The Sparrow

The Sparrow is a thoughtful and well-written piece of fiction that strives to convey the realities of an alien culture to its readers. Unfortunately, that culture is Jesuitical Catholicism.

Let me not be misunderstood. Science fiction, more than any other genre of writing, concerns itself with subjects that are not what they immediately appear to be. Metaphor and allegory are grist for the mill. So it would be odd in the extreme to disregard a work of SF because it’s not really about what it presents itself as being about.

But The Sparrow spends a great deal of time familiarizing the reader with the psychology and philosophical positions and realities of being a Catholic priest – and specifically, a Jesuit. It’s ostensibly about first contact with an alien species, but that constitutes only a small portion of the text. What little we learn about the species doesn’t come through narrative experience to any great degree. Most of what we know, we’re told as part of a verbal report from the protagonist. The trauma he endured, and his spiritual response to it, are the real subject of the book. And I simply don’t find that interesting.

Possibly the most obnoxious facet of the work is that its ultimate conflict is a Consequentialist one. The main character is faced with a dilemma: he can consider himself to be a clever ape that took some old folktales too seriously, or he can continue in his faith that his entire life was arranged by God to facilitate his journey to the alien world and thus his trauma must also be an intended consequence – a miracle, if you will. Though a horrifying one. At least, I think it’s supposed to be horrifying; I was left indifferent and blasé, being far more interested in the poorly-described world and its inhabitants.

I don’t regret having read the book, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. The reality that the people I’ve heard speak most highly of it were themselves Catholics – and to my mind fairly foolish ones – speaks volumes about the nature of its appeal.

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2 Responses to “The Sparrow”

  1. Didn’t James Blish write a better novel (Case of Conscience) with the same ingredients?

    • “Many reacted negatively to the story, but surprisingly few educated Catholics were among them. One even sent James Blish a copy of the actual Church guidelines for dealing with extraterrestrials.[1] These are not detailed, but merely suggest overall strategy based on whether the beings have souls or not, and if they have them, whether they are fallen like humans, or exist in a state of grace.”

      How exactly could anyone determine whether or not a species has “souls”?

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