Of Prayers and Predators
An Interview with Mary Doria Russell
by Nick Gevers, who interviewed Mary Doria Russell online for Infinity Plus.
In the last three years, with the publication of her linked novels of human/alien contact and crisis, The Sparrow and Children of God, Mary Doria Russell has become a figure of great popularity and significance in the SF field. The Sparrow won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and is scheduled to be filmed; Children of God is a strong contender for this year’s Hugo Award for best novel. As soon as I had read The Sparrow, I became convinced that Mary Russell, with her wit and humanity, her fine command of language, and her mastery of cultural and characterological portraiture, was American SF’s biggest find of the 1990s; Children of God confirmed this impression. So I was very grateful when, in June 1999, Mary, despite current ill-health, agreed to do an on-line interview with me for infinity plus. As context for the interview, I begin with a revised version of my 1998 Parsec reviews of The Sparrow and Children of God; my questions, and Mary’s genial, sharp, and thorough answers to them, follow.
The Sparrow (1996), published by mainstream imprints in both America (Villard) and Britain (Black Swan), very quickly achieved critical and popular success inside and beyond SF’s established constituency. The Sparrow’s importance for the SF of the 1990s stems from this wide impact: it takes SF out of what seems a diminishing ghetto, relegitimizing the genre among a larger readership; at the same time, it refreshes SF from without, with a humour, a sympathy, and a pathos that are bracing. The Sparrow has been labelled one of the books of the decade; on reading it, it is not hard to see why.
Russell, who has an academic background in palaeoanthropology, has revived the anthropological SF that was so central to the genre in the 1970s. Her object of study is partly us, and partly two species of aliens, whose resemblance to us is both profoundly misleading and disturbingly enlightening. This duality of focus is seen in the novel’s narrative structure: chapters alternate between a Jesuit mission to a far world, in which the reader is invited to gaze outward to the alien, and the sad aftermath of the mission, in which vision must turn painfully inwards. The outward chapters are extrovertedly blithe and jaunty, as a gangling young radio astronomer detects musical signals from Alpha Centauri, tells his friends, becomes famous, and is recruited (along with the friends) to join the Jesuit Order’s clandestine first human mission to the Centaurian world Rakhat. The true hero is Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit linguist of singular personal magnetism who, as it turns out, will have to interpret not only the aliens’ languages but also their place in God’s scheme. The humans reach Rakhat in great (indeed excessive) good humour; they make contact with surprisingly sympathetic rustic aliens; all proceeds well for a while. But then cultural misunderstandings, human hubris, and sheer bad luck intervene… The inward chapters of The Sparrow occur years later, when Sandoz, apparently the sole survivor, must face his superiors, and the state of his own soul, back on Earth. The VaRakhati have stood as a distorting mirror into which we can gaze; now Sandoz, on our behalf, must look within. Others do their best to help him, and he can move towards redemption, but the joviality of Russell’s writing has turned sombre, as the story’s full implications, anthropological, moral, psychological, and theological, sink in.
Russell’s considerable literary gifts are richly displayed in The Sparrow: witty and affecting characterizations, eloquent, sometimes sensuous prose, a general humorous exuberance, these combine superbly with a sympathetic feminism and an acute understanding of the stark realities of colonialism and intercultural incomprehension to make this novel one of SF’s most compelling stories of First Contact. In her descriptions of the alien Runa and Jana’ata, Russell achieves a harshly baroque portrait of alien splendour. All of these virtues continue into a sequel, Children of God (1998), which brings Russell’s narrative of existential confusion and hard-earned redemption to its conclusion.
The scope of the tale now broadens; the themes of the earlier book are sounded again, cunningly reversed, and skillfully resolved. Like its predecessor, Children of God consists of two alternating narrative streams. In one, a second Jesuit mission travels to the planet Rakhat, its members hoping that the terrible fate of the first expedition can be explained, that it will be revealed to have had a divine purpose after all; their reluctant companion is ex-Father Sandoz, who emerged from his earlier stay on Rakhat mutilated and raped by the alien Jana’ata, his faith destroyed, and who awaits God’s answers with a complex dark cynicism. The interactions of the characters on board ship are volatile and troubled, yet humorous as well, as they interrogate each other’s philosophies and motives. In the second body of chapters, we see how Rakhat is meanwhile changing: with a mixture of atmospheric exoticism and keen sociological insight, Russell describes how Hlavin Kitheri, the Jana’ata Paramount, seeks to reform his domain, influenced in an intriguingly oblique manner by his previous predatory acquaintance with Sandoz; how to his frustration a human woman and a Jana’ata renegade spark a revolution by the Runa, the mass of peasants and chattels who are Rakhat’s second and more docile intelligent species; and how liberation of the Runa threatens genocide for the Jana’ata. Copious Biblical echoes are struck, as the Runa lose their Edenic innocence, as different equivalents of Moses lead their peoples into the wilderness, as possible redemptive meanings for the horrors of history come in view. Ultimately, the Jesuits arrive; and the resolution of their spiritual, political, environmental, and psychological quests is deeply entwined with the achievement of a new, fragile harmony of Runa and Jana’ata. For the despair that darkened The Sparrow, an antidote of qualified optimism is offered.
Children of God is a further demonstration of SF’s potential for cogent discussion of the concerns of politics, religion and history. In Russell’s rich tapestry, the ecological balance of herbivores and predators is compared with the relation of serfs and aristocrats, and corresponds also to tensions between the human genders; the mechanics of social change are scrutinized, as inspired reform is vitiated by passionate revolution; human contact with aliens echoes sinisterly yet hopefully the past impact of Europe on the lands it explored and colonized; and in the myths and wars of a distant world, the content of Christianity and Judaism is recontextualized and re-argued. In the ‘Rakhat’ novels, Russell may at times simplify her issues for the sake of clarity, and moralize a little too sentimentally; but these are minor defects. These dense, deliberate, sympathetic, and eloquent texts are a model for the rest of SF to emulate.