This month, the UUCLC Lending Library features two books, The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell:
Science fiction doesn’t get nearly enough credit among serious readers. Yes, there is a lot of “mind candy” out there. But every so often, a book comes along that stands out as a true work of literature.
Mary Doria Russell has authored not one, but two wonderful examples of what can be accomplished within the science fiction genre — The Sparrow and Children of God (Fawcett Columbine, 1997 and 1999).
Deeply moving and lyrical, the books present a sensitive and intelligent discussion of religion, faith and morality.
The narrative in The Sparrow alternates between two parallel storylines. In the first, it is the year 2059 and Father Emilio Sandoz has returned to Earth, alone, from a failed Jesuit expedition to the planet Rakhat. Wounded, ill, and accused of shocking crimes, he must heal from his physical damage and come to terms with his belief that God has abandoned him.
The second storyline concerns events leading up to, and encompassing, the doomed expedition itself. Sandoz and his colleagues pick up radio transmissions from, and ultimately visit, Rakhat through circumstances Sandoz believes to be the work of God.
Once there, they encounter not one but two sentient species — the Jana’ata and the Runa. The Jana’ata strictly control the breeding rights, and thus the numbers, of the Runa, who serve as domestic laborers and even food for the Jana’ata.
Confronted by two completely alien societies, Sandoz and the others must interpret context as well as language in learning to communicate. Eventually, the mission goes tragically wrong — despite the voyagers’ having been motivated by the best of intentions.
Children of God picks up where the earlier volume left off — with Sandoz confronting what happened to him on Rakhat. Bitter, his faith in God challenged, he seeks to leave the Society of Jesus.
Like The Sparrow, the story in Children of God unfolds along two parallel tracks. On Earth, the Pope and the society’s Father General have plans for a commercial expedition to Rakhat. Sandoz refuses to be a part of these plans, which creates a thorny moral dilemma for the mission’s advocates.
Meanwhile, on the planet Rakhat, the consequences of the first voyage play out and lead to chaotic upheavals in the planet’s social structure.
Each book is a self-contained story, but together they form a saga that is spellbinding and utterly captivating. Russell is a first-rate novelist who has created a credible alien society and populated it with fully-developed human, Runa and Jana’ata characters.
The issues faced by her protagonists are ones that many men and women of faith have had to deal with in reconciling their beliefs and perceptions with the often inscrutible nature of the Divine. Russell’s examination of these issues is simultaneously challenging and compassionate.
I strongly recommend these books, as breathtaking works of literature and as representatives of science fiction’s best.
This review was originally published March 7, 2002 in the Lake County Record-Bee.
UUCLC Lending Library