"The Jesus Incident" by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom (1979)
"Hylighters were a nuisance, yes. They were buoyed by hydrogen and that, coupled with Pandora's frequent electrical storms, made the creatures into lethal firebombs. In common with the 'lectrokelp, they were useless as food. Even to touch them produced weird mental effects - hysteria and even, sometimes, convulsions. Standing orders were to explode them at a distance when they approached the colony."
Frank Herbert co-wrote "The Jesus Incident" in 1979, between writing "The Dosadi Experiment" and "God Emperor of Dune." His co-author, Bill Ransom, was known as a poet prior to the publication of this novel, and is presently the Dean of Curriculum at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. "The Jesus Incident" is the sequel to Herbert's novel "Destination: Void," and is the first book of the Pandora series.
In "The Jesus Incident" we find the crew of Ship, a sentient spacecraft, attempting to colonize the planet Pandora after all life on Earth has been extinguished. The crew, known to each other as "shipmen," consider Ship to be a living god, and their plans for Pandoran settlement often conflict with what they perceive to be Ship's (or God's) plan. To complicate things still further, the wildlife of Pandora is very hostile towards the shipmen, and the shipmen's plans for Pandora often run counter to the designs of the Avata, a sentient form of plant life which inhabits Pandora's oceans.
If any of this sounds familiar, it is because elements of this story found their way into James Cameron's "Avatar," and a lesser-known film called "Pandorum." In the case of "Avatar," the borrowing of plot elements borders on plagiarism, and I wouldn't be surprised if members of Herbert's family or Bill Ransom hadn't tried to take legal action against Cameron for stealing their ideas. In the case of "Pandorum," the theft of ideas is even more blatant, and I assume that that film's obscurity is what protected it from lawsuits.
Given the (often uncredited) influence of this book, you might think that it's worth seeking out. If so, you would be correct. "The Jesus Incident" is an excellent book, even if it might seem a bit slow, intellectual, or (gasp) pretentious. "The Jesus Incident" doesn't just explore the colonization of an alien planet; it also discusses our relationship with God, our idea of divinity, and the role of language in describing the divine. It's heavy reading for sure, but it's rewarding in the way that truly great science fiction novels always are.
Compared to the rest of Herbert's bibliography (Ransom didn't write that much, and his books are hard to find), I would rank this one near the top. I think co-writing with Ransom brought a lot of good things out of Herbert, and where he would have normally glossed over certain aspects of the plot Ransom's presence added a finish to the overall book that Herbert rarely accomplished. "The Jesus Incident" is a fully imagined, involving read, and it's just a shame that more people aren't aware of the long shadow this book has cast.