Russell’s novel The Sparrow, set in the near future, begins with a radio broadcast of music from an unknown alien source near Alpha Centauri. The protagonist , Father Emilio Sandoz, joins the first expedition to Rakhat, the source of the music. Sandoz believes the mission to be divinely inspired. However, he is the only one among his teammates to return to Earth.
Music is a major motif in this novel. The radio broadcast from Rakhat is perceived by those on earth as hauntingly beautiful, quasi-religious music. The mechanics of how or why the music was broadcast is not clearly explained. When the expedition makes contact with the culture that produced the music, they are in for a rude awakening. The melodies that they had considered to be divinely inspired are revealed to actually be pornographic celebrations of rape. Sandoz is forced to become a slave of the poet-songwriter who composed the melody that brought the expedition to their planet.
The human travelers who venture to Rakhat seem to be brought together for this mission almost through divine intervention. To Sandoz, only God could form such a perfect combination of people for the team. Ironically, the crew is united through what they see as mysterious, beautiful music, only to be tortured and killed later.