Notes on The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I just finished reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. The book is the story of first contact with aliens by a mission led by Jesuits. It's a metaphor for the disastorous results of contact of the native Americans by Europeans in the 1500s. They meant no harm, but screwed up utterly (the details of how they change the native species' is left for the second book, but we get some hints of what's happening).

I found the book engaging but it seemed to lack the really big payoff that it promises in the begining.

As it is a metaphor for the New World, it does suffer from a bit of SF cliche. The world is very Earth-like, both intelligent species are vaugely hominid, they can learn English, and we can learn their languages, they come in male and female sexes exactly anagolous to earth. The aliens are fairly primative so that the contact is on about the same technological level as the European/American contact.

And because Russell wants to tell a story resembling that of a missionary party, the contact is a little stupid, in my opinion. Instead of pulling their asteroid/spaceship in orbit above some city, and radioing "take us to your leaders", they land in the wilderness (undectected! Do they have no telesopes on this planet?) and make contact with a rural village. I do not think this would be my first instinct.

It reminded me, in a way, of Charles Pellegrino's Flying to Valhalla, but probably just because that book also deals with relativistic travel to Alpha Centauri and first contact (the biology's a little more believable in that book).

It also has more than a little in common with James Blish's A Case of Conscience, though the author claims not to have read it. She didn't really set out to write a science fiction book, so I believe that.

Here's some links about the book:

Infinity Plus review

John D Owen: A Case of Conscience for Mary Doria Russell in Infinity Plus criticizes the author for ripping off A Case of Conscience.

The author's FAQ