In a future where humanity has colonised multiple star systems—and in which living, genetically engineered spaceships fly the dark alongside metal deadships—the nuns of the Catholic Order of St Rita find themselves faced with an unexpected choice: to change course and let their ship, the Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, find and mate with the ship on which she’s imprinted, or deny her biological needs as a matter of doctrine.
But the needs of the ship are not all that concern the sisters. Decades after the war between the colonies and Earth Central Governance, the church in Rome is once more reaching out its hand to influence Earth’s children. Together, the sisters of St Rita—the ailing Reverend Mother, burdened with a lifetime of guilt; Sister Gemma, a scientist with a secret love; Sister Lucia, devout and kind; and Sister Faustina, pragmatic and agnostic—must make a series of difficult choices. What does it mean, to hold faith in the dark? Should obedience come at the cost of action? And which is the greater service—to proselytise, or to help?
Sisters of the Vast Black is an accomplished, thoughtful debut that evokes comparison to the novellas of Lois McMaster Bujold and Martha Wells. This is not something I say lightly: I’m a dedicated fan of both authors and spent a not inconsiderable portion of 2019 burning through their respective back catalogues, so their writing is fresh in my memory. As I leapt from Wells to Bujold, Bujold to Wells last year, what struck me most about both writers is their enduring, underlying sense of hope and kindness, even—or rather, especially—within stories that directly confront the worst of human nature. Sisters of the Vast Black is similarly hopeful, contrasting the biopunk aesthetic of a living, insectoid spaceship with the enduringly human questions of her crew.
Compellingly, this is also a book which sets Catholic doctrine alongside futuristic bioscience, not by consigning the conflicts that can presently exist between them to the (narrative) past, but through constant, thoughtful reflection. Indeed, the book opens with the crew of Our Lady of Impossible Constellations debating, not for the first time, whether it goes against the doctrine of their order to let the ship mate:
Sister Lucia argued that the ship, being a beast and therefore not in possession of a rational soul, did not have a responsibility to follow the dictates of their order. Sister Varvara countered that convents were sacred places. The ship, be it beast or plant or mineral, had been consecrated according to doctrine. Allowing it to continue on its present course was a clear desecration …
From the first, then, Sisters of the Vast Black not only establishes conversations between faith and science, doctrine and pragmatism, but evokes the deliberate comparison of these issues as they apply to both the ship and her passengers. Sister Gemma, who has secretly fallen in love with a woman from another ship, stands in obvious parallel to the Our Lady of Impossible Constellations. Unlike the ship, she is conscious of the potential breach of her vows, and yet her decision is not pitched as a choice between faith and unfaith, but rather as a choice between interpretations of faith: how best to live in faith, and how best to love, and through what type of service?
And then there is Sister Faustina, who originally joined the church to escape her poor, backwater home. Some of the sisters dislike her lack of true conviction, the extent to which she views her duties as rote; but her service is still service—and when the church in Rome sends a young priest to supervise their ship, as part of Earth Central Governance seeking to once more blur the line between church and state, Faustina’s pragmatism is vital.
I don’t want to say more about the plot for fear of spoiling it, but suffice to say that Sisters of the Vast Black is a story with many layers. Everything is interconnected. Rather writes with gentle, economic elegance, compressing an impressive amount of detail into a comparatively small package, creating a story that stands alone within a setting that could easily—and hopefully will—be explored in further narratives. Her characterisation is both humane and human, particularly when it comes to the silent Reverend Mother: grappling with the onset of dementia as her grip on reality skews between the present and the past, she revisits the sins of her earlier life, reliving her actions even as their consequences continue to unspool around her. Do we condemn the Reverend Mother for the war she once sanctioned, or laud her for the life of service she lived in penitence for it? Can we recognise both impulses at once, or are they in contradiction?
For all that Rather’s premise is futuristic, her themes—the tension between bestowing absolution and demanding accountability; the relationship between action, intention, and outcome; the contrast between the personal, ritual, and institutional aspects of faith—are incredibly salient. No matter where in time or the universe we are, some aspects of humanity remain constant. As one of Rather’s nuns struggles to write a hagiography of the saint whose bioengineering work led to the development of living spaceships, trying to imagine what she must have felt and thought without being presumptuous, her concerns are mirrored in the diversity of inner monologues that we, the readers, see between herself and her sisters.
Grief, love, pragmatism, faith, guilt, impulse: nothing is ever so simple as the purity of doctrine would like to write it, and when the young Roman priest comes aboard to take command of the Order of St Rita, his zealotry stands as a physical manifestation of the distance between its letter and spirit. On a less metaphorical level, this clash between our spacefaring nuns (a wonderful conceit in itself!) and the masculine church in Rome is an evocation of similar conflicts existing in the modern world, where activist nuns have often run afoul of traditional church leadership, whether by protesting various forms of inequality, refusing to be silent about sex abuse or openly disagreeing with the Vatican.
Regardless of whether it ends up being a stand-alone story or the first instalment of many, Sisters of the Vast Black makes for a wonderful, thought-provoking read, and I highly recommend it.