Before I start my review I want to share the circumstances in which I came in possession of this book: a short while ago, fellow blogger Lashaan at Bookidote was celebrating his blog’s fifth anniversary with a giveaway, and I was one of the lucky winners, choosing Lina Rather’s novella as my prize. Thank you again Lashaan!
The notion of “nuns in space” might sound bizarre, or fit for some humorous tale, but Sisters of the Vast Black turned out to be a quietly emotional, introspective story able to pack a great deal of thought-provoking concepts into a short number of pages. Its immediate attraction for me came from the very peculiar ship the titular nuns travel on: a living ship, a creature offering a symbiotic partnership to its human travelers, and capable of adjusting its inner spaces to suit these companions – I felt an immediate connection with the Leviathan Moya, from the SF series Farscape, and the similarities between these two space-bound creatures helped me to feel immediately comfortable in the environment of Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, as the nuns’ ship/traveling convent was christened.
The story: in the distant future humanity has scattered all over the Solar System and beyond and is now still recovering from a brutal war between Earth Central Government and the rebellious colonies, a conflict where man-made destruction walked hand-in-hand with terrible plagues that wiped out entire settlements. The nuns traveling aboard the Our Lady belong to the order of Saint Rita and their duties include offering medical help where required, and officiating marriages and baptisms, but more than anything else working as the connective tissue for this dispersed humanity.
They come from widely different backgrounds, but are united by their desire to offer help and comfort to all who need them. The main figures include the Reverend Mother, an elderly woman who made a vow of silence and communicates only through hand signs; sister Faustina, tech-oriented and quite practical, who joined the convent to escape a life of deprivations; sister Gemma, the living ship specialist who harbors a guilty secret; and sister Lucia, the group’s doctor and a person fully dedicated to helping those in need.
The day-to-day descriptions of the nuns fulfilling their chores are interspersed with thought-provoking discussions about the nature of their ministry and the way in which theology and practical necessities can blend into new and unforeseen combinations, or the means to insure a beneficial coexistence of faith and science: these nuns have been away from “home” – i.e. Earth and the rules of government and dogma both – for a long time, and have often had to improvise when faced with situations where the old precepts did not apply. In the vastness of space the spirit of the law (or of doctrine) takes precedence on its literal application, a fact that becomes more evident with the arrival of a newly-minted priest from the Vatican, his zeal in sharp divergence with the nuns’ hands-on approach to issues.
The story takes a sharp turn toward drama once a call for help from a recently visited colony lifts the veil from the ominous new way in which the Central Government tries to re-establish its supremacy on Earth’s distant colonies: the nuns will have to decide between blindly obeying the rules of a distant entity or doing what is right, and humane – and paying the price for such a decision. There is a quiet poignancy in the description of their dilemma, and of the way it’s resolved, that I found quite moving not in spite of, but thanks to the apparently unassuming, but very compelling, way in which it’s portrayed. On hindsight, I realized that in the short space of this novella, the author had managed to draw a clear portrait of her characters and to make them come alive for me in such a way that they remained in my thoughts – almost like an afterimage – for quite some time after I closed the book.
I hope to read more from Lina Rather, because this sample of her work set her firmly on my radar, and I would welcome another look into this world.