Hello everyone! Today I have an interview with Kameron Hurley, who’s here to talk about her new science fiction novel, The Stars Are Legion.
First off, can you tell us a little about The Stars Are Legion for those who may not have read it?
The Stars are Legion is a standalone space opera about two matriarchal families battling it out for control of a legion of organic star ships. It centers on Zan, a woman who wakes with no memory among a people who say they are her family. They believe she is the only person who can turn the tide of the war in her favor. Her journey for the truth spans a coup, a civil war, and a gooey journey to the center of a star ship as big as a world, among other adventures.
In your acknowledgements, you talk about writing an all woman space opera and remark “What is this, 1968?” How would you place The Stars Are Legion in the historical context of all female science fiction novels?
I’ve seen a few reviews now say that this book feels like a mashup of a Golden Age science fiction novel and a New Wave 1970’s feminist science fiction novel, and that’s pretty accurate. When I came up with the idea for this novel about civil war among a legion of starships, I wanted the legion to be a biological system. I looked for feminist SF novels that had only biologically female characters in them, and couldn’t find one. Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite has a brief scene that includes male astronauts in the beginning, and Joanna Russ’s “When it Changed” included the male off-worlders, which act as the catalyst for the story.
There are many books about all-female societies, but few that have no mention of men at all. I wanted to make a universe of one biological sex (always a tricky term, but it works here based on the novel’s premise, more or less), though there are a few different genders here in some of the societies, just not ones that we might recognize. So it’s certainly in conversation with older SF novels, particular the feminist SF novels, but takes the idea of organic starships and who would be living on them one step further.
I always love how you create such compelling anti-heroines. Nyx from the Bel Dame trilogy remains my favorite, but I found both Zan and Jayd fascinating in how far they’re willing to go to reach their goals. Do you have any favorite fictional anti-heroines?
I like complex and conflicted characters. Most of us aren’t saints. We struggle every day to be good (or don’t, as one’s conscience allows). I adored the drunk, unreliable narrator in The Girl on the Train, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhoune is far from perfect. Joe Abercrombie’s Monza from Best Served Cold is easily one of my favorite messed-up fantasy heroines. I also really love Cherie Priest’s Lizzie Borden from her Maplecroft books. I could go on and on, but to me, the draw is always the complexity and roundness of a character. Characters should do things to achieve their personal goals. They should act and react based on their emotions and their personal morality, not what the author would like to happen or what the author wants to happen so people don’t get mad at you. You can always feel it when an author is pushing a character to make a decision vital to the plot, but totally not something they would do.
Can you talk some about how you use amnesia in The Stars Are Legion?
Before I started writing this book in earnest, I had several conversations with my editor, who is familiar with my prior work, about “the gauntlet.” The gauntlet is that first 3-50 pages of a science fiction or fantasy novel where you’re trying to figure out how the world works. My prior novels tend to dump you into the action and throw out lots of new terms and wild worldbuilding that’s totally unfamiliar. While I enjoy that type of writing and many of my fans do as well, we wanted this book to be more accessible to a wider audience. And I wanted it to be accessible while still writing the weird book I wanted to write.
That’s an incredibly difficult balancing act. How do you make a book weird, but accessible? I went through a lot of ideas, because if there’s a trope I despise more than any other, it’s the “amnesiacs in space” story, because it’s often overdone. You get the feeling the writer is figuring out what the hell is happening at the same time you are. I finally gave in after re-watching Pandorum, a great generation-ship SF/horror movie that had some good reversals and interesting worldbuilding as well. Things got weirder as you went in that one, too. And it featured an amnesiac in space.
Certainly, this trop can be done well, and I hope I did it well. I worked hard to make it fit within the context of the story. It’s not just that she’s lost her memory, but that she’s lost her memory multiple times, that makes this a little different. That mystery drives the narrative and helps readers acclimatize to the very strange world around them at the same time that Zan does. While I still wish I could have overcome the gauntlet in a more creative way, I think it worked.
I was fascinated by the organic nature of your technology. Where did the inspiration for your bio-ships come from? Did you have to do any research while constructing them?
I’ve been a fan of organic technology for some time. It just makes more long-term sense when you’re talking about generation ships, in particular. Metal and plastic break down. What you want is something that can repair itself. I had already done a lot of research about organic materials prior to this book for my God’s War series, which uses lots of organic technology, much of it fueled by bugs, so this wasn’t a big departure for me.
The Stars Are Legion is a pretty dark book, but I thought there was some optimism at the center of it. Would you consider it grimdark? And do you think there’s a need for more hope in science fiction and fantasy?
I wrote this book with a purposely hopeful ending. I’ve written a lot of grim and gritty books prior to this. My God’s War series was so dark I had to take several years off writing about those characters because the grim got to me. It was tough to write my Worldbreaker Saga for similar reasons. I’m writing the third and final book in that series, The Broken Heavens, now, and it makes me long for writing The Stars are Legion again!
Science fiction has long warned us that we were headed for a grim fascist dystopia ruled by rich demagogues. Now that we’re living in that future, the time for warnings is pretty much over. What we need now are futures that help us plot a way out of the dystopia and create a better society. I’m a big fan of the Hunger Games books because they do show you how messy and imperfect revolution can be. It’s very easy to become exactly what you are fighting against. You have to remain vigilant. I’d love to see more stories that are set after revolutions, where warring sides have to do the hard work of creating something hopeful from the ashes.
Our stories help us find a way through. They give us a template for the future. If we can’t imagine a better future, it’s tough to go out and create it. It’s like that with so many things. If you can dream it, you can do it, and all that jazz.
Was the experience of writing a standalone novel different from the series you’ve done?
It was much easier. My agent and editor will laugh at that, but honestly, even though this was a tough book for me to write because of its themes surrounding bodily autonomy and abuse, I didn’t have to start a series wiki to keep track of things and didn’t have to plan out a full series arc. I have another standalone science fiction book due to my publisher after I finish The Broken Heavens, and I’m looking forward to it.
Publishers like you to write series books because if a series pays off, you have people buying backlist forever. I just got into Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series, which she started in the 80’s, and bought all 23 books in the space of about a month. For authors and publishers, that’s a massive sales jump every time you get a new person hooked on the series. The drawback, of course, is that if your first book in the series tanks, you’re still locked into the original contract, so you’re effectively stuck writing in a dead series. Not fun for writers or publishers.
What are your current writing projects? Are there any future releases we should watch out for?
I’m writing my tail off trying to finish writing The Broken Heavens so we can get that out sometimes this fall. After that I have a standalone science fiction novel out from Saga, which I think has been pushed out from 2018 to 2019, but that may also depend on when I finally hand that one over to them.
My agent and I are also working toward another project that we’d like to pitch later this year, since I only have these two books under contract. We’ve had some interest and offers in other work that editors would like to see, and of course I’m always open to those. That’s how we got the contract for The Stars are Legion. Joe Monti at Saga Press heard I had an idea for a space opera and was like, “Send me the proposal!” and I did, and here we are. So, you never know what’s going to happen. Initial buzz around this book has been great so far, so I’m hoping readers continue to enjoy it. More readers means I get to write more books!