Any representation of an alien species is also inherently a representation of ourselves. When we try to describe other cultures, peoples, customs, traditions, we can't help but use our own as a frame of reference, and in a sense this means that we gaze unto the mirror. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is an excellent example of this, since while its central theme is the discovery of sentient alien life and the first mission of discovery to them, it is above all else the story of a relationship of a group of people, and in particular a single man, to God. The aliens that we discover are reflections of ourselves, magnified versions of humanity's features and assets, very alien indeed but also recognizable in a certain way. It is a story of love, joy, faith, discovery, and tragedy, one that can't help but leave a lasting impression, both of evil and of good, in the mind of the reader.
Russell fully admits that she didn't occupy herself too much with the scientific minutiae of the book, and there are plenty of things that one could pick about on this. As far as first contacts go, between man and alien, the mission which is sent out is inherently flawed and clearly so: it involves a blithe disregard of bacteriological infection and ecological colonization which would make any anthropologist shudder with horror, and a willingness to become involved in and alter contacted societies that would transform this shudder into an outright heart attack. And many of the technological aspects are clearly outdated by now: exoplanets have been found to extremely small size, meaning that Rakhtar could have been been identified and analyzed from Earth itself, orbital sensors are advanced to the extent that it would have been easy to provide for much more exhaustive mapping of the planet and identification of its political-geographic structures, and drone and espionage technology has massively advanced and enabled far less obtrusive examination of the contacted societies. But this is not the main point of Russel story: the mission is a backdrop for a very human, and also very alien, drama.
For the aliens that we meet are in a sense, humans - but rather humans divided, like the hermaphrodites of Greek mythology, yin and yang, although not, notably, in anything what we might imagine as a concept of "good and evil" or any Manichean struggle, however much the ending of the book might make us want to think so. The aliens of Rakhtar are divided into two halves, two sentient species: one, a gentle, industrious, kind, peaceful, but distinctly harmless, uncreative, and uncultured species of hunter gathering herbivores, and the other a violent, proud, warlike, but decisive, cultured, and poetic race of predators who rule over them. It is clear that Russell has taken the two sides of human nature and separated them out into two separate species, the better to understand and to look at ourselves.
It's a brilliant approach and at times a deeply unsettling one, for it is also clear which side humans err to more. For although the humans certainly find community and friendship with the Runa herbivores, they understand the Jana'tar far better - their first interaction with the Jana'tar is an attempt by one of them to exterminate them, a brutal and completely unprovoked attack. It leads not to hatred or to distrust, but to mutual admiration, even a sense of relief: that the Jana'tar act, they take decisions, they move, instead of being completely passive and uncurious like the Runa. The humans are never compared to the Runa throughout, but they are distinctly compared to the Jana'tar in terms of practices they have that are similar - after all, is the way that the Runa are treated by the Jana'tar so different from the way in which Humans treat our livestock, with the only difference being that the cows on Rakhat look enough like their masters to be sexually attractive, and that they too are intelligent? And human culture and society is far more similar to the predators, with music, poetry, and the concept of privacy, than it is to the Runa.
Writing aliens is an incredibly difficult task, and this reminds me greatly of the tendency of early modern novels to produce types rather than characters. A person in a book was not a full fledged character to represent a person in the sense that we might think of him, but rather a cut out, a stereotype, the fool, the drunkard, the worker, the hero, etc. The aliens that we meet are not greatly distinct as individuals, but instead they are defined by their status as roles, be it the Jana'tar character VaGayjur or the Runa child that Emilio so loves, designed to represent the primordial aspects of nature of their species. Given the severe difficulty involved in writing aliens, this is in my opinion a genuine necessity: it is better to establish them as different above all else. It does however, make for a great contrast with the humans, for the greatest singular strength of Russel, greater even than her real flair for crafting a different world and society, is her characters. D.W., the hardscrabble, heavily accented, butt-ugly Texan priest with a heart of gold, capable of joking and laughing but who cares so deeply for his friends that he drives himself mercilessly with details to assure their safety: Anne and George, friendly, genial, comedic, lovers of humanity who can threaten to break when they are unable to help others: Sophia, who has to break out of the shell of intense hurt and pain that has been laid upon her her whole life, to find what love means: Jimmy, innocent, gawky, honest, wholesome, steady, in a sense even plodding: Marc, shy, sweet, the saint: and finally Emilio, the man who searches to find the God that he prays to, ironic, genial, who has learned confidence and bravado to survive in a cold world, the man who above all others must struggle to know and master himself. It's a long list (not even including characters after Emilio's return to Earth!), but the characters are the greatest joy of the book, its flair for conversations, for their mutual tensions and their pride, for their stories and revelations. They are distinctly characters, while the Runa and the Jana'tar are types.
But of course, the aliens exist as a mirror to the humans, and despite all of the love, friendship, joy, kindness that the band of characters expresses, Russell clearly places the humans on the side of the Jana'tar. This can seem odd given that as a whole, the humans interact much more with the Runa than they do with the Jana'tar - they assimilate and become part of their village, and the characters that we grow to love throughout the book are people who are gentle, kind, and find the brutality and killing of the Jana'tar unconscionable. But even within the pages, and without glancing at human history, we see the predatory drive: is not the relationship between Sofia and her mentor/master Javier on Earth essentially the same as that between a Runa and a Jana'tar - that the former exists to serve the latter, including in a frighteningly close parallel to the sexual relationships of domination between the two alien species. This contrast between two worlds is most clearly made at the end, when the book makes its abrubt transition, hinted at in the after-reports of Emilion, from the joyful Runa village to its brutal ending pages.
But this leads back to what I view as the most problematic part of the book: at what point one can say that the line between fiction, drama, and tragedy is crossed and it becomes pornographic, either for sexual purposes or simply in the sense of horror that it tries to give. This is a careful line to tread, and for good reason: sex has such deeply felt links to human emotions that it is one of the most powerful tools that an author has to generate love, joy, and creation, and also destruction, pain, shame, and agony. Thus it is in the Sparrow, where sex tickles the plot throughout, from Sofia's childhood as a child prostitute in the streets of Istanbul, to the challenges of celibacy of the Jesuits, to the innocent and entirely non-self-conscious lovemaking of the Runa species, but it isn't until the end of the book that it truly assumes a major role: when Jimmy and Sophie are married and a child is planted in her, a symbol of a time of great happiness and joy, of flourishing and wonder in the bucolic Runa village - and in the final brutal dozens of pages of the book, with the rape, the violation, the whoring of Emilio, broken physically and mentally by a creature who when he first gazed upon him thought that he might be God - raped by God.
Raped by God, by a man who was convinced that he had a mission, that God had benevolently smiled upon him and showed him love, the celibate Jesuit priest for whom an act ran entirely against everything that his life had stood for. It is hard to stomach the horror in the final pages of the book, the fear that sweats off Emilio, his pain, suffering, his complete powerlessness - but at the same time the litany of horrors inflicted on Emilio reach such an extent that it becomes melodramatic, cheapening it, a reverse version of God's grace that reaches such an egregious level that it becomes laughable. To be fed the meat of your friends, they the innocents, to be tortured and crippled by a being who you thought you could trust and would protect you, to be raped by a poet that you had been taught to admire, and then in the penultimate scene of a the galactic improbability of chance, to slay an alien girl that you loved as much you would you own daughter - at some point the orchestra of horrors ceases being somber, powerful, measured, and simply digs into excess.
Other books can have incredibly unlikely chains like this and get away with it. Ringworld by Larry Nivens for example, manages to write a story of humans being bred, much like the Runa are bred by the Jana'tar, by aliens, but for luck. The sheer absurdity of the situation that it produces can be explained away by it: how can something like The Sparrow do the same, when it resolutely holds to a deist god, who doesn't interfere in the universe, who is there merely as the observer who gives meaning to the suffering of His creation? This is what transfers the final section of the book beyond elegant literary power into an outpouring of pornographic wallowing: the sheer excess that it goes to. Imagine if the end had been written as Emilio having been forced to eat, to survive, the meat of his friends, to be tortured and mutilated, betrayed by the alien man he thought he could trust, to see his friends slaughtered in front of his eyes and those who lived to die in excruciating agony, to be reduced to the most abject loneliness and despair, and even if you wish, to have the high culture of the Jana'tar revealed to be a cruel mockery of all of the principles and culture that he espoused, its poets brutal sadists, its love rape, its genteel paternalism unmatched tyranny: would not this in of itself, be enough to break a man? It is easy to see why Russell chose to end the story how she did, but its excesses go to such an extent that it mocks the rest of the book.
Perhaps this too is a commentary on our relationship to the Jana'tar - a willingness to go to depths and excesses that would never occur to a species that doesn't possess canines, spears, and assault rifles. In any case, the story which Russell crafts ends horrifically, but it is also one of such deep joy, love, discovery, and of such a brilliantly conceived alien civilization and world that even its excesses can be excused. The Sparrow is a brilliant commentary on human nature, on a relationship to God, and to how a suffering humanity copes with the brutality and randomness of the universe tat makes it into an immemorial piece of science fiction.