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“The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell

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Host: Frank Lavallo

Readers: Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik

Author: Mary Doria Russell

Year of Publication: 1996

Plot: The Sparrow tells the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who leads a scientific mission to an off-planet world, Rakhat, and the risky and courageous attempt to make first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Frank: Hello and welcome. I’m Frank Lavallo and this is Novel Conversations, a podcast about the world’s greatest stories. For each episode of Novel Conversations, I talk to two readers about one book; and together, we summarize the story for you. We introduce you to the characters, we tell you what happens to them, and we read from the book along the way. So, if you love hearing a good story, you’re in the right place.

This week's novel conversations is about the novel The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and I’m joined by our Novel Conversations readers, Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik. Elizabeth, Phil. Welcome.

Elizabeth & Phil: Thank you. Thanks Frank.

Frank: And now onto our show. Before I start my conversation with Elizabeth and Phil, let me tell you a little bit about The Sparrow published by Mary Doria Russell in 1996. The Sparrow is the story of Earth's first mission to a newly discovered inhabited planet located just outside our solar system. The mission to the Planet Rakhat

was led by a Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz. And just as Jesuits had made first contact with many previously unknown peoples of our planet the Jesuits went to learn not to proselytize. They went so they might come to know and love God's other children. They went for the reasons Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went at “Madame de Glorium” For the Greater Glory of God. They meant no harm.

With that introduction let's talk a little bit about the form of this novel. It's a little different than a regular novel, there's really two narrative lines going on in this story. One is at the present time of our novel which happens to be 2060 in Rome. And this is the story of what happened at the end of the mission to the planet Rakhat. The other line of narrative that we get in this novel is at the beginning of the mission; it starts around 2015 in Puerto Rico with the telescope that actually hears the transmissions from our other planet. The only character that is in both sets of stories is the sole survivor of our mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, and he's on trial for things that may or may not have happened during this mission. So, let's start with Emilio Sandoz. But tell the story in a linear form I don't want to keep skipping back and forth the way the novel does. Phil do you want to tell me a little bit about Emilio Sandoz?

Phil: He was born and raised in Puerto Rico at the age of 15. He met a priest and started becoming involved with the Jesuits; up to then he was very poor… a street urchin basically…

Frank: Elizabeth, he's really saved by the Jesuits.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. And in my opinion no other options. There's a quote in the book that speaks to this, it says his family ‘was seriously screwed up family with a fair bit of ugly commerce.’ And I think that says it all.

Frank: We're also told that the Jesuits discover that he's got a talent for the languages and once he's in school he's trained to be a linguist. Now, the story really starts when he's with a group of scientists at the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

Phil: Philmy Quinn is the scientist who first hears the voices over the radio waves from another planet - who they begin to dub as ‘the singers’ - they decide that this is music.

Frank: Right Philmy is actually running the SETI program for the Puerto Rican telescope. And SETI is short for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”.

Phil: Right. It's interesting because they talk about what a low priority he is. He does the SETI program only when all the other work is done. And then he points the radar in specific directions and listens for sounds from other areas in space.

Frank: Well in our novel we're in the year 2019. We're led to understand that this study program has been in existence for well over 50 years and they’ve never heard another transmission. I think that's what leads it to being such a low priority (Phil: Exactly.) But then as you said, they get a transmission that they're not sure exactly what it is. It's Philmy Quinn, the scientists that the telescope, who decides this looks like a musical pattern. (Phil: Right.) And because Philmy Quinn is very good friends with father Emilio. The first person Philmy Quinn calls is the priest, who then of course rushes to hear this music…

Elizabeth: … which is breaking SOP – standard operating procedure.

Phil: Yeah, he tells his supervisor Mr. Yamaguchi… I just needed to tell my friends first.

Frank: And who are some of his friends? There’s Anne and George Edwards…

Phil: … who he knew through Father Sandoz. And then there’s Sophia Mendez who is the artificial intelligence expert who not only shadowed Mr. Quinn but shadowed Father Sandoz because of his skills as a linguist.

Frank: And its Father Sandoz who makes the first call to an authority but he doesn't call a governmental authority, he actually calls the Father General of the Society of Jesus. And sure enough, the Jesuits are the first ones off the mark, and they decide they're going to send a mission to this new planet.

Elizabeth: And they keep that private.

Frank: That's right. They don't tell the rest of the world that they're going to make this first journey. In fact, right in our prologue, there's a great paragraph that sets up this conflict between the Society of Jesus and United Nations. The passage reads:

“The United Nations required years to come to a decision that the Society of Jesus reached in 10 days. In New York diplomats debated long and hard with many recesses and tabling of the issue whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to contact the world that would become known as Rakhat, when there were so many pressing needs on Earth. In Rome, the questions were not whether and why - but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send.” (Correct Passage?)

So, once the Jesuits decide to undertake this mission - of course, they need to complete a crew. The first person they decide to send is gonna be father Emilio Sandoz. He's their expert linguist. They feel that he can communicate with whoever they may find on this planet. They also decide to send the Edwards’. George is a scientist slash engineer and Anne, who I believe is an emergency room physician. They also decide to send Philmy Quinn. He's the scientist that originally had heard the singers or had heard this transmission. But now they really need to fill out the crew and they need a leader and they decide to send D.W. Yarborough.

Phil: He initially comes into the story because he is the person who met Father Sandoz as a 15-year old and basically brought him into the Catholic Church - first for an education and then Emilio followed him into the priesthood. And so, he was a father figure to Emilio Sandoz.

Frank: And he is currently the Father Provincial for the diocese of New Orleans. (Phil: Exactly.) But he has some specific skills that are also needed on this journey.

Phil: Yes, he's an ex-marine and he knows how to fly Harrier jets. And they're looking at that as a similar type of device for landing on the planet.

Frank: And Elizabeth, they round out the crew with two other Jesuits.

Elizabeth: Right. Mark Robishow and Alan Pace.

Frank: And what are their specialties?

Elizabeth: Mark was a naturalist and a water-colourist from Montreal. And Alan Pace was a musicologist and he was brought along to analyze and examine the music. And Mark I thought was brought along as a generalist as well as someone who could assist in drawing some of the abstract ideas and concepts that might not be able to be conveyed verbally.

Phil: And he brought the skills of a naturalist so that he could identify flora and fauna and help them in interacting with the planet.

Frank: And probably the most unusual member of this crew was Sophia Mendez.

She was the one who was studying Philmy Quinn's job in order to translate it into a computer program. What sort of skills did they feel Sophia Mendez was going to bring to this mission?

Phil: What she could do was basically learn anyone else's job.

Frank: But the key for her, is not only that she could understand and learn what someone else's job was, but then she could turn around and actually do that job.

Phil: And translate it into software that could actually do that job.

Frank: All right. So now we have our mission. We're gonna go to the planet Rahkat. And we have the crew that's actually going to go to this planet. Let's get them to the planet…

Phil: In all the TV shows, and all the science fiction books, you see these sleek little star ships… but here we've got on an asteroid that they use, that they refer to as a Giant Potato without the Chives. And that's the vessel that they use to travel from our solar system to Alpha Centauri, where the Planet Rakhat is located.

Frank: That's the technology that exists at this time.

Phil: What they do is they take, as you said, an asteroid. They mined asteroids for resources. And so, this is an asteroid that already been mined for the resources they wanted and so it was hollowed out with living quarters already, and they converted it to their own use.

Frank: So they have this unique ship. They have their unique crew. And they get to the unique planet of Rakhat.

Phil: It takes them 17 years to get there.

Frank: That's right. It will be a 17-year journey out to the planet and a 17-year journey back from the planet. But because they're traveling at light speed - for the travelers, that time is condensed. (Phil: Right. Less than a year.) Here's how it's explained in our novel. The passage reads: “When you get home, the people you left would be 34 years older, but you'd only have aged about a year; because time slows down when you're near light speed.”

So, after a journey of about a year, they land on the planet Rakhat, and Elizabeth tell me about Rakhat.

Elizabeth: I found Rakhat interesting because it was very much like Earth: air, water, plant life, animal life, but none of it was identifiable in the ways that we know our own Earth. But I did find it interesting that the plant life and the actual nature of the environment that they were in didn't require any oxygen or any type of adaptation. It was almost identical.

Frank: But Phil, there's more than flora and fauna on this planet. There are actual inhabitants.

Phil: Yes. There's two basic intelligent species. The Runa and the Janata. The Runa is the more numerous like 95 percent of the population and the Janata is the ruling class, they're about 4 to 5 percent.

Frank: But it's the Runa that our missionaries first meet.

Elizabeth: Yes. They're vegetarian.

Frank: Yes, they are vegetarian. But tell me a little bit more about them. What did they look like? How did their social structure work?

Elizabeth: They have tails and fur and they have a similar social structure with mothers and fathers and children. However, our crew is confused about who is the male and who is the female because of their size.

Frank: Right, the females are the bigger of the two sexes and there's kind of a role reversal.

Phil: Right, the males stay home and care for the children and they're smaller. And the females tend to be the ones who go out and negotiate trade, make conversations and interact. They're the dominant of the two.

Frank: And whenever there is a sense of danger, it's actually the females that surround the children and the males, in a protective stance. (Phil: Yeah.) And how do they accept our missionaries?

Phil: Well even the missionaries talk about how surprisingly comfortable they are with aliens. And one of the things they talk about is that because the Runa are very large - my impression is six to eight feet is an average size in height and very big animals - and only Philmy Quinn is large, he's 6’ 8” or 6’ 9”. And so, they treat the other humans initially as children.

Elizabeth: I also thought that perhaps what Emilio Sandoz did at the beginning, by collecting rocks and pebbles and flowers; and sitting down as a child and exchanging gifts in a non-threatening manner, was also almost divine inspiration. It could have been a completely different situation if they had just walked boldly up to them. He sat there with the Runa for like two hours or so, right?

Phil: Yeah, quite a bit of time. And that's a recurring theme throughout the book is Emilio's spirituality and how it influences his contact with both individuals and the Runa and the Janata. That spirituality is a texture of that relationship.

Frank: Now in our story, they're going to end up spending about three years with the Runa.

Phil: …and that's the interesting twist. The fact that they run out of fuel for the Lander and therefore can't leave the planet ever again. So, it changes their whole point of view. This now becomes almost a permanent colony situation - where they're stuck there.

Frank: But before we run out of gas let's talk a little bit more about how they're living among the Runa. First of course, they're living off the food they brought with them… (Phil: Right.) … but then they decide they've got to experiment and try some of the foods of the planet. And they actually devised a great little system to test some of these foods.

Elizabeth: I thought that was just absolutely flabbergasting - that they would just pick one of their crew and say ‘OK you eat this, if you die, we know we can eat it.’ And they're scientists. I'm thinking, isn't there a better way? Isn’t ther some like litmus paper that you can test this.

Frank: As you said, Philmy is the largest of the crew members, so they feel that if he eats a small amount of something bad - because he's got such body mass - he might be able to absorb it better and not suffer such terrible consequences.

Phil: Right, if you're not dead in 24 hours… then someone else gets to try another bite. Then Emillio Santos and Anne Edwards are the control group. They never try to eat anything, and I don't think for the whole first month, they don't eat anything that's planet origin.

Frank: And it's in this way, they discover what they can be and what they can eat of the local fauna and flora.

Phil: Right. And then as part of this process, they decide that they still miss some of their own home foods and they don't want to take away from the Runa who are basically more gatherers than farmers. So, they decide to plant their own little gardens in order to get some familiar foods from Earth and also not to be so dependent on the Runa.

Frank: Sure if they've brought some seeds with them on their journey and really want to see what will actually grow in this planet. (Phil: Right.) Now, as we've mentioned this is about two years into our mission on the planet. And of course, they've come to some conclusions about the Runa’s by now.

Elizabeth: They've come to the conclusion that the Runa are not the singers of the music, because of the lack of technology and the fact that they don't even like music. The priests decide to perform a high mass with singing and the Runa react very negatively to the sounds and the music.

Frank: And now it's about this time that we meet the other species that lives on the planet the Janata.

Break #1:

OUT: But before we do, let’s take a little break and when we come back that's where we'll pick up our story. Right now, you're listening to Novel Conversations. We'll be right back.

IN: And welcome back. I'm your host Frank Lavallo. And today I'm having a conversation about the novel The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. All right Phil. Before we took a break, we introduced the new race on the Planet Rakhat, the Janata. Phil, tell me more about the Janata.

Phil: The thing you're struck by right off the bat is the physical difference between the Runa and the Janata.

Frank: They're similar but there are one or two very clear differences.

Phil: One, is that they only have three digits on each hand as opposed to five which the Runa have… which because a numeric system is based on number six and not on the number ten, which the crew doesn't realize until farther along … and this indicates which of the two species is dominant. Also, the Janata on those three indexes have long talons which we later see in this story are used pretty effectively. (Frank: As weapons.) Exactly. They also have canine like teeth for chewing and mashing rather than something blunter, that the Runa have as vegetarians.

Frank: Now, who's the Janata that we meet?

Elizabeth: Supari. He's the Janata that is allowed to trade with this particular village.

Frank: And it's with the meeting of Supari that our missionaries now feel maybe they've met the race that supplied these singers. And it’s at this meeting that two revelations are given to us as readers that more or less set up the rest of this novel.

Elizabeth: When Sapari is introduced into the story, he is actually attacking Emilio Sandoz. And Emilio basically responds by nailing him, and pinning him down, which saved his life and that of all the rest of the crew.

Frank: But what does that tell us about Sandoz?

Elizabeth: Personally, it told me that he had a divine moment there where he was able to react instantly without thinking which I felt was inspired by God but also that he had a strength in his character that was able to subdue a creature of immense strength and weapons and talons.

Frank: And what's revealed to us about Supari, Phil?

Phil: His aggressiveness. This is when we begin to see that this is a much different species than Runa. And that he attacks whereas the Runa, at no point ever attack, they only defend,

Frank: But after this violent misunderstanding… they do come to a relationship.

Elizabeth: It's then that Supari realizes that the foreigners are a source of value trade. He can take them back, and use them, and use their products to make money.

Phil: And the missionaries recognize that Supari represents the singer's culture.

Frank: In fact, Supari decides to take a couple of them to his city. (Phil: Right.) He takes George, Mark and Philmy Quinn. And we learn some things about the Janata in this city.

Elizabeth: What struck me was the sensual nature of the Janata. The secretary takes the three of them out to a bar and they get drunk on some type of substance and it's a very sensual experience for all of them. And it's at that point that Mark sees some interaction between the Janata and the Runa. He's coming back to the house after the bar and in his drug induced haze, he sees the Janata killing the Runa, as you would kill a pig or slaughter pig, a quick slice across the throat.

Frank: So, we come to learn that the Janata really are the superior race and the Runa are servants and slaves. (Elizabeth: Yes.) We also learn that the Janata are carnivores which is a big distinction between the two species.

Elizabeth: But the missionaries also come to understand that the music did originate with the Janata.

Phil: Exactly. And so now they feel that all the pieces are together. They are where they wanted to be - to begin with - with the singers.

Frank: But these pieces don't stay together very long. (Phil: No.) As soon as Mark and George and Philmy get back to the village where they've left Emilio and Sofia and Ann and D.W…. things really fall apart fast.

Phil: Well, while they were gone Anne and D.W. were killed by what the characters referred to as a ‘poacher’ - a member of Janata a species that's not affiliated with any city or village…

Frank: … a rogue Janata. (Phil: Exactly.)

Frank: And it's here with the death of Anne and D.W. at the hands of this rogue poacher that we really learn the truth about the planet Rakhat and the relationship between the Janata and Runa.

Elizabeth: And the relationship is… the Janata are the ruling class and the Runa are subject to periodic harvesting by the Janata, of their children. And they are also limited in their intake of food which was the reason for the problem with the gardens.

Frank: The Runa are referred to as the domesticated animals of the planet. (Elizabeth: Exactly. And they're being bred by the Janata.

Phil: They're the Janata’s cows. The Runa are basically their source of food.

Frank: But it's the presence of the missionaries and it's the garden that they planted that really leads to the downfall of this relationship.

Phil: Right. By controlling the intake of proteins and certain substances in the food; by allowing the Runa to be gatherers, rather than farmers, it controls their population growth. Now, that they're making their own food with a higher protein content, they're breeding more, their population is growing … and in response to this, the Janata have to come out and harvest unexpectedly a large amount of Runa children.

Frank: In order for the Janata to control the population of the Runa, they have to send in the Janata military.

Elizabeth: And because Sophia sends up a cry that starts to enable the Runa to be able to realize their own potential…

Frank: … what is that cry that Sophia puts out?

Elizabeth: We are many, they are few.

Frank: And that cry is picked up by the Runa and it scares the heck out of the Janata.

Phil: Exactly. You have 20 Runa it for every Janata. So just on a population point of view the Janata do not want the Runa to having any kind of awareness of their potential power.

Frank: And so, the Janata response to this new threat by….

Elizabeth: By slaughtering half of the population and most of the members of the crew.

Frank: Emilio and Mark are the only ones that survive. (Elizabeth: They’re the only ones’ left.) But now they're taken as prisoners.

Phil: And they travel with this patrol throughout the province where the patrol continues to clean up. And one of the interesting points is the only food that they have, that they're fed by Janata, Mark won't eat because he realizes that what this is, is Runa.

Frank: They're being fed Runa by the Janata on their forced march back to the city. (Phil: Right.)

Elizabeth: It's the children.

Frank: Right. And it's not long after they get to the city that Mark is killed and then Supari comes to realize that Emilio really only has one value left.

Phil: Correct. He basically gives Emilio to the head of the city, the leader, and in exchange receives an increase in his own personal status within the society. And Emilio is used as a concubine within the leader's Haram, which totally surprises Emilio. He thinks he's being given to this man as a way of continuing their relationship as equals. And then all of a sudden, he finds he's being used as a sex object.

Frank: He's raped by the leader and then passed around.

Phil: Amongst the aristocracy and then after several months he's just passed around to anyone who shows up.

Frank: All right now, let's wrap up this part of our story and get to our second line of narrative. After several months of this existence, Emilio Sandoz comes to a decision he's got to end this existence for himself. He decides that the next person into his cell he's going to kill. And at the very worst he'll be killed for that crime and thereby getting out of this hellhole that he's in. Unfortunately, it's actually rescuers who first comes through that door.

Elizabeth: Yes. These rescuers are guided by a Runa child. And as she walks through the door of his cell, he attacks her thinking that she is one of his guards, and kills her.

Frank: And these rescuers are a second mission sent from Earth to find out what happened to this first mission.

Elizabeth: Right. They are from the United Nations.

Phil: So, their first vision of Emilio Sandoz is a man who is obviously residing in a haram. And the first act they see him do is kill a child. And this is the report that they send back to Earth when they send Emilio back.

Frank: Right. They send Emilio back to Earth in the former space ship, as well as a report detailing what they've just witnessed. (Phil: Exactly.) And this is where we come back to our second line of narrative where we have Emilio Sandoz in Rome at around 2060 basically on trial for the events that the Jesuits think occurred on the planet Rakhat.

Phil: And there's also some intimation in the questioning about - is he responsible for the deaths of the other people on the mission? This mission is, by many, considered his mission and it's come back a failure.

Frank: Now the other important part of this novel for me is Emilio Sandoz and his personal relationship with his God and how that changes and evolves. He has a very strong personal relationship with his God. And it started very early.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think we see that in his relationship with Sophia because he obviously held an attraction to Sophia and he made a decision to not pursue it even though it probably would have been accepted - considering the circumstances. And that was a sacrifice in his mind that he made for God. And then later we see that Sophia is killed and that is in his own mind type of rejection. And then again towards the end of the book we also see that his personal sacrifice is rejected in the end of his life on the planet where he's made into a prostitute. So, his own belief in his God and his religion is transformed by the rejection of his sacrifices.

Frank: And Phil, you saw this relationship between Emilio and his God starting even earlier when Emilio was in the ghetto.

Phil: It's basically that relationship with God which he was introduced to by D.W. at the age of 15. That gets him out of the ghetto. At first it's an educational thing, an attraction at the intellectual level, but as he is exposed more and more to the Jesuit life he makes a commitment to God himself. And I really do think God replaces the loss of love that he didn’t get from family as he was growing up. So now God is very, very important part of his core being. This helps explain why he is so devastated by what he perceives as the abandonment of God at the end of the experience on Rakhat.

Frank: Well let's explore that a little bit more because he believes he was sent to Rakhat by God. He believes that this entire mission, the whole reason why they heard from this planet in the first place, was because God wanted Sandoz to go to the planet Rakhat and meet his new children. And what happens to Sandoz is if you believe that God sends you on a great mission and if God is the cause of the good things that happen in your life then - when this mission turned it became a tragedy - doesn't he also have to believe that God authored this tragedy as well.? In fact, Elizabeth isn't that where the title of our novel comes from?

Elizabeth: Yes. In the book Matthew 10 verse 29 is cited, “Not one Sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it - but the sparrow still falls.”

Frank: So, if God is the author of Everything that's good in your life, you also have to believe that God is the author of Everything Bad in your life. How do you reconcile that if you're a believer in a benevolent God?

Elizabeth: It's very difficult. Emilio has a horrible time with this after his return from Rakhat.

Phil: And there's two levels here. There's one that his belief in God and God's purpose for him is shattered. At the same time, he feels very guilty. He feels he was weak. He allowed himself to be raped and Father Juliano, the Father General, says to him: Do you think you're the first Jesuit who has been beaten? The is first Jesuit who has been enslaved? And tries to take him – at the least - out of that guilt feeling. And I think he's pretty successful about halfway through the book. And then they concentrate on Emilio’s devastation at being betrayed (in his mind) by God.

Elizabeth: His love was betrayed.

Frank: Does he ever reconcile that?

Elizabeth: That's a tough question. What I feel is, that he has come to a point by the end of the novel, where reconciliation is a possibility. It hasn't occurred but for the first time after he admits to the murder of the Runa child and it actually admits to the other inquires about his rape, he achieves a calmness, a serenity, that I think tells us that there's a potential for some reconciliation with God. But I don't feel that it happened by the end of the book.

Frank: It reminds me of the book of Jobe, where in Jobe’s story, many tragedies befall him and he can't understand why - he's a God fearing God loving person, he prays, he makes sacrifices - and yet all of these bad things continue to happen to him. He can't understand why. But even through all these tragedies, he remains faithful to his God. And eventually he is told by God himself I have a plan. You may not know my plan, but these tragedies are part of my plan. You just have to believe in me and know, that I know what I'm doing. Is The Sparrow really a retelling of the Jobe story in space?

Phil: That's an interesting question. I never would have thought of that.

Elizabeth: I think it's a similar theme.

Phil: Yes I guess I would agree. That this is kind of a retelling of the Jobe story and the eternal question, Why have thou abandoned me? Is I think what he asked, just as Christ did on the cross. And is what Emilio was asking throughout the last parts of his visit on Rakhat and afterwards.

Frank: And Elizabeth, we don't really get God's answer in this novel.

Elizabeth: No, but as I think even though we may pray, we sometimes think we don't get an answer but sometimes the answer is, there's no answer at this time.

Frank: And sometimes the answer is, just wait. (Elizabeth: Yes, sometimes.)

Break #2

OUT: All right on that let's take a break and when we come back what I really want from you both, will be to tell me what made this book worth reading. You're listening to Novel Conversations. We'll be right back.

IN: And we're back. You're listening to Novel Conversations. I'm your host Frank Lavallo. And today I'm having a conversation about the novel The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Phil tell me why this is a book worth reading for you.

Phil: Well it entertained me in a lot of levels. Mary Doria Russell, she just spins a nice story. I liked the device of the time differences a lot. It keeps my attention, the story adds a little thinking, and I like her dialogue. The banter between the different characters throughout the book, it is entertaining and fresh.

Frank: Didn't you tell me it was her use of the language that first attracted you to the novel?

Phil: Well, I enjoyed the story and the language. I just love science fiction and this is a classic science fiction theme first contact. And then to thread it in with the self-discovery and self-awareness that comes to Father Sandoz is a wonderful way of embellishing the theme of first contact.

Frank: Could this have been a first contact with God story?

Phil: That's right. I think in some ways Emilio comes into this story with the almost naive point of view of God - a childlike point of view of God. And it's only through the horrible experiences that he suffers on Rakhat, that his point of view matures. And maybe that's the quality in his character that I see at the end, is a maturity in his relationship with God that we don't see up to that point. And with that maturity he may be able to reconnect with his God.

Frank: Elizabeth was this a book worth reading for you?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I really liked the scientific explanations. Aside from the leap between Jesuits going into space. I felt everything that she presented was believable and based on basic scientific principles.

Frank: You both mentioned you enjoyed this story. It's not really though an enjoyable story is it. I mean it's a tragic story.

Phil: Yeah … but you know so is a lot of Shakespeare. I mean it's got a lot of meat to it. There's a lot going on…

Elizabeth: It’s a love story. It's an adventure. It's discovery. There's a lot of tension. You always wondered what the next chapter was gonna bring.

Frank: The fact that the novel starts almost at the end of the story. We have Emilio Sandoz as the sole survivor of a tragic mission that ruined the surprises, or did that ruin the events that occurred after for you?

Elizabeth: No, that was just the beginning and you really wanted to unravel what happened.

Frank: You have a line or two maybe a favorite moment or passage that you wanted to read for us.

Elizabeth: Well I really enjoyed the description of D.W. when she referred to him as, “One ugly Texan.”

Phil and Frank: (Laugh)

Phil: I believe the word she used was “butt-ugly.”

Elizabeth: I mean I love this, a term you’d never see in Shakespeare. We've got a butt ugly Texan in space.

Frank: Let me read you a line or two that I really enjoyed from the novel. I agree with you very much Phil that the writing is superb. Not only is the story very, very good and keeps you wanting to turn pages to the end but just the writing of Mary Russell is fantastic. I've been lucky enough to visit Rome a couple of times and here's a description of Rome that I found fantastic. Quote:

“John Candiotti was born to Flatland, straight lines, square city blocks, nothing in Chicago it prepared him for the reality of Rome. The worst was when he could actually see the building he wanted to get to but found the street he was on curving away from it, leading him to yet another lovely Piazza with yet another lovely fountain, dumping him into an alley going nowhere. Another hour, trapped and frustrated by the hills, the curves, the rat's nest of streets smelling of cat piss and tomato sauce. He hated being lost and he was always lost.” End Quote.

And that really is Rome. (Elizabeth: Yup!)

Phil: There was an expectation about this mission that seemed to be there and so everyone was looking at this as a failure. And yet, I always was wondering… what did they really expect to happen. Because it wasn't a failure. They made the contact, they got there, they got someone back. So, in my mind this was a very successful mission. And yet there's a theme there about the failure of the mission.

Frank: I'm glad you mentioned that. In fact, Mary Doria Russell wrote a sequel to this novel called The Children of God. And that novel picks up the story with the second mission to the planet Rekhat. And not only do we learn in the second novel whether this first mission had been a success or not - We actually are reacquainted with a character from the first novel who we thought died in this novel. (Phil: Correct!) But I am not going to mention who… I’d like our listeners to read The Sparrow and then perhaps pick up The Children of God and figure out what the real ending of this story is.

And with that point, let's stop our conversation today. Phil, Elizabeth I want to thank both of you for coming in and having a conversation with me today about The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I hope you enjoyed yourself.

Elizabeth and Phil: Thank you. It was a treat. Thanks.

Frank: You're welcome. Again, thank you to our readers. You’ve been listening to Novel Conversations.

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