The Stars Are Legion starts with a staggering feat of world-building and an intriguing premise. We meet Zan, a military leader who keeps losing the same fight and each time is sent back with her memory wiped. Each time she wakes up in what seems to be a spaceship made of living biological matter. The inhabitants recap what her fight is about and then she leaves again for the next round. The living spaceship is the size of a planet, and swirls around a sun together with countless other planet-sized decaying biological ships in a gigantic moving fleet named Legion. Her fight is about obtaining one of the dead planet-ships that “escaped” orbit
The setup brings to mind the novels of Gene Wolfe: a protagonist with memory loss, stuck in an utterly alien world which rules we do not understand. Part of the momentum of the story is simply discovering the true backstory of Zan, and the secrets whom her “sisters” hold about her story and all the hidden plans in motion. Simultaneously we learn about the strange disintegrating society of Legion and the creepy biological worldships. I’m sucked into this novel through pure fascination as if a tentacle reached out and pulled me in deeper.
The tone of the novel is very dark and grim and, er, icky. Zan is surrounded by violent people and her whole situation feels like a place you’d like to run from. On top of that, it’s full of biological creepiness and gooey biotechnology, with spongy walls, leaking, purring space ships and recycling monsters. There are themes of giving birth that overlap with creating technology, and humans themselves are part of this cycle, because all the characters are female while the worldships themselves may be the masculine part, together forming a species or a symbiosis, but this is never explicitly stated. The worlds are literally dying, and a literal birth may be needed to save the Legion.
The story somewhat unexpectedly turns from a political thriller into a travelogue. It’s not a twist, but simply what Hurley apparently had in mind: an exploration of the organic worldships. As a biologist, I’m not complaining. I love biotechnology, but Hurley’s descriptions are brutal and gruesome, especially when it concerns women giving birth to all kinds of things and cannibalism and so on. And the political thriller storyline suddenly feels abandoned.
Much has been said of the fact that it has an all-female cast and all the real-world politics surrounding that; but I’m more interested in whether the story is any good. I feared that today’s politics would break my immersion into tomorrow’s world, but thankfully the all-female cast feels like a natural part of the world-building because it is part of the biomachine of the worldships. Other than that, the characters do everything that males also do, including egoism, assertiveness, unhealthy relationships and so on. I remember when Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014) came out, some people criticized it for being “obviously written by a woman” because the characters were all so awfully nice to each other. I would like to recommend The Stars Are Legion to these people because everyone here is quite horrible.
The story seems to have two faces: the political story of the character Jayd and the travelogue of Zan, and they don’t overlap enough in meaning for the story to feel whole for long stretches of time. It does come together nicely and all in all this is quite a unique story, leaving aside that the amnesia theme is used a lot in fiction, but it is used effectively and appropriately here.
I really liked this novel for its fascinating worlds, intriguing puzzle of a story and the twisted relationship between Zan and Jayd. Hurley’s writing is good enough, albeit a bit businesslike which makes the characters a bit distant. A bit more atmosphere, introspection and deeper side-characters might have pushed this novel into the league of the very greats. Nevertheless, among the best novels of the past year for me.