I hunted this up and read it based on a friend’s recommendation. He said it was probably the best “First Contact” story ever written.
It’s certainly a disturbing and thought-provoking account of first contact with an alien species, though the core of the story is one man’s relationship with God, and a head-on confrontation with the “Problem of Evil”.
The novel starts in Rome in the year 2059. We discover that the sole survivor of a disastrous expedition to the alien planet Rakhat is being held in the care of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), who apparently sponsored the trip. Emilio Sandoz is in a bad state: his hands terribly disfigured, and psychologically traumatised. How he came to be in this condition is revealed through the course of the book, which runs in two strands: one dealing with Sandoz’s slow recovery and justification of his actions to his superiors; the other dealing retrospectively with the discovery of intelligence on Rakhat, the plan to mount an expedition there, and Sandoz’s relationships to his friends, who eventually accompany him. What happens to the expedition on Rakhat, and in particular to Emilio Sandoz, is disturbing and ultimately distressing. But it’s the effect on the mental state of the priest Sandoz which is the focus; his initial and growing certainty that God has chosen him to make this voyage, and then his ultimate despair at the awful outcome. Did God will these awful things? Did He fail to prevent them? Why?
Is it credible that the Society of Jesus would mount and fund a secret expedition to a newly-discovered alien culture? Is it feasible that an expedition could get there and return at slower-than-light speeds using relativistic effects, so that the entire return trip would take less than 40 years to observers on Earth (and only a few years to Sandoz)? Perhaps not, but that’s hardly the point.
This book has definite resonances with James Blish’s 1958 novella A Case of Conscience, which also looks at the religious implications of contact with alien intelligence, and whose protagonist, interestingly, is also a Jesuit priest. And I was also interested to see that Russell specifically mentions Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels as an influence. There are definitely elements of Francis Crawford of Lymond in Emilio Sandoz.
While The Sparrow does have some flaws, it’s a brilliant first novel. There’s a sequel, The Children of God, which I would be interested to read.