Monday 13 March 2017

The Stars Are Legion

(February 2017)

Very good, very meaty (figuratively and literally), but I also read this with an increasing sense of déjà vu.

I also read it in a single day, which is not something I've done with a full-length novel for quite a while now. The Wolf Border, for example, is something I revisited bit by bit for a few months before I finally committed to its second half. The Wolf Border is also one of the main sources of that déjà vu, the others being the rest of Kameron Hurley's work, and, more immediately, Ammonite.

To start with the last of those: I originally bought Ammonite largely on the strength of its recommendation on Hurley's blog (after which it languished on the TBR pile for far too long), and it's clearly been a major influence here. It goes beyond 'being a tribute to' or even 'in conversation with' to the point I'm tempted to call Legion a full-blown reworking of Griffith's book, just with the polarities reversed. Structurally it's nigh on identical. Two PoV characters: one primary, one secondary. P1 follows a storyline which starts out in relatively 'hard' SFnal fashion, before switching to a planet-bound quest/travelogue narrative in which she embarks on an arduous journey across an unfamiliar world, encountering a variety of social models along the way. P2, meanwhile, remains in a relatively fixed location, and concerns herself with politics and betrayal while wrestling with the compromises of power and responsibility. Both are together briefly near the start and come back together for the climactic final confrontation at the end. Both are women.

Everyone, in fact, is a woman, and while Griffith gave us a figleaf of explicability in the form of a man-killing virus, Hurley has no such concerns. She's always been one for the love-it-or-leave-it, throw-it-all-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks worldbuilding, and while this is still very much in evidence, the throwing seems much more purposeful this time around, and as a result pretty much everything sticks. I'm also happy to report that the plotting, whatever its inspiration, is much tighter than in the Bel Dame Apocrypha or The Mirror Empire. As a stand-alone title this has a significantly narrower focus on set up and resolution, which is no bad thing at all. Other than that, we're in familiar territory: biological mechanisms, brutal women, gore, and uncompromising moral choices. Nothing wrong with an author having their pet motifs, of course; Haruki Murakami’s cats and cooking have been enough to make him a perennial (and tedious) favourite for the Nobel Prize.

Two other stories which also came to mind are Iain M. Banks's Matter and Karin Tidbeck's Jagganath. The Stars are Legion gives us a fleet/system of planet-sized biological starships ("the words for world and ship are nearly identical") orbiting an occluded sun. All appear to be dying, and the lords of these worldships fight internecine wars over the few healthy ones which remain. The sense of scale seems fundamentally confused: the ships consist of various inhabited layers, even the smallest, most central of which take weeks to traverse on foot, yet are close enough together that the distances between them can be crossed in a few hours on what amount to space-mopeds, and for strings of individual people, tethered together as refuse collectors, to be clearly visible from the outside. Notions of inside and outside, internal and external, are equally fraught: the most significant ship is Mokshi, which, alone among its sisters, seems to have developed the ability to leave the dying system of its own accord. This has caused issues.

The individual ships are largely closed systems. Occasional genetic mixing occurs between them, but for the most this is discouraged by "witches": hideous, malformed, borderline insane traditionalists with an obsession with genetic purity (just in case your Allegory Klaxon hasn't already started sounding loud and clear). As biological systems, the ships are renewed not through mechanical repairs, but the reproductive systems of their inhabitants. This is not the finely evolved ecosystem of the wolf pack, however, these systems have clearly been designed, designed by a watchmaker we never meet but who is evidently in full possession of their sight. The women of these ships give birth, on a schedule not of their choosing, to whatever their system needs: more people, parasites, cogs, worlds themselves. The only way to control this seems to be a womb-transplant, a procedure a couple of the more powerful characters avail themselves of. Because these ships are, for most of their denizens, closed systems, this means that pregnancy—birth, death, renewal—is reduced by many of the characters to a mechanical act of recycling. Matter in, matter out; the laws of thermodynamics be damned.

This what I mean when I say that the polarities are reversed with regard to Ammonite; it’s nothing as rudimentary as gender-bending. Reproduction—pregnancy—is one of the central themes of Ammonite too, one of its driving mysteries. Sterility is the default for the central characters, and the entire path of the book frames conception as an end goal, frames the ability to become pregnant as something to strive for. Pregnancy in Legion simply is. That’s the default state, not the exception, and the characters (most of them, at least) seek to exert control over their reproduction from the other side of the equation: they strive for the ability to not be pregnant.  Or, at least, to not be pregnant when they don’t choose to be. (Awoogah! Awoogah!)

The polarities are also reversed in terms of the central images. The ammonite curls in on itself; for all that Marge Taishan starts with an awareness of her place in the society, her literal journey is really a vehicle for figurative exploration of self. Zan, Legion's P1, is an amnesiac, so starts with no awareness of anything, and her journey is literally one of self-discovery, the main discovery of which is less about who she is, but how she fits into wider society. Zan's journey—literally, figuratively, however-which-way-you-slice-it—is an extending spiral not in but outwards. The stars are expansive, are plural, are legion; they exist out there

Guns, gravidity, genocide. This is Hurley's most focused and forceful fiction yet.

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