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Sisters of the Vast Black (Our Lady of Endless Worlds #1) by Lina Rather

Nuns in Living Spaceships, Sapphic Love, and Interstellar Conspiracies

Sisters of the Vast Black book cover

There is comfort in knowing that our existence is insignificant in a cosmic perspective, that we’re just a rock floating in all that immensity. Looking up — the moon, a striking pale light across the dark sky or the mesmerising brush strokes of orange, yellow and purple at dusk — we can’t even begin to contemplate the great expanse outside of our tiny home, and yet the very thought elicits a shudder. And when confronted with a vast universe, unexplored and wholly unknown to us, we turn to disciplines that can help us create an ecosystem of understanding — science and religion. Through the former, we’re taught facts that explain the awesome machinery and interrelatedness of gas, dust, and light. Through the latter, a deep humility in the face of a Divine gift.

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather evokes a thoughtful reflection on the relationship between science and doctrine, not to pit them against each other, but in our interpretations of faith and spirituality against the hard elegance of scientific certainty. More than that, however, it magnifies aspects of our humanity: compassion, kindness, the privilege of choice, the intentions behind our actions and the outcomes that result from it.

Indeed, the story opens with a theological conundrum. In the outer bounds of the fourth system and away from any Earthly institution, the sisters of the Order of St. Rita, aboard the Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, were debating on whether it’s doctrinally sound to allow their living spaceship to mate with another ship she has imprinted on, or deny her biological needs because she’s virtually consecrated ground.

From that quorum unfolds the secret lives of our nuns in space, the dregs of a decades-old interstellar war, and institutions that have reared its head to reassert its power. For all of these, choices were made, and we get to see each character deal with the aftermath.

In Essentiis Unitas

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather quote: “Unified in one purpose, they were a single weapon, the fingers of a single hand.”
“Unified in one purpose, they were a single weapon, the fingers of a single hand.”

The sisters of Our Lady of Impossible Constellations couldn’t have been more different from each other, and yet they’re united in their mission to do good in the vast black. They travel to remote colonies and outposts to conduct marriages, baptisms, and offer relief to the sick and dying, regardless of the people’s religious backgrounds. In more than one occasion, they express how much proselytising fills them with indignation, even just the idea of handing out hymnals across the systems trigger such a violent sentiment. This is perhaps because the nuns are conscious of their history and the role of the Earth Central Governance — and by extension, the Church they vowed to serve — in the oppression of Earth’s colonies. Instead, they direct all their energies into doing good work where life is fraught with extreme peril, most of which were consequences of the Great War just 40 years ago.

However, it is also in their differences where this solidarity seems to shine the most.

Sister Faustina’s distrust of authority has its roots in her old life in the mining colonies, a backwater planet where the only escape she saw was to join the novitiate. But her convictions have always been to provide service, and so it didn’t matter in what form she’s able to fulfill it. While she lacks the devotion her fellow nuns have, it’s precisely because of her life experience and her pragmatic approach to her vows that have pushed her to do what it takes to protect what she and the others have built on the Our Lady of Impossible Constellations and the mission they’ve set for themselves, even if it meant being suspicious of and keeping a careful watch over a young priest sent by the Vatican to supervise them.

“There were no secrets in convents, they said. But there were secrets wherever there were humans.”

More than that, her choice to keep certain information from the others and act on her own accord has given another person onboard the chance to choose her own life path.

In Dubiis Libertas

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather quote: “It’s so hard to contemplate the future. It’s so hard to imagine we can be anything other than what we are”
“It’s so hard to contemplate the future. It’s so hard to imagine we can be anything other than what we are”

A shipyard scientist whose narrative is in obvious parallel to that of the living spaceship, Sister Gemma has secretly fallen in love with a woman — Vauca — a metal deadship engineer she met in one of the outposts. The difference being that the ship doesn’t have the same awareness of its predicament nor does she have the freedom to decide to maintain its course towards her mate, but Sister Gemma does.

Breaking her vows, leaving their mission, and giving up the wondrous discoveries she’s made with Sister Lucia in their lab were at the forefront of her predicament. This is why it’s worth noting that in vacillating between leaving the order or chasing after this new-found feeling, it never became a question of faith and unfaith. Instead, it became an exercise in introspection: reconciling the love she feels for her sisters and for Vauca, thinking of ways she can continue her service beyond the order, and reflecting on her expression of faith outside of the vows.

“If you wish to leave, Sister, then you have my blessing. We are fools to not follow when we are called.”

It is her commitment and joy to continue in this new path that leads Sister Lucia to make revelations of her own, starting with accepting that nothing in life is ever as simple as the doctrine she so devoutly lived and followed. And there is no better illustration of this than when they all learnt about Reverend Mother's elusive past.

In Omnibus Caritas

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather book quote: “We’re all just scattered, lonely specks out here, unless we try to become more.”
“We’re all just scattered, lonely specks out here, unless we try to become more.”

The silent Reverend Mother’s grip on reality caused by an onset of dementia takes her out of the present and into the hellish past she abandoned after taking her vows. Ghosts that haunt the halls of the living ship now tells of a person who had a role in war crimes that have perpetuated oppression and obliterated colonies, the effects of which the sisters of the Our Lady of Impossible Constellations deal with in their work.

Here, an appreciation for Rather’s careful treatment of the Reverend Mother as she sees around her the consequences of sins committed in the past and how she has dedicated her life looking for absolution through acts of penance. As the reader, we now ask ourselves if this is enough, if we can accept that a person can rise above the abhorrent ways they made other people suffer or do we continue to condemn them. For this, Rather doesn’t tell us an answer, for this is something that we need to probe within ourselves.

“And the universe would need them to do what small good things they could, even in the face of that which they could not stop. If all they could be were small rocks to break the current, it would have to be enough.”

At the penultimate point of the book, the Reverend Mother, Sister Faustina, Sister Gemma, and Sister Lucia chose to recommit themselves once again to their mission of being people for others. The story maintains an air of spirituality that is a palpably different expression from when the book started, especially against the zealotry of the young priest aboard their ship — a spirituality that is founded on service and love rather than text and law.

Lina Rather has achieved with Sisters in the Vast Black a solid worldbuilding that is akin to hard science fiction books, made reflections on morality and theology organic in the narrative using characterisation as her vehicle, all in just under 200 pages. In a way, as short as the story is, it is the lingering thoughts right after reading that last line that make the book truly expansive.


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