Mary Doria Russell, Novelist


Mary Doria Russell didn’t intend to be a science fiction writer; in fact, she didn’t intend to be a writer at all. Armed with a B.A. in cultural anthropology, an M.A. in social anthropology and a Ph.D in biological anthropology, she worked for many years as a paleoanthropologist, publishing scientific articles on subjects ranging from bone biology to cannibalism. But she found that she wanted to consider certain larger philosophical issues at length, and for that, it seemed, the ideal vehicle was the novel. Besides, Russell admits, she had eventually become fed up with academia and quit.

A former straight-A Catholic schoolgirl from Chicago who converted to Judaism, Russell became interested in the way religion and politics and science rub against each other. The result was her first novel, The Sparrow (1996), and its sequel, Children of God (1998). Her academic knowledge came in handy with both books, as her studies in linguistics, genetics, anatomy, archaeology and geology all found a place in the making of the fantastic world of Rakhat, where much of the action of the novels takes place.

The fresh and provocative quality of Russell’s imagination is signaled in the opening pages of The Sparrow. In 2016 radio signals from a distant planet turn out to be songs: mysterious arias in an unknown language sung in ravishingly beautiful, almost mystical harmonies. The siren call from across the universe is answered, not by NASA, but by the Society of Jesus. Feeling called to a pivotal moment in history, the Jesuits mount an interstellar expedition.

But when the book opens, the mission is already over. Though the Jesuits were determined to avoid a replay of what happened when Europe “discovered” the New World, something went terribly wrong. The sole member to return from the ill-fated expedition, Fr. Emilio Sandoz, is now the subject of an official inquiry.

The Sparrow is the story of what happened on far-off Rakhat. Children of God tells the story of Sandoz’s reluctant return there.

Both books were optioned by Universal Studios. Children, a selection of the Book of the Month Club, was simultaneously released in 1998 on audiotape by Russell’s publisher, Random House.

The Sparrow, chosen as one of the top 10 books of 1996 by Entertainment Weekly, has received many awards, including the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Prize, the British Science Fiction Association’s Best Novel Award and the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Prize for Science Fiction. Its characters are vivid and unforgettable, the plot a cliffhanger, and the descriptions as readable as the action scenes. Finally, though, it is the world of Rakhat itself that seduces the reader, Rakhat, whose inhabitants wear scented ribbons and weave songs of unbearable beauty and who find that they are longing for freedom.

—Mary Grimm


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