Lina Rather’s 2019 Sisters of The Vast Black is a standalone science fiction novella.
The living starship Our Lady of Impossible Constellations conveys the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita between several extrasolar systems, where they minister to scattered human colonies. Their spiritual ministry often takes a back seat to medical assistance. Forty years ago the colonies cast off the rule of the Earth Central Governance. Freedom from ECG comes bundled with freedom from all the medical resources ECG once provided.
During the revolution, the rebels scourged the Earth, executing some ECG leaders and driving the others into exile, For some time the wounded ECG let the colonies to go their own way. Now the ECG is looking outward again. This will affect the sisters on board Our Lady of Impossible Constellations.
Just as the Earth left the colonies alone, so too did the church take a hands-off approach to its wandering nuns. That has changed. The old pope has died and his successor is a cousin of a former ECG ruler. A ruler executed by the rebels. The new pope is inclined to take a harder line than his predecessor. Several cardinals who might have opposed the new order have conveniently died. A new broom sweeps clean.
A directive arrives informing the sisters that not only has church doctrine been updated by the new pope, the church is graciously supplying them with a priest to oversee them. Father Giovanni will ensure that their practices are up to date. This is, to put it mildly. upsetting news. The Reverend Mother is showing early signs of dementia. If Giovanni discovers this, he could order her retirement. This would be bad. The Reverend Mother may be a bit gaga, but her sisters love her.
An outbreak of a deadly plague on a minor moon colony brings matters to a head. The sisters arrive to discover that the moon has been blockaded by ECG ships. The ECG claims that this is a quarantine, designed to prevent the spread of plague. Father Giovanni wants the nuns to submit to Caesar and respect the dubious quarantine.
The sisters believe that their duties require that they help, quarantine or no.
I really wanted to like this novella but I was distracted by some unfortunate worldbuilding choices.
The setting is vague. The malevolent central authority has a name so wilfully bland it could be Canadian. Its claim to control the resources of colonies rich in resources rare on depleted Earth is so familiar, from decades of SF, that I found it boring. The extrasolar planets have names, but the systems that contain them are merely numbered: the second system, the third system and so on. Wouldn’t people name their home systems?
There are passing details worthy of the Becky Chambers school of science.
It would expand its cilia to drink in the moisture from the clouds and all of the nutrients — helium, mostly, on this little ball of rock — that it could not take in when it was compacted against the pressures of space.
Then there are the diseased cattle:
the terrified bovine vet shot them all lest they stampede and slaughter the population or knock the station from orbit.
Uh, no. Do I need to explain why?
The author’s workpersonlike prose and characterization were not, alas, sufficiently dazzling to distract me from the worldbuilding booboos. Now if the author had written at greater length, perhaps she would have been better able to develop the story elements that seemed thin. Or perhaps not.
1: I will give the novella a pass on the choice to make most of the life-bearing worlds moons. Perhaps later astronomical discoveries will reveal that there are lots of Mars-plus sized moons whose primaries sit in habitable zones. But I’m not going to hold my breath….