I still feel changed by this book; I think about it constantly and the characters who annoyed, bonded with and scared me.
The story is almost secondary to the ideas expressed around faith and how our beliefs can either strengthen or destroy us.
Eight people leave Earth to explore the newly discovered planet of Rakhat. The story is told in flashbacks, this is the way in which the reader finds out about how each person endured the trip and their ultimate fate. This planet is discovered after music is heard at a station on Earth. which all believe are welcoming messages; rather than engage in the United Nations debate that is sparked of who should man a mission to seek out the origin of the messages, the Jesuits set off ahead of everyone else. This all made sense to me, if anyone has the resources and capacity to man a trip to the planet, it would definitely be the Catholic church.
Father Emilio Sandoz is the central character and believes that this newly discovered planet will lead him to the meaning of life and his God. Unfortunately he finds that fate/his God/his faith have not aligned in this way. The novel's ending which describes what the songs actually mean is powerful and will last in your mind for some time to come - that I can promise.
Some readers thought it was preachy but I didn't see that at all, I think that Russell allows each person to decide for themselves what they want to believe. For me it also seemed somewhat critical of the Catholic church especially their system of hierarchy and the blind faith which can color decision making.
Why didn't I give it five stars then?
There were a few 'no you didn't' moments which distracted me greatly. The travelers are the best and the brightest, chosen specifically for this mission, and yet make some ridiculous choices that just were annoying. As the reader, you just knew it wouldn't turn out well, ie. trying plants/animals on another planet, meeting an alien race and not taking reasonable precautions, wasting fuel, and finally some standard and too-often done character profiles: the obligatory tough chick, mama hen and Mr. know-it-all.
It stil has me ready to read the sequel and to find if and when Father Sandoz will return to Rakhat.