks and beauties of religious faith," and her characters constantly live in a world in which they are forced to take great risks, sometimes feeling that a trust in God is all that keeps them whole, but at the same time experience the great beauties of an entirely new and alien world.
The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God.
They meant no harm.
—Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow, Prologue
Plot (but not enough to spoil it, I promise)
The first chapter begins in 2059, after the mission has essentially ended. Father Emilio Sandoz, a brilliant linguist and the only survivor of the mission of eight, is released from the Salvator Mundi Hospital in Rome and is recovering from terrible illness. Other members of the Society of Jesus try to figure out what happened.
The second chapter, however, takes place in 2019, before the mission began, before anyone even knew about the existence of Rakhat. Here, we meet Jimmy Quinn, a young astronomer working at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and we also meet a younger Emilio Sandoz, energetic and idealistic. One interesting thing about the book is that one gets to watch these two Emilios and see how one gradually changes into the other.
In the third chapter we return to Rome in 2060. The rest of the book alternates between these two timelines.
The sequel to The Sparrow is entitled Children of God.