This book was recommended to me I think when I was lamenting the lack of religion in modern SF on Galactic Suburbia, and then also somewhat at random by my school librarian. Who then proceeded to buy it for school… but put it on my desk before putting it on the shelf. Truly I am looked after.
The premise behind it is one that, once stated, makes an enormous amount of sense when you consider the history of colonisation and exploration from a European perspective. Which group of people have, historically, often been the first into new, uncharted-by-white-folks areas? That would be the Jesuits. Of course. So, in 2019 when a signal is received from another planet, it is the Jesuits who finance and send the first interplanetary mission. As the history of Earth’s colonisation would also suggest, it is not an easy mission, and fraught with all sorts of difficulties – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
The narrative follows two timelines: one from the time of the discovery of the radio signal, and the subsequent preparations to go to the new planet; the other, some 40 years later, with the one returnee being… interviewed… by his Jesuit brethren about what happened there. This is a difficult process for a variety of reasons: some pertaining to the priest (Emilio) himself, some to the interviewers, and others to the way the situation has been handled and reported. This second timeline is the most difficult to read, obviously, but in turn it has a big impact on the way in which the first has to be read. In the first, Emilio is not the man he has become in the second, so reading the two congruently gives the reader quite a sense of dissonance – which of course makes sense and adds to the experience of understanding just how this man changed, and why.
Did I mention it’s not an easy book to read?
Most of the characters are compelling, and usually in a good way. Emilio is probably the most enigmatic of them, right from the start. The rest of the crew who head off to the alien planet are more accessible, to a greater or lesser degree; most of the Jesuit investigators likewise, although we get to know them to a much lesser extent. There is a nice variety of character – different religious backgrounds being the greatest and most important example of diversity, given the book’s premise. I found most of the characters intensely believable, too, with one exception – and that exception I can’t really talk about without giving spoilers. Suffice to say, I hope, that I didn’t find that this took away from the book in the slightest.
In some ways this book can be seen as a meditation on the impact of European contact and colonisation on the rest of the world in the so-called Age of Discovery. Interestingly, and intriguingly, it looks at the impact on both the subject and the colonisers, which is I think something often missing from the literature (Heart of Darkness being an obvious parallel here). Connected to this, and really really interestingly from my perspective, is the fact that the impact of such an experience – right from the discovery of aliens to contact and the end result of that – on religious people is also front and centre. And taken seriously, and described in ways that I, as a Christian, found quite profound and… accessible, I guess. (The author discusses her own religiosity in an afterword, saying that she was a lapsed Catholic until she had children, at which point she started thinking about religion again and converted to Judaism.) I appreciated this attempt to grapple with what I think are incredibly important issues, and that are often overlooked in the genre.
There is a sequel, apparently, and I’m not sure what I think about that; it stands so starkly and brilliantly by itself that I would be reluctant to add to the ‘afterwards’. That said, this book is so beautifully written that I’m a bit in love with Russell’s prose and I think I could read every other bit of fiction that she’s put out there, so I guess I’ll be reading the sequel.