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In 2006 Justice Scalia said that there has not been “a single case–not one–in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.” The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution  begins and ends with that quote, driving home the enormity of Carlos DeLuna’s wrongful execution in 1989. The mistakes in that case were so egregious and wide-ranging that there should have been some kind of red flag, some sort of review. Instead, DeLuna was fast-tracked to execution.

Scalia apparently thinks there are zero innocent people on Death Row. Current studies suggest that the real number is actually slightly above four percent. The Wrong Carlos shows that innocent people can be sentenced to death and executed even when severe mitigating factors are present. As obvious as DeLuna’s case was, if it wasn’t caught, how many more subtle innocence cases are out there?

Wanda Lopez was murdered in February 1983. Law enforcement response was flawed from the beginning. Lopez was stabbed to death around 8 p.m. at the gas station where she worked, which was located in a bad neighborhood. She called 911 twice about a man in the gas station with a knife and was interrogated and brushed off both times. The dispatcher only sent police and an ambulance when she began to scream at the end of the second call.

Cross-racial eyewitness misidentification is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. The primary eyewitness was an Anglo man. His initial description had been of a Hispanic man wearing jeans and a flannel shirt who had run out of the gas station and threatened to shoot him. The suspect the police brought back to the scene was a Hispanic man wearing a white dress shirt and dark trousers who carried no weapon.

All four witnesses had been kept at the scene during the manhunt, huddled together watching the EMTs fail to save Wanda Lopez’s life. Forty minutes later the police brought back a suspect and informed the witnesses that they had found him hiding underneath a car. In case you were wondering, that’s called prejudicing a witness, and it is not allowed. The primary witness later said that although he was not one hundred percent certain that the man in police custody — Carlos DeLuna — was the same man he had seen running out of the gas station, he felt an immense pressure to identify him then and there.

The detectives in charge of the crime scene did a cursory investigation. Potential evidence like a cigarette butt, chewed gum, and beer cans that one witness had described the killer drinking before the murder were left to get cleaned up by the gas station manager less than two hours after the murder occurred. The forensics officer was not very good at his job — he found zero usable fingerprints on a counter that customers would have been touching all day, and covered the handle of the murder weapon in ineffective fingerprint dust, which rendered it unusable for more sophisticated methods.

None of the blood spatters were sampled and tested though the extensive spray made it seem like Lopez had fought back. There was also at least one bloody footprint of a shoe that did not match her sandals. Tellingly, there were no traces of blood on DeLuna or his clothing. There had been about an eighth of an inch of rain Corpus Christi that morning. The prosecutor later argued that even though the murder had happened at 8 p.m., there was still enough water left on the ground to fully cleanse DeLuna’s clothes of blood.

The trial was a mess unto itself. DeLuna’s first court-appointed lawyer was the son of a local judge, a general practitioner with a small private practice and money problems, who had never done criminal defense before. After about two months the attorney realized he had no idea what he was doing and requested assistance. DeLuna’s second court-appointed lawyer was an experienced defense attorney with an absolutely overwhelming case load. Though he had been appointed two months prior, he first met DeLuna a month before the trial started. Both attorneys failed him. They neglected to interview key witnesses for the prosecution. They were unable to do their own investigation into the murder. They failed to follow up with a psych evaluation that designated DeLuna as borderline mentally retarded, and did not bring that up at trial or for sentencing mitigation.

Worst of all, DeLuna claimed to know the man who had actually committed the crime. Eventually he told his attorneys the man’s name — though it took some persuading, because DeLuna was afraid of this man. His attorneys did no research into the existence of the other man, and the prosecution took that and ran with it, referencing “the phantom Carlos Hernandez” during trial.

Of course, Carlos Hernandez did exist. He was known by the police in Corpus Christi as being a tremendously dangerous person. He notoriously carried a knife of the same type found at the murder scene. He wore jeans and flannel shirts. He held up convenience stores and attacked Hispanic women. He murdered a woman in 1979 and bragged about getting away with it, as he later did with the murder of Wanda Lopez. A neighbor once heard him boasting about the Lopez murder – and that his tocayo, his namesake, had taken the fall for it.

In retrospect, there is absolutely no doubt that Carlos DeLuna was not the murderer of Wanda Lopez. If anyone had bothered to do a modicum of their actual jobs at the time, there would have been little doubt in 1983. But no one did, so “the phantom Carlos Hernandez” stood as fact.

DeLuna’s court-appointed attorneys were incompetent, and so were the attorneys in charge of his appeals. One tried to make a case for racial prejudice, despite the fact that both Lopez and DeLuna were Hispanic. Another tried to make a claim of ineffective counsel without mentioning Carlos Hernandez – who was at that very moment under investigation for the 1979 murder. Only the final attorney went into the mitigating factor of DeLuna’s mental retardation, and his was a case of too little, too late. By the time he had gathered the requisite evidence, it was past the time period where appellate attorneys are allowed to provide new evidence, and DeLuna’s stay of execution was denied.

DeLuna was only on Death Row for six years. This was highly unusual. Even in Texas, which holds the number one spot for number of executions, the average time on Death Row is 10.6 years. the journalist who covered DeLuna’s case from the beginning had also covered many other Death Row cases, and remembered it being “unbelievably swift,” “rushed through,” and “unheard-of.”

The judicial system had failed DeLuna in a number of very obvious ways, and yet he was sped through Death Row on his way to execution. This is one of the cases where you’d expect someone to catch something. From an outsider’s perspective, nearly everything seems off. There are many more egregious details in the book — there isn’t room in a single blog post for all the mistakes. The pre-trial psychologist was a pedophile. There are suggestions that Hernandez was a police informant. An attorney for the prosecution checked out all the evidence after the trial and never returned it. The prosecutors claimed that DeLuna had robbed Lopez before murdering her, but there wasn’t any money missing from the till. On and on and on. The system is intended to catch things like these. Somehow, it did not. Somehow, it does not.

Approximately four percent of people on Death Row are innocent. What that statistic ignores is that one hundred percent are subject to to dehumanization and a form of state-sponsored murder that is getting increasingly brutal and horrifying. In April of this year it took Oklahoma’s Clayton Lockett 45 minutes to die. This is getting more common because the drugs we were using are no longer being manufactured, but it has been the case all along that sometimes the drugs fail. During his execution, DeLuna’s anaesthetic failed. He more than likely felt himself suffocating during the paralytic, felt the burn in his veins of the poison that eventually stopped his heart. DeLuna was tortured to death.

And that is where it doesn’t matter that he was innocent. It makes it more tragic – his childlike trust in the prison chaplain who promised him it wouldn’t hurt, and that betrayal. His innocence does not matter, because even the most heinously guilty people do not deserve to be tortured to death. DeLuna’s case exhibits two separate threads of the same question: Can we trust the government to kill people? Can we trust the government to kill people humanely, and can we trust the government to not kill innocent people? DeLuna shows that in both cases, the answer is “No.”

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Last April, two men in Tulsa, Oklahoma were arrested for driving into the city’s black neighborhood and shooting indiscriminately at pedestrians, wounding two and killing three. One or two news articles mentioned that this was especially distressing to North Tulsa residents in light of the race riot of 1921. None elaborated further.

The race riots that linger in American (white) cultural memory are largely those directed by and focused inside the black community: LA, Detroit, Watts. Less so are those instigated by white aggressors like East St. Louis in 1917 and Chicago et al in the “Red Summer” of 1919. I had never heard of Tulsa, 1921. According to James Hirsch’s Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, many white Tulsans would have preferred things to stay that way.

The Tulsa race war of 1921 was the targeted destruction of Greenwood, the city’s black neighborhood. Because of the decades-long culture of silence that surrounded the event, much of the history regarding Tulsa’s race war is disputed. All agree it began on Memorial Day, 1921, with the arrest of a young black man for allegedly assaulting a young white woman. Like many of these accusations, the alleged assault almost certainly did not occur. Though the young man was indeed arrested, it was clear through their subsequent actions that even the authorities felt the woman’s claim had little merit. Nevertheless, they decided to hold him overnight.

This worried Tulsa’s black community. In August of 1920 a white man was arrested for a widely-sensationalized attempted murder during a car-jacking. After his victim died in the hospital, a mob overran the courthouse, pulled him from his cell, and lynched him. The authorities hadn’t been able protect the white inmate in their care. How could they be expected to protect this young black man, with the added allegation of black-on-white sexual violence hanging over his head? And when the Tulsa Tribune published a scurrilous editorial about the allegation on the afternoon of his arrest, tensions ran even higher.

The evening of May 31st, a group of armed black men marched from Greenwood to the courthouse, intent on preventing a lynching. The sheriff promised them that no such thing would happen that night. They were hardly satisfied, but acquiesced and returned home. By that point, however, it was too late. Hearing that black men had come into the white part of the city with guns, Tulsa’s white population armed itself. The situation quickly escalated. Knowing that the white men had picked up arms, and fearing for the young man’s life, Greenwood’s men returned to the courthouse. There was a standoff. A white man tried to wrest a gun from the grip of a black man. Someone fired a shot. It was a little after ten pm.

The violence began in front of the courthouse, but it chased the fleeing black men back into Greenwood. By the time the National Guard was deployed the next day, around late morning, the black neighborhood was little more than a smoldering ruin. Greenwood had been home to a small but thriving black middle class. The amount of damage that had been done was estimated to be as much as $1.8 million – over $22 million today. Houses, churches, and the nation’s largest black hotel were looted and burned to the ground. The aggressors attacked with machine guns as well as small arms. Airplanes flew over the burning neighborhood, though their purpose was murky: dropping incendiaries? Or, as later white revisionists would have it, “sav[ing] blacks”? In either case, many of Greenwood’s residents were shot and lay injured on the ground, prevented from receiving medical attention. Estimates of the dead range from the “official” count of 38 to over 300.

White Tulsans gleefully chased some black people out of town; others, they rounded up and deposited into refugee camps. Here I quote directly from Hirsch: “Under General Barett [of the National Guard], blacks became wards of the state. Leaving the fairgrounds, they had to wear a green tag that included the individual’s name and address, and employer’s signature, and the words POLICE PROTECTION. Any African-American without proper identification would be arrested and returned to custody. All 7,500 tags were issued by June 7. They were, to blacks, another sign of subjugation, but whites saw them as long overdue.” Those who did not have employment were forced to clean up the ruins of Greenwood for 25 cents a day.

There were many underlying reasons for the destruction of Greenwood: morality crusaders, uneasy about white familiarity with its “sin district”; oil tycoons, who afterwards tried to turn the ruined neighborhood into an industrial park; poor whites, resentful of the wealth of those like J.B. Stradford, who lost as much as $125,000 ($1.5 million today) and fled Oklahoma when charged with “inciting a riot” (a crime which, if convicted, would have led to life imprisonment or death – if he avoided being lynched before trial). But in the end it did nothing so much as create an atmosphere of terror among Oklahoma’s black community – as did the East St. Louis riots in 1917, the Red Summer of 1919, and the thousands of lynchings across the United States from the 1890s to the mid-20th century.

One thing that stood out to me in Hirsch’s account were the responses of white Oklahomans to the call for reparations that came in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was unpopular, to say the least; in a 1999 poll 12 percent of respondents approved of tax dollars being spent on reparations, and “26 percent supported reparations if no tax dollars were used. Almost three out of four opposed private individuals using their own money to compensate black riot survivors.” Even more significant was the commentary: “[Congressman Kevin Calvey] noted in a radio interview that blacks commit a disproportionate number of crimes in America. ‘Why don’t we hold black Americans liable to white Americans for reparations for that?’ Like riot reparations, he said, it would be wrong.” And, some asked, what about reparations to the families of the white men killed in the conflict?

Setting aside the responsibility of the white supremacist power structure in black crime (as African-Americans are also disproportionately poor), and the fact that most crime is intra-race, there is a deeper issue here. White America has for generations perpetrated terrorism on its black citizens. The Tulsa race war and other similar events were no less than pogroms meant to destabilize the African-American community, to punish the “uppity,” and to reiterate white supremacy. The call for reparations isn’t about “the transfer of wealth,” as The Daily Oklahoman suggested, and it isn’t about “greed.” It would be an unspoken acknowledgement of what white America did and continues to do to the black community.

In a public hearing about riot reparations in 2001, “… a black woman from Tulsa stood in the back of the room and yelled out: ‘I was born in 1955 and I consider myself a survivor [of the riot] because of the damage done in 1921. If you drive through North Tulsa today, you’ll see we are still being affected.’” The destruction of Greenwood is just one aspect of the destabilization of the black community that still happens today. White America ignores that such atrocities occurred and in so doing denies its victims the catharsis that acknowledgement and apologies would provide.

Terry Pratchett’s Watch books are set in and around Ankh-Morpork, a city-state ruled by a benevolent tyrant in Pratchett’s fantasy universe Discworld. The series primarily documents the rise of its protagonist, Sam Vimes, from drunk and disreputable Captain of the misfit Night Watch to His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork, Commander of the City Watch, diplomat and public figure. As Vimes slowly gains legitimacy and ascends the social ladder, his rise is echoed by the modernization of Ankh-Morpork and the opening of society to the city’s marginalized populations. Several of the novels are outright narratives of a population’s quest for legitimacy and personhood, usually, like Vimes’s own, through the vehicle of the Watch.

In a universe populated by fantasy creatures, the question “What is human?” (or, for clarity, “What makes a person?”) can be uncomfortably literal at times for the characters who feel the need to ask that question of themselves. Pratchett’s most effective explorations of this question come from the interior struggles of the characters who exist in the liminal state between Human and Not Human. Angua is a Captain of the City Watch and a werewolf. She pays for the livestock she kills during the full moon, and struggles to keep a firm grip on her bloodthirsty instincts at all times. Her brother Wolfgang does not. He kills with impunity both animals and people and takes an atavistic pride in his brute strength and bestial nature. When informed of Wolfgang’s death in The Fifth Elephant, Angua asks Vimes if he killed him. “No,” Vimes responds, “I put him down.” The orc working in the wizard’s university denies his species’ dark past and his own threatening physicality in favor of a fascination with people and football (or soccer, for us Yanks). Even Vimes is not exempt from such introspection. The Beast, a defense mechanism of mindless strength and savagery, struggles to take control in times of stress and outrage, and Vimes must fight it back. The implication of all this is clear: to be human is to have the choice between mindlessness and thought, and the decision to choose consciousness and empathy. It is immoral to choose mindlessness if you have the choice, and it is likewise immoral to deny others that choice, since in doing so one turns one’s back on empathy.

Pratchett’s exploration of individual personhood and humanity can be extrapolated to apply more broadly to the denizens of Ankh-Morpork and to modernity itself. Humanity and society are mutually inclusive, after all, and so to a certain extent choosing to be a person is choosing to be a part of modern society. Although he presents tradition and conservatism as absurdities, Pratchett also implies that they are as dangerous to an inclusive society as one’s animalistic nature is to one’s humanity. Keeping a menagerie of elderly hippos and owls to paint heraldry from life is ridiculous; taking advantage of the city’s latent monarchist sympathies to overthrow the legitimate government and install an ineffective puppet king (or worse – a dragon king) is dangerous. Tradition, like bestial mindlessness, is easy. It keeps animosities alive for millennia, and blinds its adherents to the evidence that ancient enmities are irrelevant now and had been a mistake all long. It allows us to sail comfortably through life knowing good from evil, person from nonperson, without thought or change. Thinking that one intrinsically knows person from nonperson does not allow for equal treatment or for the individual expression of “nonpersons” in society. In the eyes of the traditional dwarf leaders, Corporal Cheery Littlebottom is not a real dwarf, because she openly identifies as female. In the opinion of the Ankh-Morpork priesthood, Constable Dorfl is not a person, he’s a golem: created from clay by man, not even technically alive. Progress comes in the form of allowing all conscious beings the autonomy to choose to be themselves.

On the flip side of this, once traditional blocks to personhood and social inclusion have been removed, it is the responsibility of the formerly-marginalized individuals to choose to enter society. This is why the City Watch is so crucial to the rise of Ankh-Morpork’s marginalized populations, why in Snuff Vimes muses, “It had become a tradition: if you could make it as a copper, you could make it as a species.” The civic involvement of being a member of the City Watch provides the fastest way to become part of society, and the nature and history of the Watch as an entity welcoming to misfits makes it the perfect place to start. It also presents a microcosm of how the benefits of an inclusive society outweigh the negatives. Returning to Captain Angua’s situation, it is easy to see how having a werewolf on the force would be beneficial, despite the uneasiness of her colleagues: an intelligent officer and K-9 unit in one. Each new species joining the Watch provides a different perspective. It also allows for each individual to express themselves on their own level, which then provides the larger society to see members of these groups as individuals instead of representatives of their respective populations. Forensic officer, alchemist, and out female Cheery Littlebottom may have retained her beard and helmet, but presents an aspect of dwarfdom totally opposed to the exclusively-male gold-axes-and-beer stereotype, thus paving the way for Unseen Academical‘s Madame Sharn (a dwarf) and her couture chainmail gowns for ladies of all species.

This emphasis on treating everyone equally, allowing people their individual expression, extends to class distinctions, as well. Sam Vimes, as reluctant nobility, still adheres firmly to his underclass roots. His wife, Sybil Ramkin, scion of the oldest noble family in Ankh-Morpork, serves as counterpoint to the rest of the city’s gentry, who are for the most part a hidebound and abhorrent group of people. In Men At Arms, Vimes notes, “if you had enough money, you could hardly commit crimes at all. You just perpetrated amusing little peccadilloes.” Here, too, the City Watch acts as a leveling force. One of the things that Vimes’s rise allows him to do is hold the wealthy accountable for their crimes – just like his ancestor, an Oliver Cromwell-esque figure who beheaded the city’s last king because of a combined affinity for dungeons and children. As Vimes ascends, so does the legacy of Suffer-Not-Injustice “Old Stoneface” Vimes. The Watch is on the side of the common people, who, as Vimes says in Feet of Clay, are “nothing special. They’re no different from the rich and powerful except they’ve got no money and no power. But the law should be on their side.” Everyone should be treated as an individual; everyone should be held accountable.

There isn’t anything revolutionary about Pratchett’s political philosophy. It falls solidly into the auspices of classical liberalism – everyone deserves a fair shot in society, and society is bettered by the inclusion of individuals. But given the rising inequality in English-speaking Western countries – especially in the United States – it is important to remember our philosophical roots. And if we get them from sources as wide and varied as supposedly apolitical parodic fantasy novels as well as political polemics, all the better.

When you think of sex in science fiction and fantasy (also called ‘speculative fiction,’ although mostly by the hopelessly pretentious, and hereafter referred to as SF) no doubt your mind travels, as mine once did, to pointy-eared pneumatic babes in leopard-skin bikinis or tiny space suits. SF has traditionally been the purview of sweaty adolescent boys with imaginations proportionate to the breasts on Conan the Barbarian’s lady friends. Their fantasies were encouraged by authors of the same ilk, a little older but no less sweaty.

This is no longer the case. The advent of women and queer and like-minded writers meant that contemporary SF became much more complicated than in the old days. An important thing about speculative fiction is that it can be whatever you want it to be. And writing about aliens and elves is a great way to write about human sex and sexuality and gender under the radar.

Remember the first interracial kiss on television? That’s right – it was Star Trek.

One of my favorite SF books from high school revolved around the relationship of the main character (male, humanoid alien) with another male alien the approximate equivalent of a large, sentient snake. They were persecuted for their inter-species love – but they were soulmates! And so it was good and right that they should be together. (And of course they were in the end.)

Trafalmadorians have five different sexes (and claim that humans have seven.) Neil Gaiman wrote a short story about a cure for cancer-turned party drug: Reboot, which changes the patient’s physical sex. One of science fiction’s Greats, Robert Heinlein, wrote a time-traveling hermaphrodite story where the protagonist turns out to be both his mother and his father.

Not to mention it seems like everyone from elf princesses to tentacle aliens is into some pretty explicit kinky sex, at least according to the books I read as a kid.

SF offers more to awkward adolescents of both genders than just escapism. The genre presents a way of looking at the world that includes alternate gender identities and sexualities, far beyond their parents’ procreative sex, white picket fence, and two and a half kids.

And that’s a good thing.

(So give your kids Harry Potter and Ursula K. Le Guin; but once they start buying their own books you should probably knock on their bedroom door before entering.)

I am going to preface this review by giving you some insight into my perspective: I am an atheist, and have been for some time. One of my very early memories – from the age of four or five – is of laying in bed and contemplating the horrifying idea of absolute nonexistence after death. My church confirmation was full of resentment of mandatory prayer meetings and the use Jesus-related buzzwords in the effort to fool those around me into thinking I shared their beliefs. For most of the years after age thirteen I only went to church because sleeping in on Sunday would get me grounded from the computer that week. I spent a great deal of my subsequent teenage years alternately calling myself ‘agnostic’ and trying to figure out how to reclaim the belief in god from which so many people around me drew solace and comfort. I even considered attending divinity school, to see if I could find god there. By seventeen or so, I had given up the search, and resigned myself to viewing religion as something to be studied, as intellectually detached from Christianity as I was from Judaism or Islam. Subsequent classes at college only served to cement further my relationship with religion as an intellectual, historical, and literary fascination.

Despite my personal beliefs (or lack thereof) — primarily because of my general indifference to the idea of a belief system — I have not done a great deal of reading on atheism. I’ve had Sam Harris’s The End of Faith on my bookshelf for years and haven’t done much more than read the back cover. I’ve been turned off of the New Atheist movement because a lot of the prominent talking heads are generally kind of douchebags. Bill Maher doesn’t believe in vaccination, and in this post on Pandagon Amanda Marcotte talks about how, although atheism and feminism should go hand-in-hand, there is very little effort to combat the misogyny and minimal representation of women in the atheist movement.

Greg Epstein’s Good Without God is not about the New Atheist movement, but instead an exploration of the world of secular Humanism. Can we be moral without the carrot/stick of heaven and hell? Of course, he says. (Duh.) Epstein grounds his explanation of ethics and morality in rationalism: we are not good because god demands it and we’re afraid of going to hell, but because being Good (defined as respecting the dignity of other people and of oneself) benefits society and maximizes personal happiness.

Epstein explores the reasons behind humanity’s reliance on religion using neuroscience and history, among other things (including a particularly evocative art historical metaphor about spandrels using the archways of “causal reasoning” and the “theory of mind”) and he provides a thorough history of nonbelief, from Epicurous to Spinoza to Camus and beyond. Unlike the militant atheists — although he does mention the fact that fundamentalist religions are incredibly problematic and have a tendency to crop up inless well-educated populations — Epstein doesn’t blame people for having faith in god, and in fact argues that Humanism could also be considered to be a ‘faith’.

Epstein presents Humanism as a parallel to religion, which at some level bothers me. However, there are aspects that I find commendable. Chief among these is the SMART Recovery Program, a secular alternative to the higher power-focused twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Ironically, Epstein’s book made me appreciate the New Atheists more than I had before. Both movements are intended for people who miss certain aspects of religion. Epstein’s Humanism is aimed at people who, although lacking a belief in a higher power, still feel the desire for a community of people who affirm their moral structure and “lifestance,” who need the rituals and the traditions but are divested from the concept of “god.” The militant atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins et al. are intended for people who miss the self-righteousness of religion. (Kidding. Kind of.) I agree more with Epstein’s pluralism, but I remain more or less indifferent to the whole situation, and prefer to stay in the middle.

This is a good book if you are conflicted about your relationship with religion and your disbelief in god. It is still a good book if you are a dedicated atheist without the need for an organized community structure, but has much less of an impact.

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.