Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Redux #13 - "Children of God" by Mary Doria Russell

I really enjoyed Mary Doria Russell's introduction to the story of Father Emilio Sandoz and his travels to a distant planet in The Sparrow, so I knew I would eventually get around to reading the sequel, Children of God (1998). I enjoyed reading this book and was very impressed by the originality of the story, but it didn't quite have the same magic, mystery, and comradeship between the characters that sucked me so deeply into the first book. It's definitely still worth reading if you liked The Sparrow, but it doesn't quite live up to the original.

Children of God starts out almost immediately after The Sparrow ends. Father Emilio Sandoz is on Earth, still recovering from the emotional scars and loss of religion stemming from the inaugural and doomed voyage to Rakhat--a far-off planet that boasts a lot of life similar to Earth's. Emilio wants to let go of Rakhat and get on with his life, but a number of circumstances combine to keep him involved. And with Rakhat in the midst of political turmoil and civil war, a lot is changing.

I'm a bit concerned about going more into the plot because it's really better the less you know, so here's a warning that the rest of the review might contain some SPOILERS as I randomly discuss different parts of the book.

Things I liked: I very much appreciated the originality of the story, I continued to like the writing style and the details, and Russell brings up a lot of interesting issues. I really didn't know where the book was going until the very end, which I appreciated.

Things I'm unsure about: Sometimes I felt vaguely uncomfortable while reading this book but I was often unsure why. I had trouble believing some of the story and sometimes the plot felt somewhat manufactured. For instance, I had trouble believing that Sandoz was captured by the Italian mafia and dragged off to Rakhat--with the blessing and encouragement of the pope and the father-general. Also, while reading the interactions between humans and the Jana'ata, the two species were so similar that I often forgot that they came from different planets. And then I had trouble believing that such similar species would have developed on planets so far apart. I'm just being picky here, but I also would have loved a map of the major cities and areas on Rakhat as well as a portrait of the two major species--just because I'm a visual person.

I was a little disappointed in the ending as well. I thought that Russell had presented a fascinating question about faith and religion in The Sparrow, without answering it, when Sandoz put all his trust in God and then literally everything was taken from him. But instead of allowing the question to linger, she answered it with some idea that all of this was God's way of creating the most beautiful music ever? (at least that was my interpretation). The simple, consoling answer is that we poor humans can't understand God's plan, but it's all for the best in the end. I don't believe that for a minute; the fact that everything that's happened in the last two books was leading to some new, wonderful kind of music was a letdown. For one thing, you can't hear music in a book; the description of this new music didn't fascinate me, and I couldn't imagine a new kind of music that could be so beautiful that it would make such a difference--either in the world or in Sandoz's life.

I also found the moral dilemma of the Jana'ata eating the Runa very interesting, and I kind of wished that Russell had expanded on that idea a little more. The characters are all comfortable in their conclusions that it's evil to eat the Runa, but there is no ethical problem on Earth because "the animals are dumb on Earth so we can eat them." Having been a vegetarian for ten years who has just recently started eating fish and poultry, I don't think the answer is that easy. Pigs are smarter than dogs. At what level of intelligence is it not okay to farm and eat another species? Something like the relationship between humans and chimpanzees might be a close analogy to the Jana'ata and Runa on Rakhat. Chimps are so similar to us genetically that it would almost feel like cannibalism to eat one, but where do you draw the line? We use chimps for medical testing. Is that okay? And I just finished watching The Cove (which I thought was really good); is it okay to eat dolphins because they're so different from us we don't really understand their intelligence? What if eating the Runa were the only way the Jana'ata could continue to survive? Why shouldn't the idea of survival of the fittest apply? Or should we look at how much suffering we're imposing on other species? But how can we really measure suffering? Anyway, this is obviously a question I'm struggling with, and I think it's a lot more complicated than "the animals on Earth are dumb."

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