Occasionally 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.