Every now and again, you’ll pick up a science fiction or fantasy novel that will absolutely blow you away because of how boldly it imagines an invented world. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season did that for me. So did Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. These books reassemble the well-worn conventions of their genre in wholly original ways. The latest example is Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion, a strange, brilliant story set in the depths of space on a group of planet-ships populated exclusively by women.
Hurley’s body of work — which includes the novels God’s War and The Mirror Empire, and nonfiction like We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slave Narrative and The Geek Feminist Revolution — has pushed against the tropes of science fiction and fantasy by reimagining gender or challenging how women are portrayed in stories. The Stars Are Legion is a similarly forceful rebuttal to a male-dominated genre, but also a brilliantly realized adventure story.
The novel is set in a fleet of decaying organic world-ships called The Legion. The story’s narrator, Zan, awakens and finds most of her memories are missing. She’s greeted by Jayd, a soldier, who tells her that time after time, Zan has been sent to board another world-ship, the Mokshi. Each time, she’s come closer.
Zan learns she’s part of a much larger power struggle between two families on two of the worlds: the Bhavajas and the Katazyrnas. Because their worlds are dying, they have taken to raiding their neighbors to salvage parts and materials. Mokshi, the third ship-planet, might be the key to escaping the Legion — if Zan can find a way to get inside.
When Jayd is traded to the Bhavajas as a peace agreement, Zan is caught in an attack and “recycled” — cast deep into one of the world ships, where she faces horrifying monsters. As Zan works her way up from the depths of the world, Jayd navigates through the Bhavajas, and the two converge for a larger plot to save the worlds.
What’s initially striking about The Stars Are Legion is its world: Hurley has constructed a marvelous universe steeped in organic messiness. Think the weirdness of Rick & Morty’s aliens crossed with the otherworldliness of Farscape’s starship Moya, or a Chris Foss painting. There’s a general level of squick that made me recoil from the pages more than once. Take for example when when Zan is dropped into the recycler filled with rotting waste.
The recycler monster moves heavily in the flickering light, squelching across the detritus of the world’s waste: spent space suits and table scraps, bloody piss and shit and ruined bodies, corpulent or lean, old or young, mangled, deformed, mutant, or hacked to piece, all the castoffs, the lame, the hobbled, the imperfect, the mistakes, the merely unlucky and the dead.
And then there’s an attack from a wave of huge, terrifying insects.
Casamir is tangled in crystalline webbing swarming with bulbous, multi-segmented beasts. They each have a dozen legs that look like long, clawed fingers lined in black hair. Their faces are fanged, lined in six eyes and hundreds of little feathery antennae.
The organic nature of Legion worlds is central to the story, but what’s even more compelling than Hurley’s descriptions is how she looks inward to explore the concept of motherhood. The Legion literally rebuilds itself with parts birthed by its female occupants, who sometimes gestate replacement parts, and at other times, become pregnant with entire worlds. Life in the Legion is birth and rebirth, over and over.
Arankadash pulls up a wriggling mass of slimy flesh. For a moment, I think it’s her placenta, but no — this is a round, mechanical-looking cog, like a toothy organ, something that would be affixed to a vehicle. It has a grooved, hollowed-out center. It has no eyes or face.
It’s a powerful piece of imagery that becomes apparent by the end of the novel: in order to save the Mokshi, its people have to remake it with their own bodies.
The Stars Are Legion is a beautiful work of fiction, a wholly original novel that pops and crackles with big ideas. It subverts old tropes, challenging readers to question humdrum science fiction plots, and imagine an entire alternate reality. And for that reason, it’s the genre at its best.