Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
You know Alien ends with Ripley getting into the shuttle with Jones, fighting off the alien one last time, and consigning herself and Jones to a lonely trip home in stasis? And then in the sequel, she’s essentially drafted into accompanying another team back to the planet where they found the Alien eggs, and almost everyone dies again? No? Well, sorry for spoiling Alien and Aliens.
Anyway, Children of God is kind of like that. At the end of The Sparrow, Emilio Santos arrives home, sole survivor of the first expedition to Rakhat. He is psychologically and physically maimed thanks to gross cultural misunderstandings—the muscles in his palms have been removed, rendering his fingers almost useless, and he has been subject to rape and molestation at the hands of the Jana'ata nobility who kept them as their plaything. Emilio is hurt and resentful—towards the Church, towards God, and mostly towards himself. After about a year, Emilio is on the road to recovery. He starts working again, meets a love interest, and seems to be reconnecting to the world. But then he gets drafted to return to Rakhat, and it all goes wrong. Again.
Mary Doria Russell moved me deeply with The Sparrow. Her approach to first contact and interstellar exploration was a mixture of cultural anthropology and religious faith. The first mission is funded by the Jesuits, and throughout the story, questions of the role of religion, the Church, and God are prominent. With Emilio’s fate we are left to wonder with him why God would permit such a thing to happen. And all the while, the characters asking and precipitating these questions are complicated and three-dimensional, whether they are human or alien, priest or layperson. MDR’s touch is a subtle and deft one.
Truth be told, I was somewhat apprehensive about Children of God. Several of my Goodreads friends had commented on my review of The Sparrow advising me to read this book, even as they told me it wasn’t as good. Even if they hadn’t, The Sparrow is that type of standalone jewel that is almost always diminished by a sequel—why re-open old questions only to spoil them with answers?
MDR makes several very smart choices, however, that mitigate the damage to The Sparrow’s memory. For instance, she reveals that Sofia Mendes is still alive despite what Emilio and everyone else believed. Living among exile Runa now, Sofia gives birth to an autistic son, Isaac. MDR tells Sofia’s story in parallel with the story of how Emilio goes from recovering dependant of the Church to independent researcher to hostage of relativity. To these two perspectives MDR adds a third, visiting for a time various Runa and Jana'ata characters.
This proves to be a brilliant stroke of storytelling. Although I found these sections the most confusing (little bit of name soup going on), they were also very enlightening. I liked hearing Suupari’s side of the story of Emilio’s transition into prostitution, for example, and was glad to hear that Suupari was contrite. It would be blatantly inaccurate to say that MDR humanizes the Jana'ata, but she definitely provides us with the opportunity to empathize with their worldview.
Thanks to these choices, Children of God is a good story regardless of how it fulfils the role of sequel. Despite my apprehension, I eventually sunk comfortably into my role as reader and enjoyed the story. There is plenty of tragedy to be had here, especially for Emilio, but it is not as dark or unforgiving as The Sparrow was. Of course, that may or may not be an improvement depending on what one expects from these kind of novels. I admit it’s a little disappointing and makes Children of God feel a little more shallow—but then again, this book, unlike The Sparrow isn’t really about Emilio’s personal struggles any more.
The possibility of there being intelligent life, the suspense leading up to confirmation that the signals were actually coming from an alien species, was a huge part of The Sparrow. But as the opening part of Children of God makes clear, knowing that we are not alone hasn’t changed life on Earth all that much. MDR doesn’t spend too much time speculating why this is, leaving us to draw our own conclusions. I suspect the major reason is expense: numerous expeditions set off for Rakhat, but only two made it there intact, and of those two, Emilio is the only human who returned. Space travel is expensive and provides little in the way of return so far. Plus, with a sole survivor in the custody of the Jesuits, there is little in the way of information about Earth’s nearest neighbours. In this respect, the sequel shows us how merely discovering that we are not alone is not necessarily the life-changing event that we might expect it to be.
The same cannot be said for humanity’s influence on the Rakhat. Stumbling in where we are not invited, we destabilize the tenuous predator–prey relationship between the Jana'ata and the Runa. By the time Emilio and the second Jesuit expedition arrive, the Jana'ata are almost extinct and the Runa are free. Just by existing and exposing the Runa and the Jana'ata to our peculiar cultures and beliefs, we caused massive change. Is it for the better? Even making that distinction assumes that the way we, as humans, define better is relevant to life on Rakhat. Again, MDR doesn’t necessarily spend too much time on this point, but issues of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism are implicit in the relationship between humans, Jana'ata, and Runa. Recall, too, that this is the result of a handful of human representatives visiting Rakhat, none of them representatives of any government other than the Vatican—and even then, only loosely.
Children of God certainly provides interesting food for thought, and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Rakhat. We learn more about the Runa and Jana'ata in this book; their cultures are not as confusing or as alien any more. And by far, the best part of the book is Celestine. Precocious child characters usually annoy me, but Celestine captured my heart and wouldn’t let it go. The involuntary separation of Emilio from Gina and Celestine is one of the more brutal acts in this book.
It’s obvious that there’s no contest between this book and its predecessor. The Sparrow stands alone as an amazing work of science fiction, one that demands an examination of faith and empathy and science against the backdrop of contact tragedy. Children of God is more like DLC than a sequel—a little more content, a few extra missions with familiar characters that flesh out the storyline of the original game without taking too many risks themselves. It’s fun while it lasts, but it does not have the same staying power as the original. And that’s the perfectly fine, considering what it’s up against in that comparison.