What we have here is essentially a first-contact story, set in the not-so-distant future. It being the future, the first contact in question is with an alien civilization on . . . *consults book* Rakhat. The mission to Rakhat is primarily scientific, but as it is funded and organized by the Society of Jesus, it is also religiously motivated. And somewhat hastily and privately planned. As the Prologue helpfully explains,
The United Nations required years to come to a decision that the Society of Jesus reached in ten days. . . . In Rome, the questions were not whether or why but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send.
The Society asked leave of no temporal government. It acted on its own principles, with its own assets, on Papal authority. . . .
The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. (p. 3)
And who DID the Society send on this fateful mission?
- The super-celibate and kind-of-attractive Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, an expert at picking up foreign languages
- Jimmy Quinn, a 28-year-old obscenely tall scientist who eats just everything and was the first to discover Rakhat (because of a picked-up radio transmission that turned out to be aliens singing alien-y songs)
- George and Anne Edwards, a 60-something husband-and-wife duo whom it’s impossible to dislike because dammit they’re awesome (oh yeah, and Anne’s a really good doctor, which I suppose is important)
- Sofia Mendes, an enigmatic indentured servant with a spotted past and unnaturally sharp mind (and also kind of a babe, obvs)
- Marc Robichaux, a French naturalist and watercolorist
- Alan Pace, whom I forgot about completely and can’t remember anything about even now that I remember he existed (*hours later* oh YEAH . . . Alan was a musicologist, which is why he wanted to go to Rakhat in the first place. Good job remembering essential plot points, Me.)
- D. W. Yarbrough, a grizzled old Texan Jesuit (New Orleans Provincial of the Society of Jesus to you) with a whip-smart sense of humor, and leader of this here space rodeo
Where the story picks up, it’s been about 40 Earth years since the team set off for Rakhat. But there’s a timey-wimey thing that happens, so the crew doesn’t age very much at all. The important thing is that the author makes space travel near light speed inside a hollowed-out asteroid sound like something that could happen.
The narrative alternates between the present day (2059) and the mission itself (starting in 2019), from hopeful beginning to unfortunate end. And we have some idea right away that things went terribly wrong on Rakhat because present-day Sandoz is the sole survivor of the mission and is being held for questioning for heinous acts he committed on the alien planet. The thing is, the Jesuits know WHAT he did (they actually knew YEARS before he returned to Earth because of that timey-wimey thing); they just can’t make sense of WHY. And he’s physically and emotionally just a gigantic mess; so it takes a while (the whole book, in fact) for him to come out with the entire chronicle of events. And it's no bedtime story for the kiddies.
The real strength of the book, for me, is the characterization. You get a clear sense of who these people are, who they were, and what they come to mean to each other. Which serves nicely to intensify the horror of it all when the proverbial Rakhat poo hits the Earth fan.
The characters also help reinforce some major themes. Because the group is a pretty even mixture of unbelievers and those who have devoted their lives to their belief, they have some heavy conversations about religion. For example, THIS one, with Marc being the talker (Marc happens to be one of the Jesuits on the mission, with the bonus characteristics of being both French AND a silver fox):
"It is the human condition to ask questions like Anne’s last night [I can’t tell you about Anne’s question, but it’s something along the lines of, “Why would God let this happen?”] and to receive no plain answers,” he said. “Perhaps this is because we can’t understand the answers, because we are incapable of knowing God’s ways and God’s thoughts. 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."
But he goes on to say, and this is important, I think:
"The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God." (p. 201)
|God isn't picky about dance partners.|