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Book Review: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (Series, #2)

January 26, 2016 4 comments

cover_childrenSummary:
Father Sandoz, the only person from the humanity’s first mission to Rakhat to return to Earth, has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Jesuits asks him to assist in preparing the second team. Reticent to assist anyone to go to Rakhat but enjoying the use of the languages again, he agrees.

Meanwhile, one survivor of the mission joins forces with the Runa and a rogue Jana’ata to bring about justice. What world will the second mission find when they return? It certainly won’t be the one previously held in a tenuous working balance between predator and prey.

Review:
The Sparrow really touched me, and I was eager to return to Rakhat, not to mention to see how Sandoz handled his recovery. What I found was a mixed bag. A creative expansion on the world of Rakhat but a message and character development that moved in directions that left me feeling very little.

The presence of humans upset the delicate balance between the Jana’ata and the Runa. The humans demonstrated to the Runa that they didn’t need the Jana’ata, and thus a revolution was born.  The thing is though this culture is just so truly alien that it’s hard to root for the Runa or the Jana’ata.

The Jana’ata have a depraved world, yes, but they are also truly predators who evolved from predators. It’s hard to hate on them when they’re basically cats walking around in medieval clothes. Well, of course they’re acting barbaric. They’re cats! And the thing is, they’re not just cruel to the Runa, they’re cruel to each other as well.

The one real disjointed bit of the narrative is that this culture reads as a developing one, as if they are from the 1200s or 1300s on Earth. Yet they somehow have enough technology that they could broadcast music to Earth? It makes no sense that they would be so backwards and yet simultaneously so advanced in science.

Similarly, the Runa are a people with a culture but they also are a prey species. They reproduce like mad when they have enough food, and they act like herd animals.  Yakking constantly and with no real art or science developing. It is easy to see how these two cultures came to co-exist, as well as the fact that they need each other. Put another way, everyone thinks deer are cute, and they are. But if they exist in a world with no natural predators, they soon over-run the place until they have too much population for the land to support, and they start to starve. Yes, the co-existence between the Jana’ata and the Runa could be handled better (certainly with more clarity and more maturity) but the Runa and Jana’ata need each other. They co-evolved.My perspective on the Runa and Jana’ata impacts how I feel about the rest of the book.

Russell presents the idea that it’s ok for the Runa to become the dominant culture so long as they “allow” the “good” Jana’ata (the ones who have sworn off eating Runa and struggle along eating the eggs of some other creature that can barely sustain them. Truly barely. One character has multiple problem pregnancies due to malnutrition). Positing the idea that the Jana’ata are bad because they are predators, and the Runa are good because they are herbivores (with some outliers in both groups of course) is just hard to swallow. Bad and good is much more nuanced than that. Is a shark bad because it eats a seal because it’s hungry? No. But if a shark kills a seal because it’s fun to kill a seal and then swims off without eating it? Then one could argue that’s a bad shark with a bad nature. This level of nuance is just something I felt was missing from the book and the world.

I also found Sandoz’s path back to god to be a bit irritating, as well as the repeatedly presented idea that we can all have different interpretations of the one god, but there is definitely one. A whole alien planet with two sentient species, and no one can even entertain the idea that there might be more than one god? People are allowed to think there’s not one at all, although the book does present this as a shortcoming of those people’s natures. Basically, if they were a bit more willing to open they could at least be agnostic about the idea. The ultimate “proof” of the existence of god in the book is something that made me laugh. I won’t reveal what is found but suffice to say that if you’ve heard the argument about a watch proving there’s a watchmaker, it’s very similar to that one. After the insight and the gray areas allowed in the first book with regards to faith, I was disappointed.

If my review seems a bit mixed and all over the place that’s because that’s how this book read to me. There were chapters of beauty and then others that made me sigh and still others that made me scratch my head. It’s a mixed bag of content set in a complicated world with an ending that some readers would definitely find satisfying but I do not. I still enjoyed the read overall simply because I love visiting the world of Rakhat. But would I want to visit it again? Given the direction it was going, probably not. Although I would gladly visit the future Earth that gets to meet a Jana’ata or a Runa on our own turf.

Overall, readers of the first book who enjoyed it for Rakhat will enjoy getting to know more about both the Runa and the Jana’ata culture will enjoy the sequel, whereas those who appreciated it for its nuance and exploration of gray areas and difficult topics will be less satisfied.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
The Sparrow, review

Counts For:
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Illness(es) featured: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Book Review: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

February 11, 2010 1 comment

Red book coverSummary:
The US government is searching for new biological weapons by sending satellites into the edges of the atmosphere to collect bacteria strains that may exist there but not on earth.  Due to concerns of contamination on reentry, an emergency team called Wildfire is created as a contingency plan.  When a satellite crashes in the Arizona desert, grotesquely killing all but two residents of a small town, the team of scientists is put to the test in a race to protect humanity.

Review:
An up-front confession: Michael Crichton is one of my favorite authors.  I love how realistic his science is, and he writes suspense quite well.  I was therefore excited to read his first book.  Unfortunately, Andromeda Strain did not live up to these expectations.

The suspense is killed right off the bat with the narration style.  The story is told as if it is a report being written up by someone after the event.  This means that we not only know that some of humanity survives this impending doom, but that society is still held together enough to want a report.  If I’m sure that everything is going to turn out hunky dory in the end, I’m just not going to be all that concerned throughout the book.  Similarly, the characters aren’t fleshed out as well as in later books.  They are basically their careers.  Here’s the bacteriologist.  Here’s the professor.  here’s the surgeon.  They don’t come across as real, rounded people, so I completely failed to care about them at all.  This isn’t good for suspense, because if I don’t care about the characters, I’m not going to worry about them too much.

Crichton’s ability to set a scene shines through well in this book, however.  Wildfire’s underground station is vividly imagined, as is the scene at the small town in Arizona.  It was simultaneously gruesome and exciting.  Similarly, his ability to weave real science into a fake scenario is carried off flawlessly here.  The glimmers of the writing that would later appear in Jurassic Park and Prey is clear.

Speaking of the science, Andromeda Strain doesn’t age well.  An entire page is devoted to explaining binary like it’s this huge complicated thing, which it isn’t to anyone who grew up with computers.  Indeed, a lot of the book is devoted to explaining the huge computer in Wildfire’s base.  Unlike biological science, in which the basics stay the same, technology changes rapidly.  I don’t think it’s a wise choice to focus on in a scientific thriller, unless you are projecting plausible possibilities in technology in the future.  Or super awesome possible technology the government may already have.  Crichton does this really well in Prey, which is all about nanotechnology.  Science horror needs to take me into a world that is a bit more awesome than my own, not lamer.  Thankfully, Crichton figured this out in his later books.

If you’re a Michael Crichton fan, The Andromeda Strain is worth the read to see where he started.  If you’re new to him though, I’d recommend starting with some of his later books such as Jurassic Park or Prey.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Bought at Violet’s Book Exchange

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