Review: Sisters of the Vast Black

I was looking for an in between read when I stumbled across this sci fi novella which caught my eye. I have been wanting to branch out this year when it comes to genres so I thought this might be a good way to dip my toe into the water of that hitherto unread (by me) area of fiction.

Sisters of the Vast Black is set in the far future (although I don’t believe we are given an exact date) in a period after a brutal and destructive war has taken place. Old Earth is one of four systems, three of which were at one time under Earth’s dominion, thought not now. The Catholic Church has extended its reach beyond Earth into the vast black of space. It sends out priests and nuns to the other systems to spread the good word. These orders move about on their religious missions on living ships, ones that are not built but grown and bred. They have flesh, blood, veins, hearts that beat. But as we see there is some debate about whether they are mindless beasts or sentient creatures worthy of a higher place in society. 

This story follows the order Our Lady of Impossible Constellations as they make their way to a far away moon where, at the request of the inhabitants, they will perform several marriages, a baptism and have the moon blessed. These are some of the services that the travelling religious orders perform. But things appear to be changing. There is a new Pope who has decreed that there will be an accounting of all the officiants of the Church and there are subtle indications that Earth is looking to extend her reach back over the other systems.

This may make the book sound like a big action adventure type of read, and it does have exciting moments like that, but at its heart I don’t think it is. It has a more introspective feel that made it seem intimate despite it taking place in the vastness of space which is fitting for it’s novella format and it addresses topics as large as what constitutes life worthy of respect, deep regrets for past mistakes and deception leading to cruelty and sacrifice.

I found this a very interesting book to read. As I said earlier this is my first real encounter with sci fi so it was all very strange and new, it taking me a while to find my feet and get my head around the setting and events. This book is only 150 pages long (approx.) so I couldn’t really dilly dally in this respect, I needed to concentrate and get past my naivety. Luckily the compactness of the plot and the concentration on a select group of characters, the nuns, helped in this. In such a short span of time (and pages) I thought the author did a good job of establishing independent identities for all the nuns. They were each their own person with different motivations and methods of achieving their aims. They all have secrets of one kind or another, secrets that are haunting them and making them doubt and worry. 

I actually found the whole premise of the Catholic Church’s place in a possible future a fascinating topic. The fact that it had survived for a start and how, even though it had moved beyond the stars, it still appears to be faithful to its traditions (although there does appear to be some intrinsic differences that are revealed as the story goes on), this being both good and bad. I am sure that there is a much longer and more in depth novel out there which postulates something similar and explores it in more detail.

I am going to be very honest and say that I found the whole concept of living ships a bit stomach churning. The thought that they are breathing creatures that move through space with people living inside them, those people sitting on chairs grown of it’s flesh, made me feel more than a bit squeamish, not just for the physical aspect but the moral one as well. These ships are sentient enough to feel pain and have a longing to find a mate yet they are considered mindless and soulless. It is very disquieting and your mind can’t help but wander to the world we live in today, looking for examples of a similar attitude. One of the nuns in particular grapples with all the discussions and issues surrounding this. The ship gives them sanctuary and protection, should they not love it? All ships that carry religious orders are consecrated but can you allow such a holy thing to mate and reproduce? Is that not against some of the basic underpinnings of the Catholic Church? All these questions are pondered and are brought into stark reality when the life of the ship is put at risk and is ultimately lost. That’s actually a very emotional moment and proves that just because all life is not like ours, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of reverence and love. 

I think it’s fair to say that this book doesn’t skimp on, I won’t say graphic because I don’t think that is quite the right word, blunt descriptions of disease and it’s after effects or relating how the living ships work so be warned.  

And amoungst all of this there is a queer love story. One of the nuns has lost her heart (and her vocation as a result) to a woman on board another vessel. The thing that is interesting is that a same gender relationship is not in any way portrayed as unusual. When the sister announces her news, it is not that her prospective partner is a woman that causes consternation but that she has fallen in love at all. This is something of a break from the past considering that this is the Catholic Church we are talking about. But it is nice to see such relationships accepted as just another part of life’s tapestry rather than something that is other and odd. 

I didn’t think that there would be so much to think about in such a short book. But there is. I am not convinced that space sci fi is for me just yet but that is a purely personal conclusion and it isn’t because this book was bad – in fact I think it was very good. If you are into this kind of storytelling then I would heartily recommend it. 

Rating: 3 Stars

(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)

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