This is my favourite book. I’ve read it more than any other book, and I think it encapsulates so much that I love about writing and storytelling.
The story alternates between two stories, framing fshlaback. A ruined Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, is testifying to his Jesuit supervisors about a failed mission. The other story tells the mission – the SETI programme has heard radio signals from another planet, and Emilio, along with several others who he’s gathered around him during his lifetime, is sent by the Jesuits to make first contact. The two stories gradually begin to converge as Emilio tries to explain and come to terms with what happened on the planet Rakhat.
Why I love it
It’s a beautiful story, about hope and ambition – not the destructive kind, but the thoughtful kind that wants the best for the world. It’s about the characters’ relationships and the way the small group of people come together to try this awesome, dangerous but necessary mission, and the way that sometimes, despite our best efforts and intentions, things don’t always work the way we think they will. Like all great novels, it explores all aspects f human emotions and relationships and, like all great novels it struggles with some truly important questions the value and cost of religion, the meaning of life and love, what it can do to be hopeful.
Russell’s never preachy – not being religious myself, it would be easy to dismiss the religious questions as too overt, but they’re not; Emilio might be a Jesuit but he struggles with the nature of god and belief, and there’s a fairly detailed ongoing discussion with Anne, the doctor, on what it is to believe and whether indeed faith is required.
I’ve lent and gifted this book more than any other, too, and the response I often get is “Well, I’m not really into scifi”. This is not a sci-fi novel. It is, because it takes place in space and there are some technologies which haven’t been invented/perfected yet (the whole asteroid becoming a spaceship is brilliant) but it’s really a novel about exploration. In many ways, as Russell’s prologue itself suggests through historical reference, it could be set six hundred years ago and be a story of European settlers in the new world. It’s about exploration, and changing cultures, and the dangers of wading into a new culture no matter how prepared you are.
As a writer, I love the way that I love the characters and think they feel really real and someone like you’d want to have dinner with. I love the plotting, the tightness of the storyline and the way that they work perfectly paced together. And I love that it asks the big questions. .
What it changed for me
It got me back into scifi – I’d been reading a lot of fantasy (which although always lumped together is totally different) and ‘literary’ fiction; this is both literary and scifi. It’s poetic, lyrical rose with big ideas that just happens to be a scifi novel as well. It made me think that maybe I can write scifi and magic realism and fantasy with that kind of poetic description I can’t seem to keep away from.
I have quotes from this book scribbled all over the place, but I think the prologue is so well judged in the details – and the devastating last line. How could you not turn the page?
IT WAS PREDICTABLE, in hindsight. Everything about the history of the Society of Jesus bespoke deft and efficient action, exploration and research. During what Europeans were pleased to call the Age of Discovery, Jesuit priests were never more than a year or two behind the men who made initial contact with previously unknown peoples; indeed, Jesuits were often the vanguard of exploration.
The United Nations required years to come to a decision that the Society of Jesus reached in ten days. In New York, diplomats debated long and hard, with many recesses and tablings of the issue, whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to contact the world that would become known as Rakhat when there were so many pressing needs on Earth. 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 mission to Rakhat was undertaken not so much secretly as privately — a fine distinction but one that the Society felt no compulsion to explain or justify when the news broke several years later.
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 glortam: for the greater glory of God.
They meant no harm.