In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a SETI 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. (We’ve always known the Roman Catholic Church is the richest institution on the planet.) What the Jesuits find is the partial basis of the book. An interesting premise, the Jesuit space mission, based as it is on the long history of the Jesuits having first contact with cultures other than their own. Jesuits have always been scholars, educators, explorers, intellectual idealists.
On Rakhat, there are two main humanoid species. The mission party learns that the one species, vegetarians, back in prehistory, were prey of the other species, the Jana’ata, and there is now a precise balance between the Jana’ata, which are a carnivorous herding society that breed their prey, the Runa, for intelligence and adaptability as well as meat.
The mission party lands in a region of the Runa, who are vegetarians, learn their language, and notice that these people are very thin, and seldom have children. The mission party is surviving on the supplies they brought with them and on the vegetation that the Runa eat, and decide to improve their diet by planting a garden with the seeds they have brought with them. The Runa are amazed at this cultivation idea, plant their own, and grow heavier. The better diet brings the women into oestrus, and they start producing a lot of babies. Unbeknownst to the mission party, this is not permitted by the Jana’ata, who strictly control the Runa population so that in either population there is never hunger, homelessness, etc. A Jana’ata control party arrives at the Runa community and slaughters all the babies.
In the year 2060, only one of the crew, the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, survives to return to Earth, and he is damaged physically and psychologically. The story is told with parallel plot lines, interspersing the journey of Sandoz and his friends to Rakhat with Sandoz’s experiences upon his return to Earth.
The book has been called a parable about faith, the search for God. The priest Emilio Sandoz is a deeply religious man, and others see God in him, but his own search lacks completion. When terrible things happen to his mission cohorts, and then to him, he is faced with the possibility that there isn’t a God, and he is all alone. If there is a God, God has possibly abandoned him, or has no interest in him, an equally terrifying proposition.
It is the actions of the intruders, the mission crew, which bring danger and violence to a settled and balanced society. The story subtly raises concerns about the ways in which sophisticated cultures tell themselves cover stories in order to justify actions taken at a terrible cost to others. Does our own cultural values give us permission to judge and act on other cultural norms? Can we vindicate our being all Judgey McJudgeface about the Jana’ata breeding the sentient Runa for food, while we ourselves have a number of stock species we breed for food?
If my description sounds like the book is all about religion, it isn’t really. It is about the philosophical mindsets we have, our notions of what is a god, and what are our obligations and responsibilities toward other cultures. Plenty of action in the book, and while the actual science-y stuff is pretty thin, glossing over a whole lot of issues, such as how the mission party keeps their electronic apparatus functioning on a planet with no electricity, not to mention the idea of the distance travel, with the planet Rahkat being 4 light years away and all, as with all fiction, we have to set some of these nit pickey considerations aside and deal with the larger story arc.
Oh, and the title comes from the biblical reference that God keeps his eye even on the smallest and least consequential. What Father Sandoz learns that keeping one’s eye on something and actually doing something about it may very well be two different things.
There is a sequel, Children of God, where Father Sandoz is cajoled into returning to Rahkat. I plan to read that in the near future.