The book begins in the year 2060. It describes a mission of Jesuit Priests that were sent out to make contact with aliens on another planet. Many years after the trip, only one person returns, Emilio Sandoz, and he returns disfigured and nearly incoherent. The Catholics want to hold hearings to find out what happened, but Sandoz is in no condition to tell them.
Going back to 2019, a SETI program picks up radio signals from a planet in Alpha Centauri, and the signals are determined to be songs created by alien life. The Jesuit Order selects a group of friends, including the technician who discovered the signals, to travel to the planet and reach out to the civilization that produced the signals. Sandoz is a talented linguist who will be needed to learn the alien language quickly and translate for the group. It’s a 17 year journey in Earth time, but because time is different on the journey it will only feel like 9 months to the travelers.
Much of the story is told in a slow, meandering way that is much more about the characters than the plot. We learn a lot about husband and wife Anne and George, Jimmy, Sandoz, and the other members of the team. We also know that everyone but Sandoz dies, but we don’t know how.
Along the way, there is a lot of discussion of religion and faith. The characters discuss what it means for priests to give up sex and relationships. At one point Anne, a doctor, describes her frustration with religion, in that people always credit God when someone lives through an illness, but blame doctors when someone dies.
“I believe in God the way I believe in quarks. People whose business it is to know about quantum physics or religion tell me they have good reason to believe that quarks and God exist. And they tell me that if I wanted to devote my life to learning what they’ve learned, I’d find quarks and God just like they did.”
The title is a biblical reference that is explained in the last chapter of the book. Two characters debate whether God has a hand in everything humans do, or did he create man and then leave us on our own? The reference is a passage that states that not even a sparrow falls to the earth without God’s knowing of it. God is watching, but the sparrow still falls.
I really enjoyed this book, although I struggled with the idea that when the world first makes alien contact, a group of Jesuit priests is sent to represent humanity, rather than a carefully chosen group of scientists and ambassadors. The book explains that because Emilio is a close friend of the technician who discovers the signals, the Order is able to organize first before anyone else plans an expedition.
It felt like a long way into the book before we get to the parts with the aliens, and then it’s a long way before you really get to the conflict that occurs. There were times I thought I might put the book down but I’m really glad I kept going. Once I got to about the last third of the novel, I could barely put it down. And once I finished I couldn’t think about anything else.
The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time. Like most colossal disasters.
Like most good science fiction, this book raises complex issues related to morality – our standards and those of other cultures. For example, the aliens in this book subjugate another group but they do so in the name of keeping order and taking care of others. Sandoz points out that in our world, children starve and girls are sold into prostitution. Which is worse?
Another common science fiction theme is the need to tread carefully in an alien world so as not to disrupt their culture. The travelers take this very seriously, but at the same time it’s impossible that their visit will not have an impact.
The book meanders for a while but it all comes together in a powerful finish that will really make you think. It’s an excellent book that I’m glad I read.