jesuits in spaaaaaaace

Late this past summer, I remember sitting at the kitchen table early one afternoon. I was probably noodling around on the computer. No one was home so NPR droned on in the background; I tuned in when Terry Gross began interviewing some author named Mary Doria Russell. Russell had written a book about priests in space. I said, “Ooh, two things that I love!”, wrote her name on a napkin, and promptly lost the napkin. So it goes.

The other day I was somehow reminded of her existence, and I wondered, “Does the BPL have her books?” And lo! They did. And now I do. And as you might imagine, they are fantastic.

There are two of them, The Sparrow and Children of God, and they are very different books. The Sparrow is unquestionably the better book, but Children of God is very good for what it is.

The Sparrow is partially a story about humanity’s first contact with an alien race, through the intermediary of (what else?) a contingent of explorers and priests funded by the Jesuit order. There are funny parts. The book’s primary story, however, is about a man’s tragic loss of faith.

Russell presents the plot through two narratives: Father Emilio Sandoz, the sole survivor of the Jesuit mission to Rakhat, as he begins to heal (physically and psychologically) enough to tell his superiors about the mission, and the mission itself, starting long before its inception and exploring all the coincidences that suggest to the characters that the mission to Rakhat is explicitly God’s will.

There are a lot of complicated elements to the mission. Russell, writing from an anthropological perspective, presents the anthropologist’s struggle: observation vs. influence. Introducing gardens to the village of the herbivorous prey species led to a “culling” of the aliens’ infants by an official of the dominant predator species, because this is also a story of how Jesuits fuck up, a story of how difficult first contact has always been. (Russell describes Sandoz as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican for a reason.)

The Sparrow was a very subtle book, so I found getting into Children of God slightly jarring. As I said, Children of God is a different kind of book. It is more explicitly political, delves into the politics of Rakhat society, and contains such sequel elements of: defrocked protagonist falls in love and: someone you thought was dead is not dead and is trying to kill protagonist & party.

Which is not to say that the book lacks all complexity. There is a heavy (but not heavy-handed) messianic undertone; following the language theme from the previous book, there is the autistic Isaac with his echolalia and his singing and his need for silence. However, I am not sold on the ending or the conclusion that the protagonists come to w/r/t why God willed them to go to Rakhat. (Explicit proof of His existence? Something more subtle?) It was not left ambiguous enough for my taste.

I genuinely enjoyed Children of God, but The Sparrow was much better, a work of fiction that was a joy to read. I recommend it to anyone who likes: Catholicism, science fiction, nerdy literature, or things that are awesome.

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