Like faintingviolet, I just finished Children of God, the followup to Mary Doria Russell’s much acclaimed The Sparrow. You can’t talk about Children without talking about the first book. Russell is a paleoanthropologist. Her unique mix of professional training, Judaism, and Christianity led to an impressive work of theology and science fiction in The Sparrow. The novel chronicles an ill-fated trip by Jesuit priests and professionals to a distant planet called Rakhat. Russell herself, who has been a person of faith and an atheist, said the theme of the first book was an exploration of the risks and beauties of religious faith. It it those things, but it’s also an exploration of grief and meaning in desolation. The Sparrow didn’t necessarily need a sequel, but Russell wasn’t done exploring what happens when our theology fails.
In The Sparrow, Father Emilio Sandoz ended up as the only survivor of the trip to Rakhat (not a spoiler – the book time jumps like a Tarantino movie). Children of God picks up where The Sparrow left off. Sandoz is back on Earth, shattered in every sense of the word. He doesn’t understand what happened to him, what happened to his friends, to Rakhat, or even to God. This book sends both Sandoz and the reader back to Rakhat to wrap up unfinished business. In an interesting choice, Russell moves Sandoz to the back of narrative of much of the book. We learn more about the world through Rakhati protagonists, a la Halo 2. Without giving much of the narrative away, I will say that themes of justice, mercy, and meaning are explored in what I perceived as deeper and more raw ways than The Sparrow.
A theology professor of mine once made an observation that stuck with me for years: “True virtue can only exist in the aftermath of failed theodicies…True faith requires a theodicy failure, almost as a prerequisite.” Is God ultimately good, or not? Do our lives have meaning, or not? As a new father, I think about these things more than ever. How do you raise a kid in this world? Ultimately, I agree with Russell’s answer to some of these questions. I found the questions in this book useful, although I am not sure The Sparrow needed a sequel. If I were to remix the book, it would’ve been about 100 pages shorter. It’s not a must-read, but completionists won’t be disappointed if they go in knowing that. As faintingviolet said, Russell makes you think.