Mary Doria Russell: Anthropologist on Rakhat
I'd like to recommend two books by Mary Doria Russell
that my good friend Cat Clyne, editor of Satya
, thought I'd like. Cat knows my taste perfectly, for I loved
them! For anyone who is interested in theology, geopolitics, the history of colonization, and "first contact," these books are for you.
Published in 1996 and 1998
respectively, The Sparrow
and Children of God
are set in the forthcoming eighty years of this century and concern two groups of Jesuit priests and assorted laity that receive transmissions (beautiful music) from another planet, Rakhat, and set off in search of the civilization that produced such exquisite sounds. What happens when they arrive constitutes a series of tragedies and misunderstandings that have profound consequences for their individual lives and the futures of the two peoples on the planet.
What these books brought home to me, more than any history or documentary about Columbus and the Native Americans, or the conquistadors and the Incans, Aztecs, and Mayans, or the British imperialists and the peoples of the African continent, etc., etc., was how even highly educated and thoughtful individuals can only operate within the worldview of their times, and how attempts to do good can have horrific and simply unforeseen consequences.
Another fascinating analogy I saw concerns the two peoples of Rakhat. The producers of the music, the Jana'ata, are a highly sophisticated and civilized minority who are the carnivorous cousins of the pastoralist, herbivorous, and much more numerous Runa. The Jana'ata have created a highly structured and ritualized society that is stultifying and fascistic; the Runa, generally content and deeply social, are kept hungry and in bondage. They supply the Jana'ata with their meat: i.e. their old and some of their young.
I won't describe in more detail what happens, except to say that one human initiates a freedom movement that frees the Runa, and decimates the Jana'ata. It also destroys the highly elaborate knowledge-based Jana'ata culture. In the ascription of civilization to a minority based on preconceived notions of culture, I was reminded of how the Belgians privileged the minority Tutsi at the expense of the pastoralist Hutus, and of the 1994 massacre that followed many years later. I also thought of the horrors of the Mayan civilization, where a priestly elite extracted tribute from slaves, prisoners, and other unfortunates and yet presided over an empire that advanced mathematics, astronomy, physics, and art.
Anyway, all these questions and more are asked and fruitfully debated throughout these books. Russell was a linguist and anthropologist before leaving academia for novel-writing, but she wears her learning lightly, and the characters are (for the most part) richly and dramatically drawn. Of course, this might be all old news to you, and I'm probably very late to the Mary Doria Russell party. But, as several of the characters in the book find out, better late than never.