Emilio Sandoz is a Jesuit priest. He has just arrived back to Earth after having been on a journey to another planet to make contact with aliens. He is a broken man. The things he has been through have left him shaken to his core, and they have shaken his faith in God.
We find out these things gradually. The story is told backwards in that it starts with the return of Sandoz to Earth. Only later, as Sandoz himself starts to come to terms with what has happened to him, do we get the details of his journey.
There was something alienating (sorry) about this novel. The first hundred pages or so left me scratching my head. I had no idea what was going on, but luckily I kept reading, and luckily it got better. The characters were for the most part delightful, their interactions full of warmth and caring and humour. The logistics of traveling to another planet and communicating with aliens were very interesting. Consider the problem of language; Sandoz is not only a priest, but a linguist with a lot of experience making contact with new cultures. Still, humans all around the world have more in common than they are dissimilar. Aliens on the other hand have nothing in common with humans. How can we understand them?
The issue of religion plays a big part in this book. What does Sandoz’ suffering mean in the context of religion? How does God play into this whole alien business? I found that religion is prominent in the book (or even central to its message) but the author is never preachy, either for or against it.
For a book so littered with likeable characters, I thought it was clinical in a way. Perhaps it was because of the way the author treats the aforementioned characters. There is little redemption. There is little respite. They are made to suffer. This, I found, was hard to stomach, especially because their suffering was handled almost indifferently.
All in all, it was a well-written book with a very interesting premise, but the way Mary Doria Russell distances herself from her characters made it hard to care about the book.