So, I’ll start this by admitting some bias off the bat. I’m a big Kameron Hurley fan. I’ve been entranced with Worldbreaker Saga trilogy ever since I picked it up a few years ago after the blurb piqued my interest. I went on to grab all of the short fiction I could get my hands on, along with the essays she’d been putting out and would eventually collect in the Geek Feminist Revolution last year. I’m eagerly awaiting the third Worldbreaker book. I consider her amazing essay “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” to be part of my worldbuilding bible and something I go back and read in its entirety any time I sit down to start working on some new setting, just to make sure I’m not inadvertently letting important things fall through the cracks like historians have done with our own history forever.
So, you might imagine I’ve been waiting for The Stars Are Legion with baited breath ever since I first heard rumblings about it. Her take on space opera, as a big old standalone, which serves as both a love letter to the genre and a skewering of many of its less savory tropes and stereotypes.
I finished it yesterday night and I was not disappointed. It actually blew away my expectations.
I am left with the quandary of how to give it a good review and explain why I liked it without accidentally spoiling something, because the novel is packed to the brim with twists and unexpected turns in the narrative, characters dying ingloriously and without a second though, learning something and then having to unlearn it just a few chapters later. I will try to explain what really stood out to me without spoiling, but if you’re really concerned about avoiding that I’d say stop at the end of this paragraph and just go with me saying: buy it, 2017 is young but this is already in my top five for the year, it’s one of the most imaginative pieces of science fiction I’ve read in ages.
Okay, all that out of the way.
The first and most striking thing about the novel is that it’s all women. It’s not a setting where men were discarded, or killed, or rendered pointless. There’s no mention of men whatsoever. The concept of men does not exist. Masculinity is not a thing, and neither is femininity by sheer virtue of having nothing to compare or contrast it to. The romances that pop up throughout the book are both queer and not, because while they’re woman-on-woman, there’s not an alternative.
That really shouldn’t be a big thing, because I can think of plenty of space opera novels I read from the 70s and 80s where there wasn’t a single woman of note and all the speaking roles were played by men, but here we are. It does stand out and I had to make some mental adjustments; for the first few chapters every time a crowd scene is described I had to remind myself not to imagine any male faces mixed in.
Second, and arguably the most important thing about the novel, is that it’s all about pregnancy. Everything in the setting is organic. Metal is beyond rare, practically nonexistant. The ships are huge living beings, calling to mind Moya and the other leviathans from Farscape (huge points in the book’s favor, that being one of my favorite shows ever), and their inhabitants are so connected to their ships that their wombs serve as… well, replicators and engineering chambers for the ship to create new parts in. Women might give birth to fleshy, veined cogs for the great machine as easily as what we’d imagine as a baby. Women can give birth to horrible weapons, vehicles, even the things that grow into the world-sized superships that make up the fleet.
Pregnancy and birth have always been in SF/F, but usually along the lines of body horror. Frank Herbert’s got the Axlotl Tanks of the Tleilaxu people in Dune, basically women stripped of sentience and reduced to breeding machines. Other writers have mimicked or parodied that. On a separate but related vein you might have something like Alien and the xenomorphs’ whole “gimmick” basically being walking sexual assault monsters that impregnate you and then you die. I could probably come up with a laundry list of alien or weird pregnancy metaphors in science fiction, but you get where I’m going.
This is the first time where I’ve seen it play a central role and have it be equal parts horror and awe, kind of a reverence for the power of creation that isn’t positive or negative. It’s intriguing and left me wanting even more than the book gave me, which is a considerable amount. It’s like the odd child of Ursula le Guin and David Cronenberg. There’s horror there in the sense that things can go wrong in pregnancy, and mutations can occur, and pregnancy can be unwanted, but it’s a very grounded horror that does not reduce the female body to a host for us to gawk at.
This particular strain of organic, body horror influenced worldbuilding isn’t new ground for Hurley, but I feel like this is the first book of hers that made it into a central theme and created something beautiful out of it while her other books used it to sculpt the setting and accentuate political maneuvering. The closest would obviously be Worldbreaker with its peculiar blood and plant magic systems, but I always feel like the focal point of those books are more about gender roles, transgender issues, and layered ethical quandaries baked into transdimensional warfare and political intrigue. The Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy also incorporates some of what we see here, set in a post apocalyptic world where technology is insectoid, but much more about picking apart religion and social norms than the bugtech (again, another stellar series you should pick up, monster bounty hunters with centipede weapons in a blasted wasteland ruled over by Islamic-inspired sects).
Overall, it really clicked with me. It brought me something new, and made it even more interesting than just the newness itself. Good characters, as I said a ton of plot twists, a world that is shown to you in brief glimpses and a history that slowly unfolds over the course of several hundred pages instead of being vomited at you in blocky paragraphs in between space battles.
Oh, and bazookas that fire homing squid bullets. Always a plus.