by Mary Doria Russell
"they were suffused with their surroundings. The windborne fragrance of a thousand plants as varied as stephanotis, pine, skunk cabbage, lemon, jasmine, grass, but unlike any of them; the heavy dank odor of vegetation decayed by another world's bacteria; the oak-like musky bass notes of the crushed herbs they lay on overwhelmed their ability to perceive and categorize such things. As three dawns and three dusks came and went, the sounds of the long day changed," (p 191)
This is a novel that starts out as a story of a first encounter with aliens on another planet, but before it is over it appears to be one that explores the nature of good and evil. It opens with Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, who has survived an expedition to another planet and returned to Earth. He has been damaged physically and psychologically. The story is told in framed flashback, with chapters alternating between the story of the expedition and the story of Sandoz' interrogation by the Jesuit order's inquest, set up in 2059 to find the truth. Sandoz' return has sparked great controversy – not just because the Jesuits sent the mission independent of United Nations oversight, but also because the mission ended disastrously. Contact with the UN mission, which sent Sandoz back to Earth alone in the Jesuit ship, has since been lost.
The novel begins in the year 2019, when the SETI program, at the Arecibo Observatory, picks up radio broadcasts of music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. The first expedition to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music, is organized by the Jesuit order. The main character is Sandoz, a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, who leads the mission. Sandoz and his companions are prepared to endure isolation, hardship and death. From the beginning, Sandoz, a talented Puerto Rican linguist, born in a San Juan slum, had believed the mission to Rakhat was divinely inspired. Several of his close friends and co-workers, people with a variety of unique skills and talents, had seemingly coincidental connections to Arecibo and one of them, a gifted young technician, was the first to hear the transmissions. In Sandoz's mind, only God's will could bring this group of people with the perfect combination of knowledge and experience together at the moment when the alien signal was detected. These were the people who, with three other Jesuit priests, were chosen by the Society of Jesus to travel to the planet, using an interstellar vessel made out of a small asteroid.
Sandoz tells about how the asteroid flew to the planet Rakhat, and how the crew tried to acclimatize themselves to the new world, experimenting with eating local flora and fauna, then making contact with a rural village – a small-scale tribe of vegetarian gatherers, the Runa, clearly not the singers of the radio broadcasts. Still, welcomed as 'foreigners', they settle among the natives and begin to learn their language and culture, transmitting all their findings via computer up link to the asteroid-ship now orbiting above the planet; however, an emergency use of fuel for their landing craft leaves them stranded on the planet.
They eventually meet a member of the culture which produced the radio transmissions who proves to be of a different species from the rural natives. Their interactions with him and his culture lead to the disastrous consequences for all with Sandoz singled out for special suffering. The outcome of the novel his held in suspense until very near the end of the story which was somewhat frustrating since it is clear from the opening chapter that there was a major disaster of some kind. Some feel this book is really "a philosophical novel about the nature of good and evil and what happens when a man tries to do the right thing, for the right reasons and ends up causing incalculable harm". Questions include the larger issue about the nature and role of god for, as one character says, "to make creation, God had to remove himself from some part of the universe, so something besides himself could exist. . . He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering." (p 401) Not everyone is satisfied with this viewpoint given the evil in the world. It certainly raises moral questions and provides suspense within a futuristic science fiction setting.
This was the second time I have read the novel with what I consider mixed results. The dangers when encountering civilizations different than our own seem to be unpredictable while it turns out that the unintended consequences of actions that seem benign can be devastating. The moral dilemma presented in this novel seemed to be an accident that may or may not have been avoided. It may also have been simply a story of the inevitable costs of exploring our universe.
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