Friday, March 2, 2018

Book Review: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

This is my third Kameron Hurley book, and my first where I thought OMG, OMG, THIS IS AWESOME, the whole time I was reading it. I wanted to like The Mirror Empire, but although I liked elements of it, it felt too dense. The Stars Are Legion explores similar constructs (female societies, multiple worlds, situation-dependent identities) more urgently.

I also read Hurley's collection of essays, The Geek Feminist Revolution, and The Stars Are Legion pulls the philosophy behind her essays into vivid, pulsing coherence. The Stars Are Legion embodies the Geek Feminist Revolution, and without the essays,  I wouldn't have understood that. But knowing Hurley's history as a student of revolution, the nightmarish cycles of failure the protagonists undergo becomes clear as the only possible precursor to freedom. The history of revolution is typically the history of failure and repetition. The only way out is to truly change ourselves, and that is only possible if we are willing to put in the work.

The Stars Are Legion chronicles a uniquely feminist revolution, not only in that all the characters are women, but that their salvation lies in controlling their own fecundity: literally, when and when not to give birth to a world. And although the characters in the story are not geeks (unless war geeks count, the kind that actually fight), they and their world represent a plethora of geeky ideals, as I can attest. I'm not counting out the possibility that I felt immediately at home in the admittedly strange universe of organic world-ships in space, as opposed to the fantasy world in The Mirror Empire, because, thanks to Star Trek et al., I'm more comfortable in space. So, if living ships and space vehicles and 'cephalopod weapons' and spray-on biosuits aren't geeky, I don't know what is.

 Zan and Jayd, the two main viewpoint characters, are a geeky feminist's dream, because not only are they both war generals, fighting maybe/maybe not on the same side, but they're in love. And although there are shifting balances of power in their relationship, particularly when Zan has no memory at the beginning of the book, they reach an equilibrium by the end (an equilibrium, naturally, involving the power of the womb). Geeky. Feminist. Revolutionary. Awesome.

The worldbuilding has been cited as one of the best parts of this novel, and I'd agree, but what stood out to me about it was not how original it is, but how similar. Hurley's living worldships with their diverse life forms, including the women who give birth to parts of the ship, may seem strange. However, our planet crawls with symbiotic life and complex ecosystems. Bacteria, for example, reside in self-contained living organisms with diverse other organisms. Although Zan's journey to the belly of the world and back is more an odyssey than a magic school bus ride, the digestive and circulatory systems she and her companions traverse are no more alien. Hurley's worlds are a piquant reminder that we are alive due to the interwoven lives on our planet. If we don't nurture that life, we will die, as surely as the worlds in the Legion.

One of my favorite parts of the book are the quotations at the beginning of each chapter from Lord Mokshi's Annals of the Legion. Lord Mokshi's voice reads like Machiavelli in a plainer tongue. Her philosophy espouses love over fear, an anomaly in the war-torn Legion. The historical Machiavelli served a short-lived republic, that was eventually returned to Medici rule. Through Lord Mokshi, Hurley references the failed republic, the failure of love over fear, mirrored in Zan and Jayd's many failures. Yet, like the veiled hope in Machiavelli, the quotes foreshadow the hope that Zan and Jayd will bring their revolution to peaceful fruition.

Peace, however, is not perfection. The Stars Are Legion complicates ideas of utopia as Zan journeys through the levels of the world Katazyrna. Even the wondrous society of engineers she discovers, unaffected by the war above, have an Omelasian underside. Their discoveries are, sometimes literally, built of the bones of "mutants" they capture. There's likewise no implication that the worlds Zan and Jayd will create will be utopian, and every sense that their lives will be brutal and difficult. But full of hope. Full of love.

The Geek Feminist Revolution is not won without casualties. It's only an improvement on what has come before. And if Hurley has anything to do with it, it will be dressed in spray-on biosuits and shooting cephalopod weapons.

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