It's hard to find good Catholic fiction nowadays, and Catholic science fiction is an even rarer breed. Enter Karina Fabian's new space thriller Discovery, about an order of nuns devoted to space rescue and their mission to help recover an alien spaceship stranded in an asteroid belt at the edge of our solar system. Discovery is, quite simply, stellar (pun intended).
Author Karina Fabian's world-building is first-class. There's enough hard science in Discovery to satisfy the geekiest astrophysics major. (I don't know if it's scientifically accurate or not -- you'd have to ask the astrophysics majors.) Throughout the novel, Fabian deftly weaves in elements like spacesuit training classes, low-grav ball games on a dodecahedronal court, and advanced medical technologies like bone knitters for rapid bone repair.
Fabian's space-based society simmers with conflict over class and religion. The researchers (called "Dataheads") look down on the asteroid miners (called "Rockjacks"). Deep-seated religious tensions separate the Catholic sisters, the Evangelicals, the wiccans, and the Codists, who have turned rules of safety in space into a re-imagined 10 Commandments. "Zerogs," humans who have been genetically modified to thrive in a zero gravity environment, shun extended contact with others. To keep their genes pure, they will kill any zerog who mates with a non-modified human -- and any offspring of that mating.
Discovery brims over with fascinating characters. The religious sisters who belong to the Order of Our Lady of the Rescue are highly trained professional space-farers risking their lives for others. My favorite protagonist, Sister Ann, plays the role of a futuristic Cassandra, spouting accurate prophecies that no one understands. Her poetic mysticism makes her resemble St. John of the Cross in a spacesuit. She converses in aphorisms, like
"When we control, we find comfort; when God controls, grace."
"The wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but for deliverance from fear."
Two additional central characters in the book are Sister Rita and Dr. James Smith, the archaeologist tapped to head the exploratory mission of the alien spaceship. They attended college together at Terra Technological University, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Franciscan University in Steubenville (where else do college students routinely meet up in chapel?). Their unrequited romance hints at a crisis in their vocations, since James is a former seminarian and Sister Rita a fully professed religious sister. The relationship, fortunately, takes a backseat to the more interesting, larger story.
After many chapters of captivating and well-executed character development, the pace of Discovery picks up dramatically about half-way through when the crew finally reaches the alien ship. A mysterious third arm of the six-armed spaceship forces many of the crew members to face their deeply hidden desires, wrong choices, and guilty secrets. As the ship catapults toward crisis, the sisters are called upon to rescue their friends and colleagues in more ways than one.
Those who know me know that I'm a bit of a science fiction junkie. In times of stress, a reading binge of 10 books or more is a sure-fire cure. In college, I was a geek groupie. Not good enough at math to achieve full geek status, I focused on the history and anthropology of technology. I would have majored in science fiction if I could have.
Science fiction at its worst devolves into romanticized space opera or non-stop action against monstrous aliens easily identified as evil. Science fiction at its best explores what it means to be human. What might happen to humans when you remove them from their normal political, cultural, and physical environment? What new societies or religions would evolve? Humans know we're different from animals because we have sentience and the ability to worship God. What if we met aliens with those same qualities? How might genetic modifications impact cultural norms in unexpected ways?
Discovery delves into all the best and most exciting themes of the science fiction greats. Although the book contains elements of romance, action-adventure, and even horror, it never shies away from the essential existential questions. Highly recommended.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.