If I'm not mistaken, the blurb given above actually consists of the book's prologue in its entirety. I might add: this is the story of what happens when First Contact is made without the stricture of a Prime Directive a la
the Star Trek universe. Also: in a completely foreign culture, your assumptions can kill you.
Russell's novel, in which an interstellar mission is funded by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) to travel to the source of radio transmissions received by the SETI project at the Mt. Arecibo observatory, looks at exactly what can happen when a technologically-advanced society approaches a less-developed one without that restriction in place. "They meant no harm." Well, we all know what road is paved with good intentions.
Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest and linguist, is one of the crew, and ultimately the only one to return to Earth from Rakhat. The story of The Sparrow
is told in two timelines - the mission itself, and Sandoz's debriefing by his superiors while he heals, physically and psychologically, from the horrors he encountered on Rakhat. The crew's assumptions - the nature of the relationship between Rakhat's two sentient races, the gentle vegetarian Runa and the more advanced Jana'ta; the beneficial impact of their introduction of agriculture to the Runa; the range of accepted behaviors among a "civilized" society like the Jana'ta - all lead to crucial errors and eventually deadly consequences.The Sparrow
is less science fiction than philosophy - particularly, what happens when a man of profound faith is confronted by the failure of his faith to sustain him through a series of impossible situations. Its questions will stay with you long after you've closed the book.
Although she returned to the world of The Sparrow
for a sequel, Children of God
, Russell's other work to date is not SF/fantasy, but rather historical fiction based in the 20th century. It is also wholly worth seeking out.