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.