It is the year 2060, and the Jesuit priest Emilio Endoz has been found on the planet Rakhat by the second Earth ship to travel there. Found in a whorehouse and killing a native inhabitant in front the UN members’ eyes, they nonetheless strap him into his original spaceship and send him back to the Jesuits. There he is treated for his horrifying wounds and through a series of flashbacks and current conversations with the various Jesuit committee members assigned to his case, we slowly see how everything that started out so right went so horribly wrong on Rakhat.
It may have been a while since it made it onto my tbr shelf, but I still have a crystal clear memory of why I acquired this book. I entirely blame Little Red Reviewer, who just so happens to be the only other female scifi fan who book blogs that I’m aware of. (Feel free to enlighten me to more in the comments). Her review that religion is there but in a questioning way that honors the tradition of scifi made me give this book with a Jesuit priest and mission at its core a chance. I’m glad I did.
This is a first contact story that takes the all-too-infrequent route of Earth finding the inhabited planet first and sending a mission to them. There’s so much more than that that makes this book unique, though. The future Earth just barely has the technology to make it to Alpha Centauri, and only the most tech-savvy are aware of it. Thus, we’re not an incredibly advanced civilization making first contact, just one slightly more so than Rakhat. I’d say a fair comparison might be late 19th to early 20th century earth to early to late 21st century Earth. It’s a short span of difference. Additionally, Russell made the intriguing choice of the first contact being run by missionaries, instead of a political unit. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Who tended to be first to the New World? Religious groups. Who can organize themselves quickly and have vast finances? Religious groups. Having first contact be missionaries makes so much sense that I’m shocked I didn’t think of it first.
That said, thankfully this book is not a love letter to organized religion or mission work. It is instead a complex, scientific, and anthropological study of the human condition, the difficulties of vastly different cultures meeting, linguistics, and much more. At its core it is all about why does god (if there is a god) let evil happen, especially to good people who are serving him? These issues are more easily addressed and made further complex by having agnostics, non-practicing Catholics, and a Jewish woman members of the mission team. The non-believers are about at even numbers with the priests. In fact, the deeper into the book I got, the more it tore at my heart-strings. Varying types of questioners are represented, and of course it’s possible to identify with many of them, particularly for a reader who once was religious but is not anymore. There’s the priest who is secretly gay, the Jewish woman who was wounded terribly by war but comes to learn to love again, the Father Superior who thinks he may be seeing the formation of a real live saint, the priest questioning the very existence of god, and the agnostic who wants to have the beautiful aspect of faith that she sees in those around her.
This book reads, it sounds a bit odd to say, almost like an agnostic’s prayer. Of course agnostics don’t pray, but if they did pray, the pain and wondering and intelligence found in this book would all be there.
We are, after all, only very clever tailless primates, doing the best we can, but limited. Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable. (page 201)
The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances…is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God. (page 394)
People more into science than the questioning human spirit will find plenty for themselves as well. The science of linguistics is astoundingly well presented. The way the two “sentient” species on Rakhat have evolved is also incredibly well thought-out and realistically drawn. The problems of poverty and war on earth are briefly explored too.
All of these things said, I do feel it took a bit too long to get things set up and moving. Granted, I tend to be a bit of an action-focused reader, so others may not have a problem with that. It was still a draw-back of the book for me though.
I sort of feel like I’m not doing the experience of reading this book justice. Suffice to say if you’ve ever questioned whether or not to have faith and love your big questions to be wrapped in well-thought-out scifi, this is the book for you.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Better World Books