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Children of God, Mary Doria Russell

June 15, 2012

The Children of God, Mary Doria Russell (1998)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The Sparrow is probably the best SF novel never to be nominated for a Hugo. The publishers promoted it as mainstream and we didn’t find out about it in time. It did get the BSFA Award at Intuition, and hopefully Mary Doria Russell will walk away with this year’s Campbell Award. There’s a Mythopoeic Society Award up for grabs too, not to mention the already won Tiptree. But now there is a sequel out. Is it, perhaps, next year’s Hugo winner?

From an SF point of view, perhaps not. Children of God adds very little to the world created in The Sparrow. The emphasis of the book is more on morality, on religion and on politics then on science. Nevertheless, it is every bit as good as we have come to expect. I laughed, I cried, I was in awe. Russell is very, very good indeed.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Emilio Sandoz gets to go back to Rakhat. What he finds there is a telling lesson for anyone looking forward to first contact with an alien species. Cleverly, Russell makes excellent use of relativity to allow an awful lot to happen in the life span of a single character. Other than The Forever War, it is the only SF novel I can think of that makes good use of time debt rather than bending over backwards to avoid it.

But, as you might expect, the central question of the book is Sandoz’s faith. Does he get it back again? Does he forgive God for what happened to him? Does he convert to Judaism? Are all Jesuits as stupid as Russell made them out to be in The Sparrow? Ah, that would be telling.

In my review of The Sparrow I said that I thought Russell was deliberately making the Catholics look stupid as part of her justification for her own conversion to Judaism. I now think I was wrong. Russell doesn’t seem to have converted because she thinks that Judaism is a better or more moral religion, just a more honest one. The God of the Jews is, after all, a capricious, jealous, arrogant chap who never, ever explains what he is up to nor apologises for the shit he puts his creations through. He ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, He hounded Jonah mercilessly, and He stood by and allowed the Holocaust to happen. Christianity supposedly provided the apology. Russell, it would seem, thinks that that apology was insincere, and wants to go back to a more honest relationship with her deity.

The problem with this, of course, is that, if you continue with an anthropomorphic view of God, you have to come to the conclusion that he is a thoroughly unpleasant old git who deserves our contempt rather than our worship. Therefore we find God disappearing into the machinery of his creation and Russell’s religion starting to have rather a lot in common with my own. Creation is indeed miraculous and beautiful, but don’t expect it to step in and grant you salvation. It is far more likely to kick you in the teeth. The trick is that if you believe in a merciful, compassionate God you are going to be disappointed, but if you don’t you can still find beauty, love and hope.

And you can find all three, and the obligatory Chicago Cubs joke, in Children of God. Read it, it is splendid.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 16, 2012 9:02 pm

    I only read The Sparrow a few months ago, but it was actually ridiculously good. I’m also a bit baffled by the “mainstream” marketing approach – not that it doesn’t work as mainstream, rather that mainstream would alienate itself from all its sci-fi aspects. And it clearly is sci-fi.

    I still haven’t read Children of God… I think I’m a bit nervous. The Sparrow was so much about the dynamics between all the characters – how will this move across to Children of God? I will obviously read it eventually, but in the meantime I want to hold onto The Sparrow as its own complete entity for a little while longer…

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