Children of God

Considering how labor-intensive it is to create and populate an imaginary world, small wonder that science fiction abounds in sequels. Although most of those ”further adventures” seem redundant and unnecessary, that’s not the case with Children of God, Russell’s return visit to the Eden-like hell planet of her celebrated debut novel, The Sparrow.

It’s 2060, and Father Emilio Sandoz, leader of the Jesuits’ catastrophic first mission to Rakhat, is recuperating back on Earth. Spiritually and physically shattered by his recent ordeal (he was mutilated and raped in an alien brothel), he wants only to be left alone. But that’s not what his superiors have in mind. When the Pope insists that Sandoz join a second expedition, he quits the priesthood rather than comply. Even so, when the next rocket to Rakhat finally blasts off, Sandoz — kidnapped, doped up, and terrified — is aboard.

Meanwhile, a bizarre chain of events has sent Rakhat’s enigmatic civilization into convulsions. In large measure due to their contact with humans, the complaisant Runa, enslaved since time immemorial by the predatory Jana’ata, have revolted. By the time Sandoz returns (while the flight takes only a few months, several decades have passed on Rakhat), the planet he remembers with such dread has been transfigured. The meek have, indeed, inherited the earth — but at what price?

Russell blends high adventure with serious theology and sophisticated political science, turning the collapse of Rakhat society — the emancipation of one species and the near genocide of another — into a powerful epic narrative. Unfortunately, though, the writing plods, and too many central events are summarized or reported secondhand. But if Children of God lacks The Sparrow‘s trippy splendor, as well as its neat, jointed structure, this is still an ambitious novel, and a tragic, haunting parable about moral justice that miraculously avoids all of the usual cliches and even subverts some of them. Here, for a change, is a sequel that counts. B+

Children of God
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