Interstellar Empathy

An alien jungle island, and Seattle.Tolerance. Understanding. Empathy. Lack of prejudice towards people who are different in some way. These are all wonderful things, but they can be deadly for fiction. Or, at the very least, dry and boring. And science fiction, especially written science fiction, on top of all of its other perceived or real flaws, tends to go on about tolerance for the other. It takes a strong writer to use this theme as the basis for an entertaining story.

The Child Goddess by Louise Marley is a horrifying tale of how even a child can be dehumanized for the sake of someone else’s personal gain. Marley’s book moves forward mainly by showing us nasty people acting intolerantly, followed by some nicer people trying to undo the harm just caused by the intolerant people. It’s an effective way of dramatizing a well-worn message.
The Child Goddess is set a few hundred years in the future (and a few years after the events of one of Marley’s previous books, The Terrorists of Irustan). The main character is a woman named Isabel. She is a priest of the new Order of Magdalene; the Magdalenes are trying to make their name as an Order that helps to investigate injustice and uncover hidden truths, and Isabel herself is trained as a medical anthropologist. This bit of feminist/religious revisionism is taken entirely as backdrop, so those interested in more details about a feminist Mary Magdalene will have to look elsewhere.
The Order gets a request: ExtraSolar Corporation has a young child from a planet named Virimund in its keeping back on Earth. Virimund, not deserted as thought, has the remains of a lost Earth Colony; some children were found there, and in an ensuing struggle, one child and one ESC worker died. Isabel is supposed to befriend the child and discover more about her (as well as what happened during first contact). Alarmingly, her first discovery is that the ESC administrator and doctor in charge of the child are desperate to keep her quarantined.
The child is named Oa and she is the other major viewpoint character for the novel. We learn a lot about Virimund, how Oa grew up, and, soon enough, what the big secret is. Due to this narrative structure, the reader understands the cultural reasons why Oa can’t speak of her secret long before Isabel does. I’m not sure if this was the wisest way to construct the novel. On one hand, the empathetic connection with Oa is invaluable, and becomes one of the most important reasons for the novel’s success. It’s also why the book would function well outside of a genre audience.
On the other hand, Isabel looks dense and myopic, and while we get many examples of her compassion in action (especially in the way that she befriends Oa so quickly), we get almost nothing of her professional acumen. A medical anthropologist is trained to look for the reasons that underlie a crisis, and Isabel’s skills seem lacking. In the final analysis, I think Marley went with this narrative structure to make the story less about a big twist or a medical mystery and more about the characters, but this choice didn’t necessarily lead to a perfect outcome.
An alien jungle island, and Seattle.I was also a little disconcerted about the way Marley resolves another major character dilemma. Simon is a doctor with World Health and he gets involved in Oa’s case as well. Simon and Isabel have a history, even though Simon is still married and Isabel is part of an Order committed to celibacy. Marley writes about their attraction to one another with great sympathy and delicacy; throughout, I was convinced by the quandary of each character, especially on the side of Isabel. Not many science fiction novels are bold enough to present a religious character with sane motivations or a clear head for thinking; Marley grounds us in Isabel’s viewpoint and it works quite well.
But how are the two going to resolve their problem? If Simon leaves his wife, he becomes a cad, but if he stays, he goes against everything that the book is trying to hard to convince us of. Ditto for Isabel, with lost faith for her possible decision to leave her Order. I think Marley wrote herself into a corner because the outcome of this major plot thread is a distinct disappointment.
I don’t want my complaints about the book to loom too large. It’s always a compliment to a novel when the reader starts arguing about the characters as if they are real, as if they got a raw deal, and so forth. The Child Goddess is a strong novel, despite the flaw here or there; it’s focused on its characters and a certain emotional effect, and the result is well worth reading. Marley proves herself capable of balancing all the different aspects required for a memorable work of science fiction.
This review was originally published in slightly different format at Challenging Destiny.

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