The Child Goddess opens with a vivid and intriguing image that proclaims it a work of social science fiction: a January wind is chilling the naked scalp of Isabel Burke, a female priest of the Priestly Order of Mary Magdalene. Since in our world there are at present no such Catholic orders of female priests, I settled in for an enjoyable ride of extrapolation. When a lost human colony is introduced a few pages later, and Burke is recruited in her professional status as an anthropologist to help both government and the Extrasolar Corporation navigate the tricky cultural and ethical landscape created by this accidental discovery on the planet Virimond, the moral situation which Isabel Burke will need to negotiate is clearly established.
However, while it is clearly established, it is not well-established, for this introduction led me to a false expectation as a reader. Given Burke's apparent professional stature as an anthropologist (she is being recruited to help resolve interstellar issues, after all), I expected Burke to be, well, good at anthropology. She isn't. In her first encounters with Oa, the strikingly drawn lost child brought to Earth from Virimond, she ignores basic anthropological principles and seems openly surprised that Oa's customs and expectations differ from hers. This false note grows stronger as the details of Oa's captivity are spelled out. They are, again, vivid, but as extrapolation they seem false. This is a world far advanced from our own—but Isabel Burke is kept isolated with ease, and finds it essentially impossible to establish electronic contact with the outside world. Given the ubiquity of cell phones now, and the likelihood, no, certainty that barring economic collapse, computer miniaturization will continue, I kept waiting for Isabel to activate a cell phone, a button-sized communicator, an implant, a collar camera. . .anything. I was wrong. A future professional anthropologist ready to research an interstellar issue is kept incommunicado by means that would not work today.
Eventually, though, the penny dropped. This is not a work of social science fiction, and should not really be read as a work of science fiction, strictly speaking, at all.
The Child Goddess is a science fable. That is to say, in this novel Louise Marley uses the settings and tools of science fiction to tell an intentionally simplified and stylized story of extreme moral clarity. I accent this because readers who read the novel as I started to may be disappointed. However, those who are open to examining moral questions, and to grappling with common experiences, such as friendship, duty, and responsibility, that are heightened through their re-presentation in this science fable frame will find The Child Goddess a refreshing pleasure to read.
The anthropological excuse is necessary to get Isabel Burke into the situation in which she becomes responsible for, and emotionally entangled with, Oa. Once Burke is in the situation, she becomes not Every Woman, or Any Woman, but Any Good Woman. Burke's priestly vocation is treated with deep respect. It blends with her personal emotional response to Oa's despair and isolation. Burke's character continually communicates certain key points. First, these are the choices we face every day. Second, this is how we must respond to them: with clarity, responsibility, understanding, and with compassion.
And if there is ever a character who demands understanding and compassion, it is Oa. Marley shifts point of view back and forth throughout the book between Burke and Oa, occasionally following another character for a brief time. Oa's sections are ripe with imagery that sketch the strange culture from which she comes. The images are intense, but scattered, creating clear sensations of key moments in Oa's life that are also key moments in her culture—but which she understands no more fully than a child might understand a confirmation or her parents' divorce.
Those parallels are intentionally chosen, for Oa is a child several times distanced from her birthright of community—by biology, by intense interpersonal events, by ritual, by memory, and finally, in her captivity on Earth, by her status as a living carrier of a highly desired quality. Though she appears to be on the verge of puberty physically, chronologically Oa is over a hundred years old. (I should note that this element works extremely well as social or sociological science fiction; it is quite honest.)
This status as living prize and paradox motivates many interested parties to accompany Burke and Oa back to Virimond to investigate the mystery in its original context. Here again one must remember the novel's fable qualities, for the characters fall easily into nearly archetypical or fairy tale categories. Simon, the doctor/researcher, is a good man torn between love and duty, and eventually, a martyr. Jin-Li is the helper, the good friend who helps the hero on her quest. Gretchen is the cursed one, dying of a wasting illness and resisting her fate by reaching beyond her proper moral grasp.
And then there are the anchens. Oa is an anchen; the anchens are the society of permanent children, exiled by biology (and then by social circumstances) and subsequently crafting for themselves a simple, believable culture of necessity. The anchens are Marley's strongest creation, and Oa is their primary voice. They are almost the embodiment of alienation, and of all those who are desired for their bodies, or what their bodies offer; those who are older, richer, more technologically advanced. The anchens allow this to be not just a moral fable, but a fable that also addresses urban suffering and colonial indignities.
I was not often surprised by The Child Goddess, and I was not surprised by its ending, because Marley allowed the novel's events to work themselves out not according to the demands of suspense, but rather according to their moral necessities. That means that readers who are even moderately sensitive to the story's moral valence will have anticipated its ending, but will enjoy it all the more for that, as the concluding moral chords are as strong as those defining a symphonic coda. Written with pleasant clarity, The Child Goddess grapples with complex issues in a satisfying fashion. What's more, The Child Goddess does a good job of re-introducing a number of issues long important to mainstream fiction but not often present in contemporary science fiction, such as faith, compassion, and duty.
Greg Beatty has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumors you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true. Greg publishes everything from poetry about stars to reviews of books that don't exist. Greg recently got engaged.
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