Infinite Space, Infinite God II is a science fiction anthology of Catholic-related tales, edited by Robert and Karina Fabian. It's not preachy. And there is not even a whiff, a hint, a suggestion, of pro-Catholic propaganda. In fact, the entire premise of this book is that systems fail, fall apart, and don't solve everything, leaving it up to individuals. Sometimes, an individual combined with faith, and sometimes not.
Sometimes, the individual isn't even human.
Welcome to the world of Catholic science fiction. This is not, mercifully, one of those books where you have to be Catholic to understand everything. In fact, aside from a few in-jokes, this is not a book that requires you know Catholic theology—one of the authors is a Presbyterian Minister.
Far as I can tell, if you don't mind having Catholics as the good guys, this book is quite enjoyable. This doesn't even require a belief in God.... but it doesn't hurt, either
The sense of humor in some is almost sly. You don't need to be Catholic to understand the actual jokes, though there are some bits where there are Catholic in-jokes.
Karina Fabian's tale of interstellar rescue nuns includes their base convent as being the Convent of Joseph du Cupertino—the patron saint of pilots. Most relevant jokes are spelled out: one ship is called the Mark 16, even though there were only seven models—only to discover that it's actually Mark 16:18...
Let's just say that I've never seen “Snakes on a Star ship.”
There was also a question from an alien to a nun that started
“What do the wings on the hat signify? Something to do with aviation?"
"This is a full habit."
"I didn't ask how often you wore it."
However, one of the more interesting parts of this collection is that it's a science fiction story that uses—gasp—science. We get to keep inertia, Kepler's laws, and no, you are not going to rewrite history as a time traveler. Thank you.
(If you are not an active science fiction fan, let's just say that finding science in science fiction can, occasionally, be hit-or-miss. There are Baen novels, some of which use so many scientific elements that they have physicists co-writing books, and then there's Star Wars and Star Trek media … don't even ask).
Now, to be fair, this comes with the usual mixed bag in any anthology. There are one or two stories that I read and didn't think came up to the standard set by the editors' own tales. I don't know if they were feeling charitable, or if they just really liked “The moral of the story.” The biggest, and I mean the biggest, problem with this anthology is actually … in the introductions. Some of the story intros push a little too hard in trying to explain the moral of the story, and some even give away the ending. But then, if that's the biggest problem with this book, it's not that big at all, when compared to the fun of the rest of it.
If the editors are reading, a simple word of warning for the next volume: stop trying so hard. The story will sell itself. And if you don't think it does, move the introduction of each story to the end of each tale. That's it. “Problem” solved.
And, in this entire collection, I can only suggest skipping two stories. That's it, two. Well, one and a half, really.
The opening tale, "The Ghosts of Kourion," is so full of exposition, and takes place so much inside of the protagonist's head, that I can't honestly recommend it. I got bored, and moved on. And, to be honest, I'm not a big fan of anthologies, considering how variable the quality can be. I was very tempted to give up on the entire book, if Ghosts of Kourion was going to be an example. It might be me, but I couldn't really get into it...
And then I read the Karina Fabian tale "Antivenin" … referred to above as “Snakes on a Star Ship.” Rescue nuns and poisonous snakes. In zero-gravity. It was fun. It was a nice, solid adventure. Though I did expect there to be a line that read "I am sick and tired of these .... snakes on this .... star ship." It made up for "Ghosts of Kourion," in spades.
As for the rest of the stories, well …
"An Exercise in Logic": A nun brought in to argue for saving a few thousand people, in a logic game of chicken. The alien race's argument? “Yes, we could save this planet … how do you know that the aftereffects won't endanger more people?” And I can't quibble about a nun who has to fight the urge to slip into the vocabulary of a sailor. It was entertaining and amusing. And the ending was cute.
The philosopher Kant once argued that since you can't see all of the ripple effects of your decisions, saying that the ends justify the means is an invalid premise. This story deals with an alien race that argues, The name of Kant is never mentioned, but I liked this one if only for the premise alone.
However, the funniest part of this story may be in the brief bio on author Barton Paul Levenson, who is, in fact, Presbyterian, not Catholic.
However, the best line of the story: "You can't pray to your god in here! This is the Ecumenical Temple! Stop it at once!"
And there will be no fighting in the war room ....
"Cathedral" (Author: Tamara Wilhite) A short summary of this one could be “Blade Runner goes to church.” A biologically engineered soldier has a limited lifespan, and only has a few months left to try to extend her lifespan ... or to make her life mean something.
This was a very well-designed story, with a nice punchline. The setup was nice, and the takedown was well executed. It was touching. I generally despise "touching," but this one worked for me quite well.
"Otherworld" (author, Karina Fabian, one of the editors): Remember when I mentioned that there was one and a half stories I would not recommend? This is the half.
The premise here is that there's a Jesuit doing missionary work in virtual reality (VR) … like a net chat room, complete with trolls (not literal … okay, some of them are literal). Imagine that a VR World of Warcraft, or perhaps Second Life, can be so addicting, it can cause the user to fall in and never come out.
I like this premise. Honest. I like the idea of VR missionaries. And how can you not enjoy a story that has a line like “I've just left a discussion on Catholic Social Justice with a white rabbit, a raven and a hamster. I feel very close to St. Francis at the moment”?
However, the main problem isn't the author, or the story, but the narrator. Our protagonist, a Jesuit priest, is a very, very serious fellow. I understood the character's problems because I'm Catholic, and while I even agreed with what our first-person narrator preached, the way it was delivered was in a rote fashion, without thought or explanation to the audience. Why do I blame the narrator, and not the author? Because Karina Fabian is also the author of Antivenin, noted above, which was a fairly excellent story.
"The Battle of the Narthex" (Alex Lobdell): I loved this one, it was hilarious. It had intergalactic politics, alien princes going to mass, an old bodyguard who wants to get away from cutthroat palace politics, military tactics, an assassination squad, and motion sensor flush toilets as a threat to invisibility camouflage units. And we get to see a “Come holy spirit” banner on fire.
Imagine the Catholic church from the point of view an alien. There is no theology in this one at all, and the protagonist of this one is an old alien soldier who's an atheist … but there is a nice little touch at the end...
Let's just say that Father Brown would be proud.
"Tenniel" (Colleen Drippé): In the future, when humanity meets alien worlds, there will be alien converts. In this story, an alien Catholic Bishop comes face to face with one of the local alien “pagans,” who is intent on wiping out the “alien faith,” and any who worship it. The barbarians here really are at the gates, and they are pissed.
I suggest you skip the introduction on this story altogether, since it gives away the ending, and pushes far too hard on the moral of the story. The story speaks for itself.
I'm thinking ... Constantine.
And not Keanu Reeves.
"Tin Servants" (J Sherer). In 2147, a Catholic priest has gone undercover as an android soldier being shipped into Africa, and what happens when, for once, the human has to act like an android, instead of vice versa.
It's a nice inversion of cliches. In the grand tradition of science fiction, it deals with a lot of modern problems with a fictional guise. Though in this case, the guise is a thin gauze. Not that I'm complaining. Half the science fiction I read lately seems to have a light crust of science over a Grand Canyon of politics—Tin Servants is downright subtle in comparison. There isn't much in the way of theology here, and that's a good thing. It's nice and low key and elegant, with a solid punchline you won't see coming.
Basilica (John Rundle). I loved this story. Up until this point in the collection, I thought that Antivenin alone would justify the cost of this book. This was just as good. Possibly better
This story is very much like a Doctor Who episode. To prevent a super-weapon from falling into the hands of ancient heretics, a priest has to hijack a star ship and fend off a boarding party of killing machines.
Cloned to Kill (Derwin Mak): A military clone named Lorraine … hiding in St. Joan of Arc church … and she hears voices. Enough said. This one was fairly awesome, and very well constructed.
Frankie Phones Home (Karina Fabian). This was a cute story, told mostly in the form of dialogue – imagine if the kid from E.T. went along with his friendly neighborhood alien back to his home planet … and then came back.
Dyads (Ken Pick and Alan Loewen) – Premise: Catholicism doesn't mesh with non-human species, but we can all get along. However, when a missionary from a backwater sect decides to covert the local "heathens" his way, interstellar diplomacy can get messy.
The nice part about this one is that the culture shock isn't human to alien, but two religions (one human, one alien) looking at a third and saying "Wow, are you weird or what?"
Dyads takes time to really get going, but it's ultimately worth it. There are some details that are a touch overwritten, and there were some sections where I would have liked dialogue, not exposition. But if you ever wanted to see what would happen with interstellar cultural misunderstandings and missionaries, you have an interesting story here. Ultimately, it's quite touching. As I said above, this is coming from someone who typically holds standard “cute and cuddly” in the highest disdain.
Oh, and fair warning - - there are furries. Tall, bipedel, fox-like furries. They're aliens, but still, you have been warned.....
At the end of the day, if you like science fiction, you'll enjoy this book. It's worth the price of admission, and I'd even pay money for it, even though I already have a digital copy.