"You sent us here. We do this for you: spin your webs and build your magic gateways, thread the needle's eye at sixty thousand kilometers a second. We never stop, never even dare to slow down, lest the light of your coming turn us to plasma. All so you can step from star to star without dirtying your feet in these endless, empty wastes between.
Is it really too much to ask that you might talk to us now and then?" And then, a little later on the page: "Why have you forsaken us?" (p. 31)
The addressee here is not God but, as far as I could tell on first reading, a post-human intelligence, perhaps some combination of man/machine. And this prayer is uttered not in a Church, but in one of those Cathedrals of the far future: a rocket ship.
The character thinking these words is tens of thousands of years old. But she's not supernatural either. She's simply one of a small crew of workers whose Sisyphean task is to travel thousands of light years across the cosmos, as she helps build things for a kind of intergalactic Robert Moses (the "person" addressed earlier). To make this task possible, she and her crew only get to stay awake for a few weeks every thousand years or so (the rest of the time they're kept in an "undead" state by intelligent robots).
Talk about work alienation: "...there is no finish line," she mutters. "We go on forever, crawling across the universe like ants, dragging your goddamed superhighway behind us." (p. 69)
Why was I compelled to read on? The pleasure of this text for me was in watching how it elegantly translated the motifs of older, biblical, devotional and mystical literature (and the feelings these stirred) into a secular tale. In this, the SF genre shares something with Romanticism. It too derives some of its appeal from what the great literary scholar M.H. Abrams termed (in a book of the same name) Natural Supernaturalism.
According to Abrams, the Romantics (and their progeny) -- reacting against the more mechanistic side of the Enlightenment -- found ways to reinvent older spiritual (and biblical) literatures by "reconstituting them in a way that would make them intellectually acceptable, as well as emotionally pertinent." (p. 66)
So, for example, the figure of "Prophet" becomes the "visionary poet" in Wordsworth. "Providence" is transformed into the march of the Idea through history by Hegel. The Millennial Kingdom is reborn as the post-historical age of Communism in Marx.
Pulp Vs. Hard SF
From what I know of the history of SF, the term "Space Opera" (derived from "horse opera") was originally derogatory. It described a strain of the form full of fanciful science, with a premium placed on adventure. It was also known as "Space Romance."
"The New Space Opera" appears (at least on the basis of this tale) to be an attempt to renew the "wow" factor of its pulp ancestor (its sense of the cosmic infinite or sublime) by offering greater attention to hard science fact and theory, in order to enhance speculative plausibility.
What's touching in this tale, though, is a sense of mourning for the lost innocence of older SF. At one point, for example, there is a vision of nature reminiscent of a more Romantic heritage: a living star that signals "Stop, stop, stop" to the rocket as it nears.
The narrator tells us that no human crew has been able to communicate with an alien life form, and the very possibility sets off her utopian imagination. She becomes convinced this being (called "The Island" or DHF 428) is evidence of a kinder, gentler, version of evolution:
"The Island puts the lie to everything we were ever told about the machinery of life. Sun-powered, perfectly adapted, immortal, it won no struggle for survival: where are the predators, the competitors, the parasites? All life around 428 is one vast continuum, one grand act of symbiosis. Nature here is not red in tooth and claw. Nature, out here, is the helping hand." (p. 54)
But, as one might expect from a post-Romantic Space Romance, this proves untrue. Through great effort, the ship, heeding the pleas of 428, adjusts its course, so as not to collide with it. Later, though, we discover this being "conned" them" -- into killing another life form in its vicinity. "I let myself believe in life without conflict," the narrator mourns, "in sentience without sin." (p. 69)
Science Vs. Ideology
Have we then, through this disillusion, escaped the Natural Supernaturalism of the Space Romance? Perhaps. But doesn't it sound like the narrator, presenting a more "realistic" version of evolution is getting it mixed up with older doctrines like "Original Sin"?
Some cultural critics consider this "dog-eat-dog" version of "hard science" to be suspiciously close to competitive market rhetoric. Evolution, so I've read, can be influenced by cooperative ventures like culture, as well as "selfish genes."
So you might read this tale as a cautionary one. Perhaps it warns that sometimes you give up religion, only to replace it with ideology.