MARY DORIA RUSSEL
This is one of my favourite books of all time. You must read it and it’s follow up Children of God.
In the year 2019, an observatory discovers 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 Society of Jesus (Jesuits), known for its missionary, linguistic and scientific activities. Only one of the crew, the Jesuit priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz, survives to return to Earth, and he is destroyed physically and psychologically. What did happen to his hands? The story is told with chapters alternating between the story of the expedition and the story of Father Sandoz’s interrogation by the Jesuit order’s inquest, organized in 2059 to find the truth. Sandoz’ return has sparked great controversy – not just because the Jesuits sent the mission independent of United Nations, but also because the mission ended disastrously.
Sandoz initially believed the mission to Rakhat was divinely inspired. Sandoz tells how they travelled by asteroid 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, inhabited by a small-scale tribe of vegetarian gatherers, the Runa, clearly not the singers of the radio broadcasts. Welcomed as ‘foreigners’, the Earthlings settle among the natives and begin to learn their language, Ruanja, and culture. They transmit all their findings via computer uplink to the asteroid-ship in orbit.
When the Earthlings meet a member of the culture which produced the radio transmissions, he is a different species from the rural natives, a Jana’ata. An ambitious merchant named Supaari VaGayjur sees in the visitors a possibility to improve his status. The crew begins to grow their own food, introducing the concept of agriculture to the villagers. These seemingly innocent actions and accompanying cultural misunderstandings precipitate events which lead to a slaughter.
Russel handles themes of first contact with new species (races, cultures), communication (Sandoz is a linguist) crises of faith( Sandoz strong faith is completely shattered when he returns) and spirituality. It all makes for a powerful read.
“See that’s where it falls apart for me!” Anne cried. “What sticks in my throat is that God gets the credit but never the blame. I just can’t swallow that kind of theological candy. Either God’s in charge or he’s not…”
“Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.”
“That is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. 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.”
“[John] watched the flames for a while. “I would have to say that I find God in serving His children. ‘When I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stanger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me, imprisoned and you came to me.'”
The words lingered in the air as the fire popped and hissed softly. Sondoz had stopped pacing and stood motionless in a far corner of the room, his face in shadows, firelight glittering on the metallic exoskeleton of his hands. “Don’t hope for more than that, John,” he said. “God will break your heart.”