Mary Doria Russell's Children of God

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Mary Doria Russell's new novel, Children of God, takes on two big subjects: revolution and theodicy. Since cynicism about politics is the dominant take of US culture these days, it is refreshing to read an engaging, positive treatment of organized political action that overthrows a seemingly intransigent, naturalized system of slavery. The author's sympathetic and dramatic conceptualization ensures that just about any reader will be rooting for the revolutionaries. The second subject, theodicy, did not vanish with the publication of Voltaire's Candide; the many instances of large-scale, systematic slaughter in the name of purity, one of the most prominent features of twentieth-century history, must certainly trouble any believer in a God held to be more than a personal abstraction. Since many late twentieth-century Jesuits have committed themselves to the struggles of oppressed peoples and have witnessed and sometimes experienced the hell-on-earth of political detention and torture, it is appropriate to place Jesuits at the heart of a novel focusing on these issues.

Russell's leading Jesuit character, Emilio Sandoz, is interesting and likeable. And Russell's treatment of him is so warm and generous and empathetic that however one might feel about a self-abnegating woman (a nurse and mother who is so psychically self-contained that she survives battering without wound or scar) whose sole reason for existing in a book is to heal the male protagonist, the reader cannot help but be drawn along, unresisting, through the process a survivor of torture traverses. One can only root for the character's return to health and wish him a happy life cultivating-- like Candide-- his own garden.

But a strange structural and conceptual rift runs steadily through the novel, dividing the two themes rather than linking them---and assigning them to aliens and humans respectively. Just as earlier in this (twentieth) century Western anthropologists perceived culture only in the exotic other (or "primitive native") and never in themselves (being educated, objective, civilized, universal human beings themselves), so in this book politics concern only aliens (or natives), and never humans. If it struck me as a bit strange that it occurred to none of the Jesuits in The Sparrow--least of all to Emilio Sandoz-- that his experience of hell and the devastation that persists in the survivor's life resembled that of millions of cases of political torture, his case distinguishable only for its having happened off-planet instead of at the hands of some School of the Americas-trained officers, surely any Jesuit would be aware that God does indeed suffer such things to happen many times daily on planet Earth. Similarly, the enslavement and animalization of the Runa by the Jana'ata is only slightly more horrific (because of the literal meat-consumption of the Runa) than the conditions which real-life Jesuits concern themselves on this planet. The omission of this connection produces a blindspot that dualistically sites Earth in the personal, emotional sphere and the alien planet in the social, moral, and political.

Whatever the author's intentions may have been, as a result of this dualistic conceptualization, while theoretically presenting revolutionary, collective, consensual action positively, the narrative implies that intentional collective change is possible only for aliens-- and impossible for humans, probably because of their respective genetic constitutions. Moreover, it is a barely perceptible human presence on the planet (and not internal conditions) that inadvertently triggers separate revolutions for two species in whose languages the word change has no positive connotations and the word revolution does not exist. Both the Runa and the Jana'ata engage in revolution-- the Runa successfully, the Jana'ata not-- though in the end a mixed group of Runa, Jana'ata and humans set up a utopian community. This utopian possibility is symbolized by the autistic human Isaac's making beautiful music using musical transcriptions of DNA genome sequences for each of the three species. Significantly, the humans in this utopian group are able to work collectively for others' social and political reformation-- but not for their own. They are there only to "help"-- to prevent the aliens from making the very mistakes humans have historically made. In fact, this displacement of possibilities for social and political change onto aliens is, it is implied by the narrative, an effect of the respective genetic possibilities for the species. Humans are too individualistic, too isolated from one another to even think of collective social change for themselves. Whenever they act as a group (in Russell's narrative text), it is through manipulation, force, coercion, obedience to the orders of a superior, or for various personal reasons. They do not ever act out of consensus-- as the Runa must do (as they've been bred to do). It is as though this book about revolution and utopia is meant to say: for other hypothetical species, yes: but not, ever, for humans.

And so, Russell does not portray the politics and social structures of Earth as affected by contact with the Runa and Jana'ata. Nor do her human characters ever change in response to their experiences except psychologically. Her Jesuits, apparently, perceive themselves as individuals in relation to God, to other individuals, and to institutions: but not as a collective brotherhood acting consensually. Her women characters are never located politically (except for the off-planet Sofia, in relation to aliens). Individual passions, loyalties, and hostilities exist in a political vacuum. For humans, psychology explains everything, and every human is essentially a single, Leibnitzian monad.

Isaac, the autistic child of Sofia, is only an exaggerated version of this quintessential human characteristic of aloneness and singleness. The Runa's process of decision-making-- collectively weighing first this aspect on the right foot, then that aspect on the left, and then another aspect again on the right foot and so on-- drives Isaac wild. For him, everything must be perfect, or silent. There can be no relation other than perfect reflection. "Clarity" is his ideal; "impasto" his horror. Consensus is an impasto. Absolute individualism and perfection require total social isolation and imposition of a single mind's will and perceptions. It is, above all, an intolerance of otherness and impurity. "He is like an angel," Sofia, Isaac's mother, tells Ha'anala when Isaac is seven. "Pure and beautiful and remote." Deaf, as the narrative says, to others' emotions. Unlike the Runa, he exists without prepositions:

He did not understand emotion that required two or more persons. His emotions took cognizance of his own state. He could be frustrated, but not frustrated by. He felt anger, but not anger at. He experienced delight, but not delight in. He lacked prepositions. Singing broke this pattern. He understood harmony: to sing with.

This implied opposition is stated plainly for the Runa and human-raised Jana'ata, Ha'anala:

In the village, every act, every word, every decision or desire was examined and commented on and compared, debated, evaluated, and reconsidered-- participated in! How could she tell who she was, when everything she did acquired a council of 150 people? If she so much as hid her eyes behind her hands or clamped her ears shut for a moment, a solicitous Runao would approach and inquire: "Sipaj, Ja'anala, are you not well?" And then everyone would discuss her recent meals, her stools, the condition of her coat, whether her eyes were hurting her, and if that might be because there had lately been more sunlight and less rain than usual, and if that meant the dji'il harvest would be late this year, and how would that affect the market for k'jip, which was always combined with dji'll... [sic]

So Ha'anala thanked God that Isaac's ability to tolerate the village commotion was even more limited than her own.

The Runa never cease to work out the social, political, and ecological ramifications of the personal. The Jana'ata, which is what Ha'anala is, are portrayed as more like humans-- as more conscious and individualistic than Runa. Humans in this book think about themselves only in psychological and institutional terms. Thus the battering of a woman, for example, is simply the psychological effect of the batterer's childhood experiences and is never politically located. Men will be bad; boys will be boys. The best thing a woman can do is not to think about it and attach herself to a decent, sensitive guy (and never mind the women who get attached to brutal, screwed-up men). Given such an absence of sexual political consciousness, can anyone be surprised to read that the love of a Good Woman is what is needed to heal a survivor of torture?

This double standard for humans and aliens applies, accordingly, to the signficance of the title. The expression "children of God" means one thing with respect to the aliens (i.e., a justification for revolution and utopian aspirations based on the premise that all life is worthy of respect and that all have the right to moral choice), and another thing for humans (i.e., that they are children of a God who either permits or propagates evil). Sofia Mendes, whose entire life can be told as a story of one person's struggle to survive one injustice after another, dedicates herself to teaching the Runa (and her Jana'ata foster-daughter, Ha'anala) about justice (another concept absent from both alien languages). She, who never herself engaged in political struggle for justice on Earth, gives them the Old Testament. She calls on the resistance of ghetto Jews to the slaughter of pogroms:

It was when such abominations were revealed to her that she would remember the poetry of the doomed Warsaw ghetto uprising: "The meat defiant, the meat insurgent, the meat fighting! The meat in full cry..." This time, she thought, the meat will triumph. We will loose the bonds of injustice and break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free!

The lesson is clear: for humans, resistance is futile. One of the Jesuits explains to a Runa: "Sometimes, there's no choice. Sometimes the choices aren't there. People can get used to anything." This book (and its predecessor, The Sparrow), alludes to all sorts of oppressions that preclude any possibility of justice, for such oppressions and injustices are simply mentioned in passing and then ignored. For every injustice humans encounter, this narrative's answer is, simply, that they must get used to it. The choices aren't there? Let's say, rather, that they seem to be unthinkable in this narrative, however palpable they are for the aliens. Thus: revolution for aliens, theodicy for humans: as though all we humans can ever hope to do is figure out how to live with the pain of injustice and abuse and disrespect, how to find a way to reconcile ourselves to its pervasiveness in our lives rather than to prevent such pain in the first place. The alternative is to hope that some superior outside species will appear, affecting our planet the way humans affected the aliens' planet, triggering a change we ourselves are too mired in habit and myopia to even imagine bringing about. Neither choice appeals to me, but these seem to be the only ones Russell is offering her readers in this book.

Seattle
March, 1998
©1998 L.Timmel Duchamp
Publication Date: 
1998