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Russell, Mary Doria

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1950-    ) US paleo-anthropologist and author who established a strong reputation for cognitive subtlety and narrative power in her brief sf career; after the Emilio Sandoz sequence – comprising The Sparrow (1996), her first novel, which won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the BSFA Award, the James Tiptree Jr Award, and inspired the granting of the John W Campbell Award in 1998; plus Children of God (1998) – she turned her interest to other fields. Both A Thread of Grace (2005) and Dreamers of the Day (2008) are historical novels; Doc (2011) is a Western.

The Emilio Sandoz sequence is both an sf adventure with some Planetary Romance elements, and a daunting scrutiny of the relationship between the challenged sureties of Religion and the unfathomable otherness of the Alien. A Spaceship (essentially a hollowed-out Asteroid or mini World Ship) is sent by the Jesuit order to the planet Rakhat, after broadcasts of haunting Music were picked up by a SETI program; First Contact with a complex native culture is established, seemingly with success, though the Prime Directive is fatuously ignored, and the enterprise goes disastrously sour. Twenty years later the sole survivor, Father Sandoz, is interrogated on his return to Earth in order to plumb the mystery behind the apparent death of all his fellows. He unfolds a long drama of mutual misapprehension on several counts; importantly, the music, which humans had thought of as a value-neutral form of Communication, turns out to be a manifestation of status, sectarian triumphalism, and sexual ownership. Realizing none of this, Sandoz is gang-raped, mutilated and enslaved. It is presumed by his music-maker owner that Sandoz should treat these circumstances as honourable.

The second volume, in which Sandoz leaves the priesthood and marries, focuses on the Gender issues raised but not illuminated in the first volume. Sandoz returns to Rakhat where many years have passed because of time dilation effects (see Relativity) over the long space journey. Rakhat is now riven by instabilities generated by the initial human incursion, and its two separate species are close to committing mutual genocide. Through a plot which sometimes veers into complicatedness, the species are eventually reconciled, Sandoz gains a hard-earned personal redemption, and the music of the spheres – manifest as a kind of common denominator linking the genomes of the three species (humans included) in the sequence – may soon ring through the universe: if the cruel God who seems to underwrite this long tale of anguish and only intermittent redemption permits his creatures to experience any lasting joy (see Gods and Demons). There are some obvious but insignificant links between Emilio Sandoz and James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958).

Because of the quality of its writing, and the seriousness of its examination of various issues, some critics claimed that The Sparrow could not therefore be sf. Russell herself seems not to have encouraged the claim. [JC]

Mary Doria Russell

born Elmhurst, Illinois: 19 August 1950

works (selected)


Emilio Sandoz

  • The Sparrow (New York: Villard, 1996) [Emilio Sandoz: hb/Robin Locke Monda]
  • Children of God (New York: Villard, 1998) [Emilio Sandoz: hb/Robin Locke Monda]


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