A couple of months ago, I took a pause from writing my own Catholic science fiction novel, Cast Into the Deep Sea of Stars, and spent some time searching online (as I do from time to time) for anything that called itself a “Catholic science fiction novel.” I’ve done this before, but I thought I might find something I had missed and this time, by golly, I did just that. I found Cyril Jones-Kellett’s Ad Limina: a novella of Catholics in space (Servant of Eternity, Volume 1), published just this past March (2013). How could I not snap it up?
Although it is called a novella, that’s not because Ad Limina is particularly short – there was a time not so long ago when 220 pages would have been considered a goodish length for a novel, and this book certainly manages to cover quite a bit of ground. It moves fairly lightly through potentially heavy subjects. In this case, I think that is a good thing, and serves the author’s purpose well, that purpose being to take the reader through a series of views of the likely future (should certain present-day trends continue unchecked) through the next century or two, in order to see their likely consequences. Jones-Kellett manages to do this in a remarkably light-handed way, without making light of his subjects.
The book tells the story of Mark Gastelum, the first native-born bishop of Mars, as he makes his first trip to Earth to make his compulsory ad limina visit to the Pope. The bishop has put off the visit for years – he has a rather parochial view of things. Doesn’t he have plenty to accomplish in his diocese? Why should he have to spend years of his life travelling to Rome, just for a brief interview with the Pope? Aren’t there better uses of his time? When the word finally comes from the Holy See that he may procrastinate no longer, he accedes and books passage for Earth. One can imagine Bishop Gastelum as the twenty-second (or perhaps twenty-third) century equivalent of a Midwestern American bishop of the mid-nineteenth century: Rome is very distant, travel is slow and difficult, and the goings-on of the Pope and his curia seem to have little to do with the very real and constant challenges of managing a frontier diocese. But what is a bishop to do? When Rome commands, one must obey.
As is so often the case, the journey justifies the trip. The bishop (and the reader who tags along with him) learns a lot about the wider world that puts his own situation into context. In fact, just travelling across Mars to reach the town from which he will take flight, is a learning experience for the bishop, who has never visited many of the settlements of his home planet, at least not those that lie outside the geographical limits of his diocese. Before he has even left Mars, Gastelum has already taken the longest trip of his life. He is forced to depart from a distant city, because the main space port, which is more conveniently located, serves only officially sanctioned and registered liners, which don’t serve those on the no fly list: “Mormons, Fascists, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, nationalists, neo-moralists, Australians, and so on.”
This is the first intimation that the religious marginalization that is going on in our own day will be taken to a logical conclusion in this futuristic tale. At every step of his journey (which I won’t detail here, lest I spoil the fun of reading it for yourself), our mild-mannered, wide-eyed young bishop gets a liberal education in the real circumstances of the world of his own day. Let it suffice to say that the bishop’s perfunctory ad limina visit winds up taking him on a grand adventure that gallops through almost every part of the settled solar system of his day. The adventure allows the story to touch on a variety of topics, including inter alia neo-fascism, transhumanism, and recreational drugs, while the protagonist’s relatively naive view allows the novelist to show us the logical outcomes of various present-day currents without a lot of sermonizing, a feat he achieves very deftly.
The lightness of the treatment, however, belies the seriousness of the purpose. While the story is, on the face of it, a grand adventure, another way to read it is (and details in the story suggest that this is how the author hopes we will read it) as a spiritual trial, from which the soul in question emerges purified and hardened against the wiles of the Enemy. Bishop Mark Gastelum’s spiritual journey takes him into the wilderness where he is tempted in many ways; at the end, having endured these temptations without succumbing, he is spiritually mature and ready to take on greater challenges. (Read more on the Christian aspects of this novel here on my reading blog.)
Creating a Catholic science fiction novel is a tricky thing. It would be all too easy to produce a literary chimera – a repulsive mash-up that satisfies neither Catholics nor seasoned readers of science fiction. As a Catholic novel, Ad Limina succeeds very well, and there is certainly plenty here to satisfy an avid reader of science fiction. The various forms of space travel and the different ways is which alien environments have been adapted for human habitation are well-described (without going into too much tedious technical detail), and these descriptions are well-integrated into the story. (There are few things I detest more in science fiction than excessive, obtrusive, or extraneous discursions into scientific minutia; there’s none of that here.)
More importantly, these details serve the story, which should not surprise us, given that one of the points of the narrative is to show us how current-day phenomena are likely to play out over time, the most obvious being the modern world’s love affair with scientific and technological innovation.
To my mind, science fiction really “does its job” when it casts its view into the future in order to give us a better perspective on the present, and I believe Cyril Jones-Kellett’s Ad Limina: a novella of Catholics in space (servant of eternity) (Volume 1) does just that. I certainly recommend it to any reader who finds the phrase “Catholic science fiction” either delightful or intriguing. And I’m happy to be able to tell you that this is apparently the first of a series, so if you like this one, there is more to look forward to.