It seemed unfair to me for people living at the end of the twentieth century to hold those explorers and missionaries to standards of sophistication and tolerance that we hardly manage even today. I wanted to show how very difficult first contact would be, even with the benefit of hindsight. That's when I decided to write a story that put modern, sophisticated, resourceful, well-educated, and well-meaning people in the same position as those early explorers and missionaries--a position of radical ignorance.
I never expected to have a lot of sympathy for Columbus and company, but reading this, and having sympathy for the characters of The Sparrow, forces me to be a little more charitable.
This book is tremendously successful on many levels, but it is a truly harrowing read. You know from the beginning that disaster has struck, but do not know until the very end exactly what that disaster was.
The plot sounds preposterous--Jesuits in space sums it up--but it's serious, compelling, and remarkably believable. I'm extremely impressed with how Russell deals both with religion and the religious life in this novel. I read it when I was in seminary; reading it now after being ordained for 8 or so years, I keep wondering, "How did she know? That's exactly what it's like."
Again, not an easy read, but a good one. There's also a sequel, Children of God, which provides some closure.