The Sparrow (1996) by Mary Doria Russell
In this my second "Catching Up" post, I confess that I had never heard of The Sparrow or Russell until a few weeks ago when it was highly recommended on the Book Riot podcast (sorry, not sure which episode...). The story sounded so intriguing that I ran out and bought it. I finished it just yesterday and I've found myself thinking through the characters' experiences and what I would have done in their place as though I was thinking through events in my own life.
The Sparrow is not like any other book I've read in recent years. It switches back and forth between a group of Jesuit priests and their lay friends/co-workers setting out to make contact with an alien race, and a time forty years later when a new generation of Jesuits in Rome try to understand what happened on that ultimately disastrous mission.
The ways in which these characters explore the planet Rakhat, make contact with its humanoid inhabitants, and settle in relatively easily, planting gardens and learning one of the planet's languages, reminded me of certain Star Trek episodes, particularly from The Next Generation series, because the story, in both cases, is not necessarily about first contact but rather how humans respond to proof that we are not alone in the universe. One of the priests on the mission to Rakhat, Emilio Sandoz, was the first to propose the journey, and ultimately ricochets between religious ecstasy and the darkest spiritual despair as he questions the nature and extent of God's involvement in human affairs.
Ultimately, I suppose, all narratives that imagine humanity's first contact with aliens is bound up in questions of faith and purpose in this universe that we must continue to explore.
And I confess that whenever I read a book or watch a film about first contact, I hope that the aliens are so strange and unreadable that the humans have to come up with some ingenious ways to establish communications. One of the best such stories I've come across was called- you guessed it- "First Contact" (1945) by Murray Leinster.
The Sparrow story continues with Children of God (1998), which you can bet I'll be checking out.