Book review: The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

(cover image courtesy Penguin Random House)

If there’s one theme that emerges loudly and clearly from the genre of science fiction, it’s the idea that for every moment of advancement and rebirth, whether technological or cultural, there’s often a matching cataclysmic moment of destruction.

Life has rarely has one without the other and so it makes perfect sense that a genre as studded with rich philosophical and intellectual intent as science fiction should reflect one one of the great truisms of being alive.

The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham, the first volume in a planned trilogy, takes this theme and metaphorically runs with it, unleashing a story that takes a well worn theme and adds a highly entertaining richness and depth to it that you may think impossible for a genre and a concomitant theme as frequently explored as the one of the beginning and end and yes, beginning of things.

So brilliantly well does it dive into the eternal duality of death and rebirth and its associated themes of good and evil, freedom and oppression and the capacity of the human spirit to rise up challenges that in all truthfulness are so overwhelming they should just crush it outright, that the novel is a heady rush to read from the very first page.

It is in fact that very rare thing – a sci-fi novel that feels like nothing you’ve read before, a rare feat given that the very core of its storytelling is so well entrenched in the genre.

“Lucinda waited for the stars. In the right mood, in a rare abstracted moment, she sometimes wondered at the way they wrapped themselves around her, seeming close yet infinitely distant. As she wondered, dusk came pouring over the small mountain range to the east, advancing in a wave of fast shadows and lengthening pools if inky blackness. She could not see the darkness coming for her on this part of the rock, but she imagined it swallowing the local area point defenses and the gaping maw of the docks. The entrance to the port was always illuminated, but the lights soon would burn with a severe brilliance in the accelerated night.” (P. 1)

There is a liveliness and a zest to The Cruel Stars that has much to do with how effectively and vitally the author deploys his characters, a disparate group who are, in many ways, the only people standing between freedom and tyranny when an old enemy comes crashing into the poetically named Greater Human Volume (as names go, it’s pretty evocative), determined not so much to take everything that this loose grouping of human worlds possesses but to liberate it from itself.

The enemy, whose exact nature is left undescribed lest the story loses some of its moral and narrative heft and momentum, are crusaders, fundamentalist true believers who have vowed to set humanity free from its supposed enslavement to artificial intelligence, technological augmentation and human/machine integration.

Like all true believers they have boiled some very complex issues down to a startling resonant black and white, so lost in the driving power of their belief system that they no longer stop to think just how right it actually is or whether in their quest to fulfill it, whether they are blind to glaring inconsistencies in their mission.

While they talk about liberating people, and in initially they do, setting enslaved workers and oppressed masses free from their corporatist overlords – the Volume is, for the most part, corporate capitalism gone mad, with even the royal houses and the kings and queens that head them called chief executive officers and their courts known as boards – they are also quite apt to lock people up.

They also speak loudly and often, via booming public announcements that greet their arrival on each new planet, that they are here to liberate and to set free, but such is their uncompromising zeal and intolerance for dissent, that you know it won’t be long before the liberator becomes just another in a long line of oppressors.

John Birmingham (image courtesy ABC)

They are, in all but name, Nazis/fascists/whatever you wish to call them, and while Birmingham does add nuance to them, taking time to flesh them out beyond cardboard cutout bad guys and girls, they are the enemy and for the purposes of our idiosyncratic, ragtag band of unlikely heroes, very much stay that way.

The glorious part of the characters we come to know and love, through some beautifully-told lead-up chapters that are as vitally interesting as it is possible for exposition and set-up to be, is that none of them are perfect.

They are as fallible as any anyone, and it’s this imperfection, this propensity to exercise their feet of clay, that makes exactly the kinds of people who should stand up and oppose the authoritarian menace that threatens to swallow the Volume whole.

The Volume too is far from perfect and with unstinting honesty, Birmingham fills The Cruel Stars with some unstinting observations about the gross injustice and hierarchical inequalities that beset it; he is aware that there are reasons why the enemy might wish to change it radically and while they would think many of its subjugated or impoverished citizens would rise up to aid their invader’s cause.

However, the kind of maniacal puritanical, violently militaristic crusade that the enemy has embarked on, driven by some old grievances dating back to the last time they came loping into Volume space, is not the solution to the problems that affect humanity among the stars just as surely as they beset it on Earth, and Birmingham lets his characters given full vent to this truth.

“He was not so much a man as a twisted man-shaped vessel, gouged and gutted of all personality, filled with Torquemada’s fulsome panoply of horror and pain: the shock; the sickening violation of his limbs ripped from their sockets like chicken wings from a carcass; the rhythmic suffering of having to inhale and exhale, an experience akin to being crushed in the grip of a stupid, uncaring giant; and the small searing mysteries of pain that flared and sparked throughout his tormented body.” (P. 321)

And the characters are an enormously talkative, funny and yet poignantly affecting bunch.

Admiral Frazer McLennan, onetime saviour of Earth and a crusty old, bad-tempered very long-living archaeologist, is a man full of opinions, irreverent wit and a keen mind that, with the aid of his Armada Class AI intellect is more than able to step back to the fighting plate as circumstances demand.

So too is Commander Lucinda Hardy, a rarity in the officer corps, who has risen from extraordinarily humble origins to command the last Armadalen ship standing in the breach and Booker3, a veteran of many a battle who is redeemed by his opposition to the resurgence of an old fanatical enemy in such a way that his life is saved, quite literally by it.

Add in space pirate with a history and a reluctant but still there heart Sephina L’trel and displaced young royal princess Alessia who has some growing up to do, and does it in quick order, and you have an unlikely bunch of vitally-realised people who Birmingham draws together so effectively and elegantly and with both intensity and fun (yes, there are some humoruous, action-filled elements in this often dark tale of humanity coming close to meeting its invasive maker) that the idea of them and those in their orbit saving the day feels not just possible but highly likely.

The Cruel Stars, surging with ideas and action in equal engrossingly heady measure, is a brilliantly well-told story that admits readily to humanity’s manifest failings while also staking its claim to the idea that the solution to these great gaping holes in the magnificence of our civilisation is not oppressive thought and unblinking ferocity of its implementation but freedom and justice and the capacity, however imperfectly expressed at times, to chart our own course unencumbered by those who think, like they always have, that they know better.

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