The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell, Villard Books, 1996, 405 pp
Wow! Amazing! So good. One of those books you stumble upon that takes you by surprise. I first saw it on the backlist shelf at the bookstore where I work. (Once Upon A Time in Montrose, CA) Then I saw it mentioned on several lists of top sci fi books. While on a trip to Ann Arbor, MI, I bought it at my favorite Ann Arbor bookstore: Shaman Drum.
Set in 2059, the story combines space travel, Jesuits, aliens and a group of flawed but wonderful human characters. All you know at the beginning is that Emilio Sandoz has returned from a journey into space, sick, broken and without the rest of his party. He is a Jesuit priest and is taken in by his order for healing, but there are some huge shameful aspects to the mission. The rest of the book, shifting back and forth in time, reveals the whole story.
In an interview, the author says she wanted to write a story about the pitfalls of first contact between two alien cultures and at this point in time, had to go offworld to do so. She has tackled here also issues of faith, belief and duty in religion; of family and love and recovery from horrific childhoods; of time and science, linguistics and society.
Hard to believe that it is a first novel. She weaves through all that heavy stuff with the lightest of touch. On top of all that, she never over-explains, so I felt I was discovering the alien culture right along with the mission and that I was recovering from devastating memories right along with Emilio. A masterpiece! Even if you think you don't like science fiction, give it a try.