I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be "human".
I enjoy First Contact stories and this was a particularly good one. I think my enjoyment of it was increased by reading it soon after Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, about a man who worked (sometimes with, sometimes against) the Jesuits in 17th century French Canada. Since a Jesuit priest, Emilio, is the main character in this novel, the historical context really helped me to appreciate him and his actions.
I found the switching between chapters set on Earth and those set on Rakhat to be very effective. Russell could reveal just enough in one setting to make the reader think they know something and then in the next section show how our assumptions can be dead wrong.
Although I thought that the humans’ easy ability to eat the flora and fauna of Rakhat to be a bit unlikely, I found their confusion and incorrect assumptions about the beings that they encountered to be wholly believable. Despite Emilio’s extreme talent as a linguist and language learner, it is difficult enough for us to understand the cultures of other Earthlings, let alone that of beings on another planet.
It wasn’t until the very last pages of the book that the title became clear to me, but once it came into focus, I appreciated it’s subtlety. A very interesting book and one which I will continue to think about for days to come.
Book number 355 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.