Power is a helluva thing. Those who have it will do anything to keep it, and those who want it will do everything to take it. Power permeates Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black, but so too does choice, which is, in a way, a kind of power. The choice to leave, to stay, to change, to revert, to accept, to force, to forgive, to forget. The nuns in the Order of Saint Rita have more power than they understand yet fewer choices than they realize.
The story opens in the distant future. The selfish choices of earth-bound humans from centuries before drove refugees into the stars. Planets, moons, and asteroids were colonized to be extensions of Earth’s power, but over time they pushed back. Tired of colonial oppression and restrictions to their freedom, the citizens of systems threw off Earth’s yoke in a bloody, brutal war. Now the systems exist in a tenuous peace built on open trade, fledgling planetary colonies, and limited influence from Earth.
The nuns sailing on the living ship Our Lady of Impossible Constellations travel to remote colonies and trading posts offering medicine, marriages, and baptisms to those in need and regardless of religious beliefs. The women come from all walks of life, but are (mostly) united in their mission to help the helpless and put more good into the universe than bad. Life in the systems is fraught and tenuous. Plagues and violence and exploitation and oppression are par for the course, but so too is falling in love, giving birth, and sharing a meal with companions new and old. For every life the nuns cannot save, there is a wedding to officiate or a baby to baptize. Their life is hard but rewarding.
When we first meet the nuns, they are in the middle of a heated philosophical debate. Their living ship has set a course toward a mate, something which has never happened before. Is the ship an animal that can make its own choices or a transportation device the nuns have sole control over? If the former, does that mean it has a soul? If the latter, how to account for the creature’s feelings and behaviors? Does the possession of a soul even matter if the ship is dedicated to fulfill a specific duty? Or does it matter because then it means the ship was denied the choice as to whether or not it wanted to be consecrated? As Sister Lucia confided to Sister Gemma, “I—kept thinking about the ship. I kept thinking about…its desires, like it was a person. But that’s not right. And then I thought about it like a tool for us to bend to our will, but that isn’t correct either. I go around and around.”
But that’s not the only decision they must make. The nuns have been asked to conduct three marriages and a baptism on a tiny new colony in the outer reaches of the fourth system, a simple choice on the face of it but one that leads to something terrible down the line. And they must grapple with choices made by others. Back on Earth, the Catholic Church—and, by extension, the Earth Central Governance—is flexing its muscles and looking for ways to reassert its power on the systems. A new priest arrives at their door bringing with him superfluous rules and unwanted dictates that may cause more harm than good. Soon, the nuns find themselves in the unenviable position of having to choose between doing what’s right and doing what they’re told all while knowing that both will have dangerous consequences.
Sisters of the Vast Black is hard sci-fi that feels soft. Musings on philosophy, theology, and morality get as much airtime as descriptions of the mechanics of the living ship and the scientific context for space colonization. Why characters act the way they do is as crucial as how they move from place to place. Each character, from the nuns to their enemies to the hardscrabble denizens living on the outskirts of society, feels realistic and fully realized.
Lina Rather squeezes in more worldbuilding in under 200 pages than many authors do in a multi-book series but it never feels overwhelming. Rather gives us just enough history and science for the plot and character development to make sense and feel impactful but not enough to distract from the point. In a story this short, that’s a fine line to walk and all the more impressive that she managed it.
This is the kind of story that sticks with you long after you finish it. The secrets of the Reverend Mother, the fragile heart of Sister Gemma, the stubbornness of Sister Faustina, the bravery of colonist Terrest, the charm of Vauca, even the determination of the Order’s namesake, each one is rattling around in my brain begging for attention weeks later. I am in desperate need for more Lina Rather in my reading life. Whether we get another story in this universe or something else entirely, I am eagerly awaiting it.
Sisters of the Vast Black is available from Tor.com Publishing.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.