Recommendation: The Stars Are Legion

thestarsarelegioncoverOccasionally on this blog, when pondering the far future, I’ve pushed back on the idea that the long term fate of civilization is to be machine robotic type life, instead noting that a truly advanced civilization would instead be engineered life, that it would make a lot more sense for its “machines” to be biological systems.  Admittedly, at some point, the distinction between engineered biology and very advanced machinery starts to become blurred.

Kameron Hurley’s ‘The Stars Are Legion‘ appears to take this idea very much to heart.  From one point of view, this is a classic sci-fi tale of an interstellar generation ship where things have deteriorated and everyone has forgotten the original purpose of the voyage.  But in this tale, the interstellar ark appears to be an artificial miniature solar system, with a miniature sun in the center orbited by innumerable world ships, all of which are called “the Legion”, with each world ship a living entity with its own homeostasis system.

The story characters live in these world ships.   They have the ability to travel between them on sentient single person rider ships.  Naturally, there is warfare between the worlds, with certain worlds conquering others and raiding their resources.  Things are not well in the Legion.  Many, perhaps most worlds appear to be dying, rotting.  The warfare is often about extracting resources to survive.

The interiors of the world ships are very strange; being biological systems, they are…gooey, with spongy walls and floor absorbing any spilled liquids (including blood), large arteries and veins running through the structures, and many other hallmarks of a living organism, such as the rooms coming across more like organelle compartments than traditional rooms.

Just about everything in this story is gooey, including the spray-on spacesuits.  And the characters often have a comfort level with the integrated biology of their environment that will leave many readers queasy.

But the strangeness doesn’t end there.  It quickly becomes apparent that the characters in the book are all female.  No males are mentioned.  Although as the story continues, it also becomes evident that the engineered biology doesn’t stop with the environment, but also applies to the characters themselves, and everything is not how it seems.

The story here is more than just an exploration of engineered biology.  It’s a searing story of two characters working to save their world, with these characters providing the two narrative viewpoints.  Here, Hurley takes a technique used in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and James S.A. Corey’s Expanse books, with each chapter named for that chapter’s viewpoint character.  But it’s taken to a new level with the viewpoints both being first person and in present tense, providing an intimate and immediate feel to the writing.

Shifting viewpoints is something that has historically happened in third person accounts, but it’s fairly rare in first person books, mainly due, I think, to the fact that it can be very easy to get confused about whose viewpoint we’re getting at any one point.  (Although there has been a trend in recent years pairing one first person protagonist with other third person narratives.)  But here we have two first person accounts.  It works because of the chapter title trick telling us upfront whose viewpoint we’re getting.  It’s a technique that I’m wondering if we’ll see more of.

Hurley’s world in this book is gooey, gory, violent, and often surreal.  In many ways, it reminds me of early Orson Scott Card stories from the 1980s.  I found it mind bending in ways that few books manage to pull off.  If you’re looking for something bizarre and thought provoking, and can tolerate violence and a lot of fairly gross description, I highly recommend it.

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22 Responses to Recommendation: The Stars Are Legion

  1. Brett says:

    Hurley wrote an interesting response piece to Kim Stanley Robinson, on the latter’s pessimism about colonizing other worlds. I bring it up because it ties into the whole “bioengineered crew and ship” – Hurley argued that if you allow for modification of the crew to make the fleet, then it surmounts some of the hurdles that might be encountered by sending Humans As We Know Them to the stars.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting. I’m going to have to look that response up.

      One the biggest obstacles for interstellar colonization is entropy. Any interstellar spacecraft, while it’s between solar systems far away from any sun, is effectively a closed energy system. The laws of thermodynamics say that entropy will always increase in such a system. Advanced technology might keep it to a minimum, but in a scenario where the journey takes centuries or millenia, it inevitably becomes a serious problem.

      That’s actually part of the problem in Hurley’s Legion setting. The norms and practices of the society seem aimed toward maximum recycling, with organic matter being reclaimed as much as possible, but despite this, the biological worlds are starting to rot and die.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Brett says:

        I think the “recycling” issue is overrated. A ship will have to do recycling, but it doesn’t need to be amazing or perfect – I’d take a system that was highly robust and recycled 80% of air/water/resources over something far more complicated that recycles 95%. If you’re building a massive generation ship that’s going to be carrying the means of constructing a technological civilization at the destination, then you might as well fill it up with raw materials and extra resources to replace some of those expended on the journey. You’re going to be jettisoning a lot of the ship along the route anyways to get the destination mass down.

        It’ll add to the ship’s mass, but it’s a slow ship anyways.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I guess it depends on what time span you’re talking about when you say “80%”, because whatever unit of time that is, you only get five of them (20% unrecycled times five), and probably less when it comes to an effectively functional ecosystem. So if it’s 80% over a generation, then you’d get less than five generations.

          Mass is an issue with any space travel, but it’s insanely stark for interstellar travel. Getting a modest craft up to a appreciable percentage of the speed of light is going to take an appalling amount of energy, and making the craft a large generation ship just escalates the requirements to new heights. It gets easier if you’re willing to take thousands of years to get there, but then the entropy problem becomes exponentially worse.

          All that said, us predicting how this will happen might be as far off as Edgar Allen Poe predicting we’d get to the moon with an advanced form of balloon.

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    • For anyone reading this thread: Hurley’s response to Robinson: http://boingboing.net/2017/02/11/what-will-sink-our-generation.html

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tim Kimber says:

        Really interesting essay. Makes me think of the first two Hyperion books by Dan Simmons, which (SPOILERS, I GUESS?) consider the necessity of human evolution to effectively colonise other worlds.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think you’re good, the spoiler statute of limitations has expired on Hyperion 🙂

          But I definitely think becoming a space faring species will require that humanity change in ways most science fiction doesn’t touch.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds fun.

    In your opinion, how valuable is the human capital on these arks?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ben, not sure what you’re asking. Are you asking about the labor economy of the worlds in Hurley’s novel? Or do you mean is it worth sending humans on interstellar missions?

      If you mean the second, I think anytime we involve human crews in space exploration, costs and technical difficulties skyrocket. Sending a small probe to another star seems increasingly plausible. But sending a craft large enough to house an entire society of humans, along with a viable ecosystem to support them, may never be practical. Some form of suspended animation might help, but it would still require dismaying amounts of energy to get that much mass up to an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, and slow it down again at the destination.

      It’s a lot cheaper to send a small probe. Unless some form of mind uploading ever becomes possible, we may have to be content with whatever information the AIs send back to us.

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      • Sorry, I should have been more specific. I meant it in the sense of the money value of each life. An American in 2017, for example, is worth about 7 million bucks over his or her lifetime. A Somalian is worth a hundred grand or so in economic output.

        I’m asking because I’ve seen this proposed as a reason that our species abruptly gave up on conquest in the 1950s.

        Nukes are obviously a part, but people tend to run away from invasions and people tend to be worth more money than raw materials. Conquering Silicon Valley, for example, would be a masterpiece of pointlessness. The valuable stuff is all between Silicon Valley folks’ ears, and they would simply move away.

        So, you mentioned conquest in the book. I was wondering the relative values of the human beings vs the raw materials. The more valuable the resources, the nastier you’d expect the wars to be.

        Jared Diamond wrote about this in Guns, Germs and Steel. At the level of hunter gatherers, the resources are worth infinitely more than rival tribesmen ever could be. As such, genocide is just the obvious answer when you overcome an enemy.

        At the level of settled farmers, it’s a little closer and, as such it’s best to enslave your conquered enemies. At the level of 2017, the people and their institutions are worth so much more than the natural resources it makes economic sense to leave them as much alone as possible and just trade.

        Legion made me think how that would work on a fleet of interstellar shpis.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Ah, okay. No worries. The answer for the world portrayed in the book is that most people’s biomass appears to be worth more than the living person. Conquered populations are routinely thrown down recycling tubes, to a region near the center of the world/ship where a sentient recycling monster eats them and craps them out in a state to become absorbed back into the world/ship. That said, there’s a sense that things are breaking down and this isn’t the way they are supposed to be.

          A few people are worth more, often because they have biological abilities that others lack. For example, everyone appears able to get pregnant, but most people can only birth biological components or creatures to be used in their world machinery. A few can birth human babies. And apparently a very few can birth new baby world/ships.

          For this concept more broadly, I wonder what automation is doing and will do to this valuation. Already the value of many laborers has plummeted due to it. As the intelligence of that automation increases, it appears that the value of many professional roles will be challenged too. As the economic roles for humanity change, it’s interesting to speculate about what they might change into.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. J.S. Pailly says:

    That sounds like it could be interesting. I’m way behind on my reading list, but I’ll try to fit it in somewhere.

    I’ve actually seen that thing with chapter titles announcing the POV character before. There are a fair number of young adult novels that do it. It seems like a pretty effective way of handling it to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know first person present tense is pretty popular in young adult novels, although I didn’t know they were using the chapter name technique to shift viewpoints. I suspect as readers of those books get older, it’s going to cause more adult books to use that POV. I can see the advantages in intimacy and immediacy. I probably need to read more stuff that uses it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great job on the book write-up. I’m sure the author would be happy with it too!
    You had me with the premise of females only. Quite a hook. Now I want to know why, but I don’t think I could handle all the violence. (The goo wouldn’t bother me, though.)

    On POV, I’ve seen that technique in literary fiction fairly frequently, even with a couple of first person POVs. The name as chapter seems to be a good way of moving the reader along. I know I don’t pay attention to a number unless I have to discuss the book later. But a name sets me up for the rest of the chapter very quickly. On the other hand, I prefer to just know through the text whose POV I’m in, because that means the voices are distinct.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! The violence isn’t pervasive, but there are incidents of it that might be disturbing. The book never explicitly explains the all female cast, but you get the impression that it’s a result of biological engineering. Late in the book (SPOILER ALERT) we discover that, despite having had a uterus, one of the protagonists has a look that could be interpreted as masculine. And although sex frequently comes up, there’s no indication of the exact mechanics of it with these characters. (In other words, is it hermaphrodite sex? Lesbian sex? Or something else?)

      I know some classical works have multiple first person POVs, but it seems like they generally use an epistolary format. Dracula comes to mind. But I have to admit that my exposure to the overall literary genre isn’t pervasive. And admittedly, epistolary isn’t all that different from just naming the chapter after the first person POV character.

      Knowing which POV you’re in purely on voice sounds pretty challenging. Third person usually clues the reader in by mentioning the POV character’s name in the first sentence or two of the scene. Doing it with first person where the POV is typically only identified as “I”, seems like it would require very distinct voices, at least if we want the reader to be able to quickly figure out which POV they’re in. As a reader, I think I’d get annoyed if I had to put much mental energy into figuring it out in every new scene or chapter, but I wouldn’t doubt that some might find it an interesting game.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “And although sex frequently comes up, there’s no indication of the exact mechanics of it with these characters.”

        That’s too bad. It seems like with this novel’s premise, this would be one of those very rare times when those details wouldn’t be gratuitous. But it’s hard to say, not having read it.

        On POV, yeah, in 3rd person it’s fairly easy to tell who’s head we’re in. There seems to be a rule that the first character mentioned is the one we’re dealing with. With first person, things get tricky. I think with multiple first person POVs, there should either be a clear indicator at the beginning of each chapter, like a character name for a title, or vastly distinct voices. I don’t think confusing readers should be a goal, and I can’t imagine that making the reader guess that information would serve much of a purpose. I would get very frustrated if I had to spend a lot of time figuring out whose POV I was in. I’d work a little, just so long as I didn’t feel like the author deliberately wanted to confuse me for some vague arty purpose.

        Liked by 1 person

        • On sex details, yeah. Every author has to decide how much to actually describe and what to leave to the imagination. Normally I strongly favor clear concise writing, but fiction is the one place where leaving things open to interpretation is often a good idea. By not describing the sex mechanics, Hurley leaves it possible for different readers to fill in different details. Many people would find the hermaphrodite speculation above repugnant, so leaving it out allows them not to be disturbed by it. (Of course, this was a book that often wasn’t afraid to put forth repugnant notions.)

          The trick seems to be providing enough information for readers to construct their own satisfying model without unduly constraining it. Be too miserly, and the reader won’t have enough to do that construction and will feel like necessary explanations are missing, and likely be annoyed when the author tells them it’s up to their interpretation, feeling like they’re invoking an artsy explanation to cover laziness. But be too descriptive, and you risk short circuiting the benefits of firing up the reader’s imagination.

          Liked by 1 person

    • “Of course, it might be relative to the reader to some degree.”
      Definitely. No matter what we do, it will fall outside of some portion of the reading population’s preferences. Ultimately, I think our best strategy is to write what we ourselves would like to read and hope enough other people have similar preferences.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Tim Kimber says:

    Great review. Recently posted my own thoughts, including on that POV shift. The difficulty Hurley has in this book is that we have first-person POV from a character who, for the most part, keeps her intentions hidden from the reader. We’re in Jayd’s head, but she doesn’t think about her goals and intentions. Sure, this is to avoid twisty-spoilers, but it’s a narrative perspective choice that can be frustrating, and is completely self-administered.

    At least with Zan’s amnesia, there’s no conflict between narrator and reader in the artificial clouding of some pertinent information.

    Still very enjoyable read, but that choice to include Jayd’s perspective was as brave as it was tricky to pull off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Tim! I’ll have to check out your review.

      It’s pretty tricky when the viewpoint character knows something the reader doesn’t. You have to either be careful to never have the character have a reason to ponder what they know, or just make it obvious that they’re thinking about something that’s not going to be shared with the reader. Having them not think about it is easier to pull off with present tense, which I suspect is why Hurley used it. Explicitly not sharing with the reader is easier with third person, although if it goes on too long the reader might get annoyed.

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