Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mary Doria Russell/CHILDREN OF GOD

Spoilers alert: This book is a sequel to the same author's The Sparrow, reviewed here a few weeks ago. In that earlier review, I tried not to include plot details which would ruin first-time readers' appreciation of the book. Likewise, in this review, I'll resist including spoilers about Children of God. But I can't promise to avoid spoilers about The Sparrow here; my assumption is that if you're thinking of reading this one, you've already read the earlier book. Fair warning, okay?

The action in Children of God picks up where The Sparrow left off:

Emilio Sandoz has done his big reveal before the Jesuit inquiry into the disastrous mission to the planet Rakhat years before. Sandoz remains a proud but broken (and lonely) man, his faith in God shredded by all that he's been through. The same characters are in place around Sandoz: Jesuits Father General Vincenzo Giuliani, Brother Ed Behr and priest John Candotti, and the others participating in the inquiry and Sandoz's subsequent care and recovery. Sandoz continues to sleep poorly -- as who wouldn't, after having his hands maimed so horribly, to say nothing of years of gang rape by the Rakhati poet-singer Hlavin Kitheri and his carnivorous friends?

As in The Sparrow, Children of God's structure swings back and forth between events on Earth and events on Rakhat (and en route). Chapter headings continue to require both "where" and "when" details. And the "when" bits? Still stretched out over decades, thanks to the strange effects of Sandoz's near-light-speed travel to and back from the distant planet.

But these threads of continuity lead to a very different book.

Remember the surprise -- the shock -- from the first book, the discovery of how different things were on Rakhat than anyone had anticipated? (Alien, indeed.) Those surprises continue in the sequel; in many cases they overturn the surprising conclusions which themselves overturned our expectations while reading the first book. For in this book we spend proportionately much greater time in the lives and minds of the Rakhati themselves.

Particularly, Russell places us for long stretches in the company of the "villains" of The Sparrow. We learn what happens to Supaari VaGayjur, the ambitious merchant who delivered Sandoz to Hlavin Kitheri in exchange for social advancement. And long passages explore the everyday life and motivations of Kitheri himself. We learn a lot more about both the gentle Runa and the predatory Jana'ata, and why Rakhati society has evolved the way it has, and why it's stayed that way.

A less skilled author might communicate all this in long, dry expository passages, as in a history or geography textbook (with big swatches of text excerpted from psychological journals). Russell doesn't do that. She uses characters -- familiar and new ones -- as vessels of history and personality; the context soaks into our awareness gradually rather than being injected forcibly.

(On the other hand, she also continues her practice from The Sparrow, as I mentioned in the earlier review, of telling us about her characters' states of mind rather than revealing them through behavior. It's more understandable here, maybe; after all, we have no built-in inner compass to help us map Rakhati behavior to psychology. But at times it did require -- for me -- long patience.)

Children of God introduces us to new human characters, too, and these additions lead to further upheavals in Sandoz's assumptions about what God might or might not have planned for him. For Emilio Sandoz returns to Rakhat, and there faces the aftermath of his first visit. I loved this about Children of God: a common theme of science fiction is how human culture might be remade by a first visit from extraterrestrials, but we seldom get to see it from the other side. And as we might imagine with Earth's first unexpected contact, so with Rakhat's: many, many things are turned upside-down.

(Remember that Sandoz has made two near-light-speed journeys between Rakhat and Earth since leaving the former: one outbound and, now, one returning. Planetary time stretches out, so in what Sandoz perceives as months, over a decade passes back on both his home planet and on Rakhat.)

Finally, early on in Children of God we learn what we -- what I -- never suspected: Sandoz was not the only one to survive the earlier mission. What that survivor experiences among the Runa and Jana'ata races lies at the heart of what Sandoz comes to understand, not just about his two visits to Rakhat but about his entire life.

In a "reader's guide" section which the publisher added to the end of Children of God, Russell says she was surprised that its popularity seemed to exceed that of The Sparrow. I myself would not choose to take Children of God with me as reading material on an interstellar journey (although The Sparrow might make the trip). Much of the pleasure of the earlier title came from seeing the characters interact with one another. Those characters were not just fresh to me, but innocent of what they would find on Rakhat. Children of God is a book which must fight its way back from despair and terror, which makes it a book of a wholly different, a darker character. The narrative here spends much more time in the minds of institutions -- the Jesuits and the larger Roman Catholic Church, the Runa and Jana'ata cultures. Furthermore, The Sparrow's tone benefited from much light-hearted conversation and flirtation between men and women; in Children of God, you'll find almost none of that.

I also must mention that I found the passages focusing on Hlavin Kitheri... well, repellent. Even after coming to appreciate, objectively, how his mind worked and why it worked that way -- even after he goes a long way towards redeeming not just himself, but the whole of Jana'ata culture -- I still hated the character. (I did admire Russell's skill at bringing him to life.) It was like watching George C. Scott in Patton: I kept thinking, y'know, You monster. You S.O.B. Don't even try to justify what you're up to. 

So, recommended or not? I gave The Sparrow 95 out of 100; Children of God, I'd probably place around 85. Still very happy to have read it, I hope to look into Russell's more recent work. (She didn't stick to science fiction; her latest is about Wyatt Earp's friend, Doc Holliday!)


marta said...

I had a hard time sorting out my feelings about Kitheri--I felt Russell wanted me to understand him and I certainly didn't want to.

That said, I read both books together. I set The Sparrow down, reached over and picked up Children of God in the next second. So, I can't really think of them as two books. I can't separate them, and can't think of reading the first without the second. I feel I'd have missed something necessary to miss the second.

Maybe I'd feel differently if I had breathed in between.

JES said...

marta: It wasn't literally put-one-down/pick-the-next-up for me, but it was close. I think I started CofG the day after posting my Sparrow review here. So I can see what you mean.

(I can also see why there's apparently been a lot of talk over the years about a Sparrow book, but not about the sequel -- in the sense that the first book would be easy to see as a complete story on its own. The filmmakers might wrap it up by bringing in Gina from the second book, for a "happy ending.")

That's a good way to describe Kitheri and Russell's treatment of him. It almost felt like she was trying too hard. (And the end of his story -- and Supaari's -- felt curiously lacking in drama for me, almost anti-climactic even though it was capital-B Big.)