Jesuits in spaaaaace! It may sound absurd, but this is the premise of Children of God, the sequel to Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Theology! Philosophy! Aliens! Honestly, she couldn’t have picked better topics for me. With sharp clarity into humanity’s treatment of the “other,” Russell literally launches her characters into encounters that not even their most enlightened selves can comprehend.
Russell is a former anthropology professor who weaves her prior research and her astute observations into her novels. Set in the near-future, she posits that before any coordinated Earth-wide effort, Jesuits funded and carried out the first mission to the newly discovered populated planet. It is not that far-fetched, as Russell leans on the tradition of historical Catholic missions as the basis for this group’s quest; although with more science this time around.
The culture of the Rakhat planet is gorgeously detailed, but more compelling are the intimate portraits Russell constructs of her characters. She powerfully conveys the absolute struggle, tragedy, joy and horror of infiltrating a society without any knowledge of their way of life. The contrasts between Earth natives and the two races of Rakhat quickly transform into explorations of societal construction, meaning, truth, revolution and God’s purpose.
Specifically in Children of God, Russell probes the question: What are we willing to sacrifice for “the greater good?” To what end does our need for exploration lead? Is change really possible? Is redemption (even and especially in the most soul-crushing trauma)? In our quest to “know,” what do we really accomplish?
And underlying it all: “How can you hear your soul if everyone is talking?”