Books: Children of God

I had no idea that Mary Doria Russell had written a sequel to her excellent novel The Sparrow. It didn’t need a sequel and any continuation of the story could easily be a disappointment.

But I happened to notice Children of God in the library and recognized the author’s name. Considering the spiritual depth and emotional impact of the first book, I decided to finish up some lighter reading before tackling this new novel.

Once I started it, however, I was engrossed in the story. It deals less with specifically spiritual issues (i.e. in terms of our relationship with God – though everything we do has spiritual significance) and more with sociological and political matters. Much of the story takes place on the planet Rakhat, and I have to agree with those reviewers who see those as the more interesting parts of the book. I cared what happened to Emilio Sandoz, but as a character he is less of a draw than in The Sparrow.

Children of God has a different feel to it. There is less conflict on a person level (though that is hardly lacking), more on a society-wide level. There has been great social upheaval on Rakhat since the visit of the missionaries from Earth, though not all of it a result of their influence. By the time a new mission arrives (this time composed both of missionaries and merchants), widespread war has completely shifted the balance of power between Rakhat’s two intelligent species.

One comment my husband made while I was reading it seems particularly apt. Aliens in science fiction are never truly alien. They may have very different physiology and culture, but they turn out to be remarkably like humans in terms of their goals and motivations.

This certainly is the case in Russell’s second book. In The Sparrow, one is struck by their alien-ness, and aware of how much of the trouble resulting from contact with humans is due to how very differently they think and act from humans. But in Children of God, one learns how much they are like us in terms of emotions and motivations.

Of course, as I responded to my husband’s comment, who would want to read a book about aliens that really were alien? Those who enjoy science fiction enjoy seeing characters explore new worlds and new technology, but at its heart all good fiction is about people and how they deal with the challenges of life. Even if those “people” are aliens.

There is one character who really does seem alien in some ways, although he is one of the humans. Isaac is autistic, and prefers to live apart from others – especially the Runa, who talk so incessantly that sometimes the humans and the Jana’ata find it tiresome. Moreover, he has no empathy whatsoever for others – of any race. He is not intentionally hurtful – he simply is indifferent to the feelings of others because it is outside his comprehension to even think in those terms.

2 Responses to Books: Children of God

  1. modestypress says:

    I read THE SPARROW and got about half way through CHILDREN OF GOD and then got distracted by other interests. I will probably get around to finishing it one of these days. As an atheist, I consider religion to be the “original science fiction,” but such thinking perturbs religious believers quite a bit.

    I can’t remember the name of the sf story, but I read one once that came as close to possible to conveying what true aliens might be like. Humans land on a planet. Meet and communicate (awkwardly) with some aliens. The aliens express (as best as the humans can make out) friendship and curiousity. One of the humans is left with the aliens while the other humans go back to their ship to re-supply themselves. Then the humans get a distress call which is broken off. When they return, they find that the aliens have killed the human. They try to figure out what went wrong? As best as they can communicate it goes: “Did the human hurt or attack you?” NO “Did the human offend your beliefs or customs?” NO. “Can you tell us how to avoid future conflict or harm?”NO“Should we go away and never have anything to do with you in the future?” We don’t know the answer.

    To boil it down, really alien intelligent creatues would be incomprehensible to us, would they not?

    As an atheist, it would be interesting to me if intelligent aliens would develop religious beliefs. There is no doubt in my mind that humans would drive themselves crazy trying to convert aliens to believe in Jesus, Allah, or whatever. I can imagine the aliens saying, “Those earth creatures are realy incomprehensible.”

    By the way, as I am getting older (though still relatively healthy), I have just decided this week to volunteer (if they will have me) for the local hospice. If I am slowly dying in hospice, I doubt that I will appreciate some kindly, well-intentioned Christian talking to me about God and Jesus and Heaven, even if they are being very kind and helpful to me. If I am consistent in my belief (which probably began when I was ten years old) that there is no God, then helping dying atheists seems like a logical thing for me to do while I am still capable of it myself.

  2. modestypress says:

    I will mention another science fiction story that you might or might no find interesting or enjoyable. I am almost done with the first book of a two book series: NEXUS and CRUX by Ramez Nam, an Egyptian man who has worked for Microsoft and is very interested in the idea of humans turning themselves into “post-human” creatures. In this series of books, humans are developing a drug called NEXUS, that allows humans to communicate in something like telepathy and tangible empathy. To me, the writing is quite skillful, and ranges from data processing theory to lots of conflict and melodrama, It ranges from the United States to Thailand. As Nam points out, developing something like a “hive mind” (which I think humans are actually doing) creates great opportunities and threats. Ants and bees don’t exist as individuals and don’t care about privacy or disagree with their queen/hive mind about purposes and goals. Can a hive mind exist with intelligent units with self awareness? Could this bring peace as humans have never known it? Or would we all be turned into happy, mindless slaves?

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