By Tom De Haven
Updated October 18, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

What passes for sci-fi these days is mostly Star Wars and Star Trek novels; the rest of the rack space is filled with gigantic fantasies about wizards, dragons, and swordsmen on distant planets where everybody lives in clans and there’s a king. But Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow — which publishing insiders have touted as a potential word-of-mouth hit for months — is a hopeful sign that science fiction might yet reclaim its heritage as a literature with a boundless capacity to kindle wonder.

It’s December 2059, and Father Emilio Sandoz, sole survivor of a Jesuit space expedition, has just returned to Earth from the planet Rakhat. A mental wreck, both his hands cruelly mutilated, Father Sandoz is held in Vatican City by his superiors. They cajole him to explain how his fellow missionaries ended up dead, why a peaceful first-contact mission resulted in violence between Rakhat’s two sentient species, and especially what turned Sandoz from a scholar and a priest into a child murderer and a prostitute.

By alternating chapters that dramatize Sandoz’s tough-love interrogation with flashbacks to the mission’s genesis, flowering, and tragic collapse, The Sparrow casts a strange, unsettling emotional spell, bouncing readers from scenes of black despair to ones of wild euphoria, from the bracing simplicity of pure adventure to the complicated tangles of nonhuman culture and politics. While the science may be a bit shaky here, the smooth storytelling and gorgeous characterization can’t be faulted.

Like the science fiction of C.S. Lewis, Russell’s first novel is finally a parable about faith — the search for God, in others as well as Out There. What’s found during the missionaries’ visit to Rakhat is not at all reassuring or comforting. But only the most deceitful novels tell us what we’d like to hear. Important novels leave deep cracks in our beliefs, our prejudices, and our blinders. The Sparrow is one of them. A