Nuns in Space: Science Fiction and Catholicism

First printed in Perihelion Science Fiction online (thanks, Sam Bellotto, Jr.!)

By Carol Kean  November 2013

SCIENCE FICTION IS THE GENRE of amazement, limitless possibility and encounters with a vast and unknowable something. “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote in “The Demon-Haunted World,” first published in 1995. “When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”

How to define “spiritual” is another challenge. Some 30,000 years after Neanderthals painted on cave walls and scientists have since toppled everyone’s creation myths, humans still haven’t lost the drive to create gods and religions. Joseph Campbell defined God as “That which transcends human comprehension.” With head-shaking and weary sighs, science fiction wryly tackles ethics, morals and human failings, but it also celebrates the stupendous achievements, hopes and dreams of humanity. Matt Haig’s “The Humans” (Simon & Schuster, July, 2013) is a recent example of both themes under one roof.

In general, science fiction assumes a worldview that conflicts with biblical inerrancy or priestly authority, and authors often employ the Catholic Church as an obstacle to science and secular progress. Even Christian fiction, as a genre, tends to boycott Catholic protagonists. Anything that bad has to warrant a closer look, I figure, so I ventured $3 on “Infinite Space, Infinite God,” (Twilight Time Books, 2007) fifteen short stories that depict a Church still alive and influential, and still tackling issues that have kept theologians debating for thousands of years. Edited by Karina and Robert Fabian, with various contributing authors, the book sold well enough to justify a second anthology, “Infinite Space, Infinite God II” (Paladin Timeless Books, 2010).

(Although the books were first published several years ago, they remain the best examples and most comprehensive of this genre. —Ed.)

Reviewers promised both anthologies would be fun and imaginative, well-crafted and well worth the read, filled with mind-bending imagery, very real characters, epiphanies and miracles, agonies and enlightenments. Much to a skeptic’s surprise, I liked the first book so much, I bought the second one. At half the price of the last anthology I reviewed here (October, 2013), the stories are every bit as well written, entertaining, thought-provoking and intriguing. The Catholic themes are not didactic or off-putting, which may explain Christian fiction snubbing Catholic fiction.

Nuns living and working in outer space? Priests caring for the bodies and souls of creatures who aren’t human? The Fabians joke that “Catholic sci-fi” sounds as oxymoronic as jumbo shrimp, yet they’ve “seen the interest in faith-filled genre fiction grow.” An appendix lists other works by the authors who contributed to this unique sub-genre.

Lori Z. Scott’s haunting tale “The Harvest” launches the first anthology. Genetically engineered HuNomes, made of human and animal DNA, are considered less than human; even the Church hasn’t decided how human these workers are. Barry Martinez, a doctor-turned-priest working on the moon, can no longer bear to harvest the organs of dead HuNomes after discerning they have souls. His own life is at stake if he decides to champion their freedom as Moses once championed the slaves of Egypt.

In “Hopkins’ Well” by Adrienne Ray, an ordinary soldier discovers his government doesn’t want to subdue a colony, but destroy it, and that he, himself, is not as human as he thought.

Colleen Drippé contributes two stories: “Brother John,” in which priests land on Rythar to evangelize, risking their lives for their faith and for those to whom they would bring faith. In the second anthology, Drippé delivers another exciting tale from the Lost Rythar universe. “Tenniel” is a bishop who must fight the leader of the Wolfbane clan to win the conversion of the tribe to Christianity, saving their lives as well as their souls.

In “Far Traveler,” Drippé sends a secret agent back in time to witness the crucifixion of Jesus. His return trip teaches him more about Pontius Pilate than he ever wanted to know.

“Canticle of the Wolf” by Alan Loewen is a new take on the old legend of St. Francis. The wolf is a genetically engineered traveler from a future in which his kind are enslaved. The gentle saint’s insight and efforts lead to peace between humans and lupines.

Alien abduction takes a new twist when a Catholic schoolgirl meets a UFO in Karina L. Fabian’s “Interstellar Calling.” If the story feels incomplete or abrupt, the second anthology delivers a sequel, “Frankie Phones Home.” A light-hearted tone makes Frankie’s story a relief from some of the darker tales.

“Our Daily Bread,” by Karina and Robert Fabian, shows the practical concerns of Catholics in outer space. Weekly Eucharist provides solace and strength for a company of asteroid miners, until their shipment of Host is lost in an accident. Then the Host starts mysteriously multiplying …

The Fabians deliver one of my favorites with “These Three.” A young nun shirks her duties to enter a state of deep prayer, whereby she learns a freak accident has sent a freighter on a collision course with the L5 station. Tumbling wildly and without a distress beacon to alert the busy facility, it may be too late for the sisters of Our Lady of the Rescue to get a tow on it and pull it to safety. The errant ship, for years held together with spit and duct tape, is playfully known as Poubelle, or piece of junk. The sole survivor on the Poubelle is gravely injured, yet must make a long and painful trek across the ravaged ship to auxiliary control. Many of the archetypal themes I loved in “The Poseidon Adventure” are here. Fortunately, our hero is saved by the prayers of the young nun of the “Rescue Sisters,” and the intervention of Blessed Gillian, who chastises him like a drill sergeant. Just as “Star Wars” gave us The Force, Catholicism gives us the spirits of fallen warriors, aka the community of saints, to guide those in peril. Whether it’s just another form of science fiction, or proof of the power of faith, hope, and love, the hero’s journey though hell is inspiring and gratifying.

Readers get to revisit the Order of Our Lady of the Rescue in “Antivenin” by Karina Fabian in the second anthology. Three nuns offer help to a ship that is off-course and not answering hails. They find the ship crawling with venomous snakes who have killed their handler and bitten the pilot. When one bites her partner, Sister Rita must conquer her phobia and snatch the antivenin from their nest.

Outer space sounds like a good place for not only nuns but monks who choose the silence and isolation of a monastery. In “Brother Jubal and the Womb of Silence,” by Tim Meyers, a monk dreads the days when he must give up his peace and quiet to visit the station for air and other supplies.

The willingness of Catholics to forgive, even killers and apparently unredeemable criminals, comes to life in “Mask of the Ferret” by Ken Pick and Alan Loewen. The crew of a space ship reluctantly allow on board a passenger who is part ferret, which makes her sneaky, playful and dangerous. Sure enough, her greed for shiny things has led her to smuggle something incredibly dangerous into the cargo hold. It takes a priest’s insight and ability to save them all, at great cost to himself. However, even though the creature goes her own way, the priest still plans to make use of her skills in a future scheme that will leave readers begging for a sequel, which Pick and Loewen deliver in the second anthology.

The chain-smoking Goth ferret-woman named Jill Noir was based on a fursuit in the masquerade and fursuit dance at a “furry con” in January of 1999. Says the author: “She struck me as a natural for a bad girl character. She’s also a tribute to all those classic Poul Anderson and H. Beam Piper stories I used to devour in back issues of Analog and used-bookstore paperbacks.”

In “Dyads,” the Catholic Church and all of Earth are blamed when a failed missionary’s desperation boils over into terrorism. Father Heidler negotiates a delicate maze of politics and religious convictions to find a way to restore peace and reconcile two worlds. Throughout his adventures, Heidler keeps a journal full of provocative questions and observations. How to recognize sentience in alien life? “If a species has organized religion,” he notes, “it is most likely sentient.” The fox-like aliens of the Eternal Dance make it clear that what is right for them is not necessarily holy and right for humans, which draws an incisive metaphor of reality, and heightens the conflicts in this novella.

Yes, a novella. See how much you can get for only $3? Father Heidler is one of the best characters I’ve come across in any genre. Readers who’d pass up a story just because it’s “Catholic” are missing out.

The authors had fun with the villain of the piece, Cameron “Bucky Bible” Lakeland, the desperate failed missionary-turned-amateur terrorist. One of the authors spent a good chunk of the ’70s in a similar end-of-the-world cult “and it took years to get back. Writing about a similar quasi-cult—contrasting it with the historical liturgical Church—was, shall we say, a bit of catharsis.”

“Dyads” is the one story that people either adore or despise, notes Karina Fabian. The supreme irony, she adds, is that Loewen, a Protestant minister, has been accused of co-writing an “anti-Protestant polemic.”

Adds Fabian: “The thing is, too many people are apt to overreact by thinking that one bad character must mean a prejudice to an entire group. If we follow that attitude to its logical extreme, no one can be a bad guy ever, unless they are simply pure evil with no ties to any religious, political, racial, musical, artistic, or pet preferences.”

Does an overly strong, genetically mutated girl from a broken home in the slums have anything to live for? The Catholic answer is yes. As Father Heidler sees value and purpose in the Ferret, so do The Order of St. Joan, a group of nuns with the special calling to act as bodyguards for priests who live in dangerous areas. “Little Madeleine” by Simon Morden reminds us that even in the dregs of society, the best of the human race can still be found.

In a post-September 11 and Sandy Hook world, the riveting and terrible call to forgiveness speaks to people of every belief system. “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff illustrates how hard that is. IRA terrorist Liam Connor, in the name of his cause, has blown up a busload of Protestant schoolchildren. He’s convicted and given a choice: capital punishment or participation in a highly experimental rehabilitation program. In contrast to the protagonist of “A Clockwork Orange,” Liam is the first killer to overcome the power of modern technology to inflict remorse on him. However, after several failed attempts at Confession, he just might face the horror of what he has done and the certainty that he’d never do it again.

“The Hosts of the Envoy” by Alex Lobdell is an eerie tale, reminding me of Robert Ballard’s video footage of the Titanic nearly a century after it sank to the ocean floor. Things aren’t quite so bleak for The Envoy, which has been as famously and unaccountably lost as Amelia Earhart’s plane. The pilot of a lost and broken spaceship is saved from certain death when he encounters the gigantic, slow, outdated Envoy. Unfortunately, the descendants of the original crew believe the pilot is there to save the Envoy from another 120 years of being lost in the wilderness. To escape the wrath of the Hosts of the Envoy, Luke has to place his trust in two children on board.

“Understanding” by J. Sherer shows the dark side of the Church when genetically engineered humans are excommunicated, not for what they did, but for what they are. The Church issues an edict welcoming all humans, engineered or not, but a serial killer targets priests and nuns because of the earlier ruling. An agent, bitter about losing his own genetically engineered father, must confront his feelings to solve the case and forgive the Church he loved and hated for so long.

Rose Dimond takes a controversial view of the future Church in “Stabat Mater” when the Pope himself takes a woman onto a colony ship, and she must decide whether to follow the command of God’s Earthly representative, or the directions of God’s own mother.

The second anthology includes “The Ghosts of Kourion” by Andrew Seddon. A professor copes with the grief of losing his wife and daughter by traveling back in time to study a city soon to be destroyed by an earthquake. In “An Exercise in Logic” by Paul Levenson, an ancient alien satellite has diverted an asteroid toward a human colony planet. The people who built the satellite refuse to veto programming logic installed by their ancestors—unless an Ursuline sister can change their minds.

Ethics and the perils of technology inform “Cathedral” by Tamara Wilhite. Katarina’s people were engineered to love scientific research and dedicate themselves to bettering mankind, but when Katarina discovers the medicines she created were actually drugs to control the population, she spends the last of her tortured days righting her wrongs.

Karina Fabian tackles the dilemma of humans dying while in a virtual reality world. In “Otherworld,” a priest is driven to evangelize and remind players of reality and the God who cares about what they do on both worlds.

What do you get when you mix a royal assassination, alien militia, and the Saturday night Mass-and-Spaghetti dinner? “The Battle of the Narthex” by Alex Lobdel, another touching and funny break from the heavy issues in these books.

J. Sherer returns with “Tin Servants.” A priest allows himself to be altered to resemble the androids sent to provide medical help to war-torn Ghana. Once there, however, he finds himself limited and embroiled in a conspiracy to convert the andorginacs into soldiers.

A Navy buddy needs help fixing up an old clunker of a spacecraft in John Rundle’s “Basilica,” and Father Carpizo arrives to do his old friend a long overdue favor. As he turns wrenches, however, Carpizo finds a mystery to whet his appetite: a riddle deeply rooted in the history of the Church. Suddenly confronted by unspeakable evil, Carpizo must make the ultimate sacrifice to destroy it … if only there is enough time.

In “Cloned to Kill” by D. Mak, a clone programmed to kill finds her humanity through the power of Baptism, but how far will Father Markham have to go to protect his new ward?

Science fiction celebrates the possible and revels in a sense of wonder. It can be deeply unsatisfying when the science is so poor that it seems like magic, but that isn’t the case in either of these anthologies. The Church has been praised as well as condemned for her missions in remote and primitive lands on Earth, but for all the missionaries, priests and nuns who’ve given religion a bad name, Catholicism may survive well into the future and the farthest reaches of space.

As Hugo-winning author Charlie Jane Anders says, “The universe is a much stranger, more bewildering place than any of us can really begin to grasp … If you don’t believe me, just read some science fiction.” Yes, even “Catholic” science fiction. This is the genre that knows no bounds. 

END

 

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About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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