Thursday, January 12, 2017

Kameron Hurley - The Stars Are Legion

The Stars Are Legion is a standalone science fiction novel by Kameron Hurley. I’ve recently enjoyed Hurley’s “Worldbreaker” series, and thought her “God’s War” sci-fi series was innovative and deserved more attention – so I was quite excited to see what this one was all about before I turned the first page.

Hurley brings us a universe of craft which are also worlds. They orbit each other in an enormous swarm, sitting around an energetic star. These world-ships though, seem organic – if they do not live and breathe in the same way as the people inside them, still, they persist. There’s a sense of a larger entity, which is aware of the people within it purely as part of the systems which sustain it. But it’s the sense of the organism, and the feeling of its decline, which sparkles rancidly on the page. If a world can live, it can also die. Systems fail or go into systemic decline. Shielding withers slowly away. The population forgets who and what they are, slowly falling into micro-societies which rarely look anywhere but at themselves. The world-craft have a sense of morbidity, a slowly dripping decay which can be read between every line – and the societies it builds reflect that. They’re insular, some are prone to violence, others simply taken in strange directions.

There is, literally, a world on display here, and that its internal social structure (and external wrapping) resembles a Hieronymous Bosch painting is daring and disturbing in equal measure. There’s something of Giger floating about as well – with individuals birthing components required by the ship, with no choice as to what, when and why. In some cases, the results of this process aren’t even required. In moving the typically mechanical into the realm of the organic, there’s space to have a discussion about what exactly defines humanity, and quite what people will do, for themselves and to or with others. That these fecund, terrifying environs are accepted by those within them as mundane simply highlights their strangeness from a reader perspective – and from that perspective, Hurley has brought out something strange, new, and more than a little horrifying.

It may be unclear, but I found myself alternately repulsed and intrigued whilst turning pages, from visceral reaction to further thought, and back again – and the narrative evokes those feelings skilfully, whilst investing you in the journey of the characters within this unusual space.

There’s more here that would stand further analysis – about the self-sustaining nature of worlds within the swarm, and what the failure of that nature suggests, or about the presence of metal beneath layers of organism, for example – but suffice to say that as a setting, this feels vivid, quite real, and shockingly imaginative.

The characters are, well, different. Victims of circumstance and necessity. Zan is perhaps the most immediate, and the most opaque; she is a woman without a memory, a woman without a past. Or at least not a past she can recall. Her struggles to orient herself in an environment as strange as a world-ship provide opportunities for both sympathy and admiration. Here is an individual who has been mentally broken – but she fights. She fights for every piece of understanding she can muster, dragging truth and lies from those around her, and, if need be, creating her own.  In a sense, she creates her own persona – beginning as a tabula rasa, Zan has the chance to decide for herself who she is and what she will be, drawing from the immediate world, and the aspects of the past she can gather from an entire host of unreliable narrators. I’m not sure if she seemed to have the moral certainty to call herself a hero; on the other hand, she certainly has the courage expected of one. There’s strength here, a dogged stubbornness and willingness to struggle, which left me cheering her on, even when her choices or the promises of her past seemed particularly haunting.

Zan’s assisted in her journeys, physical and mental, by a relatively small but rich supporting cast. They’ve all got their own problems – from prejudice and cowardice, to physical mutations. Because, rather than in spite of those issues, they seem to look out from the narrative, inviting the reader to consider themselves inside this collective of hurt looking for their mettle. If the world is broken, then so are those within it – some committing atrocities because they think it’s the right thing to do, and others living with the consequences. This is a realm of broken monsters. That said, there’s not much sense of the victim here – whilst some individuals are constrained, they all have a sense of agency, of purpose – a feeling of lives interrupted and brought into focus by the narrative. Whilst some evoke more sympathy than others, each of them feels like they have more than the sides they show the camera. As a result, the underlying cross-currents that come as a consequence of well-drawn, well-developed characters make the whole a gripping, punishing, enchanting read.

With a plot that begins in the unknown, I’m reluctant to get into too much detail, so as to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say, Zan has some interest in finding out who she is – and who she was. At the same time, there are agenda at play, as those around her are looking for their own leverage, to enact their own changes. Some of those changes are more atrocious than others. In the interim, there’s gunfire, different but utterly convincing space battles, and rather a lot of intrigue. It all adds up to a book I had great difficulty putting down, even after I’d finished reading it. The Stars Are Legion is weird, strange, and horrifyingly wondrous. It asks a lot of big questions, and lets us try and find our own answers. Read this one – it’s smart, innovative and compelling in equal measure

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