Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Book Review: The Sparrow and Children of God

If there is intelligent life on other planets, in other solar systems, then how does God fit into that reality? The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell explore that question with a blend of science fiction and religious themes.

The premise is that the Society of Jesus sponsors a team of Jesuit priests, medical personnel and computer techies on a journey through space to explore the planet Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system. Otherworldly enchanting music from Rakhat is picked up by radio signals on earth which convinces those who hear it there must be civilization on Rakhat.

The major theme of these books is the encounter between two different civilizations as the Jesuit mission encounters the inhabitants of Rakhat. There are obvious parallels between this storyline and the history of the Jesuit missions in the New World at the time of European colonization of North and South America.

Father Emilio Sandoz, the main character of the novels, suffers unspeakable abuse on Rakhat as a result of the misunderstandings between the two cultures. He returns to earth a mental, emotional and spiritual wreck at the end of The Sparrow. His story continues in Children of God as he is forced to return to Rakhat and discovers much that he didn't understand before. Father Emilio is a complex character whose commitment to God, loss of faith and subsequent redemption are a compelling reading.

I'm not a science fiction buff, but I found these two novels intriguing and thought provoking. They are well-crafted and full of suspense and memorable characters who raise serious questions about the nature of the universe, faith and God.


zorra said...

I love these books! I actually read Children of God first, not knowing it was a sequel, and liked it a bit more than The Sparrow.

These would be good RGBP discussion books.

The Scientist, of course, refers to this series as Jesuits in Space. But he enjoyed them, too.

Rev Dave said...

Love both of them, the Sparrow more than Children of God. (Sorry, Zorra) Wonderful characters, and I've quoted from both in sermons.

The Sparrow is, I think one of the best descriptions of the experience of living _through_ suffering and wondering where God is in all of this. Emilio's experience is more than a little Job-like: everyone thinks they know what the explanation is for what happened, but they are all wrong.

Ann is one of my favorite characters ever, I love her questioning attitude:

"Long ago, Anne had allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God's presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of western wisdom, was instructive either as myth or as history, she decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work.
Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering the cosmic multiple choice question: if you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, (she) had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of thorazine."

Rev Dave said...

Oh, and run right out and get her "a Thread of Grace," set in northen Italy towards the end of WWII.

Presbyterian Gal, not at home said...

I have come to suspect that your true identity is Evelyn Wood, with the amount you read.

*sigh*pulls out credit card before clicking on Amazon*

Presbyterian Gal
(not at my own computer)

Quotidian Grace said...

Zorra and Dave--I actually was also calling these books "Jesuits in Space" and thought I was being original. I'm with Dave in preferring The Sparrow--mostly because Anne is in it.

PG--Never took a speed reading course! I'm just a big bookworm!

Sue said...

I have wanted to read these books, as they have been heartily recommended by a good friend. Thank you for the reminder and for another great book review!

Gannet Girl said...

I think *everyone* calls these books Jesuits in Space!

I think they are some of the most painful novels I have ever read. And yes, A Thread of Grace is magnificent, too. I heard Mary Doria Rusell speak on that last year (she lives nearby) and the story behind it is as compelling as the novel itself.

Some time ago I was telling one of my young rabbi friends about the space books and he just started to laugh. "Of course," he said. "If any religious order were to go to outer space, it would be the Jesuits."