“I’m afraid there’s a fundamental gap in translation. I do not belong to a society. I owe allegiance to no one, and I am unique. I am immortal. There can be no philosophical restraints placed on my behaviour.”
“So you can just do whatever you like?”
The kid shrugged. Tiny stars glimmered in the depths of her eyes. “Who’s going to stop me?”
Source: Review Copy
Publisher: Titan Books
Date of Publication: March 1, 2022.
When humanity finally got around to destroying itself, it was to be in a maelstrom of nuclear fire. Yet at the penultimate moment, an alien presence revealed itself by using its god-like powers to eliminate mankind’s offensive abilities. In that same moment, the Angel—as it came to be known—cast judgement on the people of Earth. As punishment for their terrible stewardship, ranging from pollution to global warming and eventually nuclear war, humanity was evicted from the Earth. However, the “Angel of the Benevolence” was not without mercy, installing mankind on a flotilla of Arks bound to travel the stars in perpetuity, in the hopes that with time—and a little guidance—they would grow to the potential the extraterrestrial being could see in them.
Seventy-five years later, the fleet of the “Continuance” has flourished, its inhabitants instilling each Ark with their own distinctive characteristics. They’ve become a post-scarcity society, evolving without fear of war or famine, each resident free to pursue their desires as long as they respect those of their neighbours. And if a resident is bitten by wanderlust, they can join the vanguard of scouting ships using faster than light travel through the “substrate” to explore new worlds, looking for resources and guarding against potential threats. On a long dead planet designated Candidate-623, the crew of the “Couch Surfer” become victim to an incorporeal entity that kills without mercy and in horrific fashion, a threat that eventually finds its way back to the fleet to endanger the rest of humanity. It will fall to the sister of the dead crew’s navigator and her own rescue crew to unravel the mystery of Candidate-623 before humanity falls prey to a malevolence beyond human comprehension.
Gareth L. Powell’s Stars and Bones is simultaneously Horror, Mystery, and Space Opera, each coming to the fore depending upon which act you’re in. The first act is clearly Horror, with an unseen and unexplained force literally dissecting victims as they flee, an unstoppable force that has wreaked havoc on at least one planet, piling the bones of its victims in neat stacks. As in any good horror plot, a motley crew of characters, motivated whether by duty, curiosity, or simple greed, manage to attract the attention of this malevolent entity and at the same time ignore the entirely sensible entreaties of their navigator that they need to leave, and leave NOW! This rational character, Eryn King, happens to have seen the bodycam footage of her sister’s ill-fated visit with the others during their briefing once on Candidate-623 and has drawn the sensible conclusion. While the others ignore her and go out to investigate the last known coordinates of the previous crew, Eryn has the foresight to have the engines running. After the predictable slaughter ensues, she and her surviving crewmates, xenologist Li Chen, a sentient cat named Sam, and the self-aware ship “Furious Ocelot”, flee back to the fleet to warn them of the danger. But in classic fashion, they’ve been tracked home, and the mysterious force has followed them utilizing the very ship they had been searching for. It has brought along a whole new bag of tricks beyond simple evisceration and once established on their home Ark, commits carnage on a macro and micro scale. Macro in that their Ark is being slowly subsumed into a gray goo; micro in that as the entity learns from its dissections, it begins to duplicate its victims flawlessly, allowing it to infiltrate the fleet in a much less haphazard fashion. Its goal is seemingly to devour everyone and everything and remake them as extensions of itself. It’s the ultimate mimic.
From there the Mystery begins, and in the second act Eryn and company are tasked by the ruling council to track down the one man who might be able to help identify and stop the spread of infection. Enlisting the help of detectives Vic Sheppard and Jean-Paul Genet, who first recognized the entity’s mimicry of its victims, they attempt to find Frank Tucker, hoping that he can contact Raijin (the name of the angelic entity that both saved humanity from itself and banished them to the stars). Frank was their original contact with the Angel, stemming from his discovery of the “substrate” (think hyperspace) in the moments before Earth’s nuclear war and that discovery piquing the interest of Raijin. After several conflicts with agents of the entity plaguing the fleet as it tries to stop them, Eryn and company manage to find Frank, who in turn leads them to Raijin and the unravelling of the origins of the nightmare they face.
Ultimately, the third act swings back into a blend of Space Opera and hard Sci-Fi as Eryn and crew head back to Candidate-623 for a final showdown with the malevolent force. It’s a nice bit of genre-bending, going beyond what at first appearances is simply a gore fest. Without spoilers, it gets a thumbs up. Go grab your copy now. With spoilers, continue reading…
At first glance, the horrific nature of the first act comes off as gratuitous, almost unbelievable in a work of science fiction, but as the nature of the horror becomes apparent, the reader is able to decipher the puzzle he’s created and the scientific theory behind it. It’s a skilful use of K. Eric Drexler’s “gray goo” theory combined with the curiosity of a sentient being trying to understand the Universe around it without a guiding influence. Its choices are terrifying and horrific, but understandable given the circumstances of its creation. And Stars and Bones asks the question that, given god-like powers, what would an infant with no parental direction do?
It’s also an exploration of unintended consequences. Frank Tucker’s creation of a wormhole at a most fortuitous moment may save mankind from self destruction by attracting Raijin’s attention, but it also condemns them to be cast out of their home. A self-replicating starship accidently interfaces with a nascent entity of immeasurable power, with unforeseeable consequences for the Universe. Even the rescue mission Eryn King and the crew of the Furious Ocelot embark upon—their direct actions that are intended to save life have the opposite effect. Rather than saving the crew of a small exploration vessel, they unleash a power that kills millions.
Finally, an overarching theme Powell employs time and again through his body of work is that of family. He repeatedly creates groups of damaged characters and binds them together until they are no longer just co-workers or crewmates, but a true family. Whether it’s the diverse crew of Trouble Dog in his Embers of War trilogy, or Ack-Ack Macaque and his coterie of curiosities in the trilogy of the same name, there’s always a strong thread of familial relations. In Stars and Bones, we have the brotherly/sisterly relationship of Eryn King and the avatar representing the starship she is bonded to, the adoptive mother/daughter relationship between her and her deceased sister’s child Madison, and the relationship between Raijin and humanity as it shepherds them across the stars. It’s only in the lack of a relationship between Raijin and its wayward offspring, the amoral God-child developing in a void, that causes the conflict driving the story. The antagonist of the novel suffers from not having that close relationship, from not receiving the guidance and encouragement of—family. On the opposite end of the spectrum, everything Eryn does is for her family, her community, and by the climax of the novel, for humanity.
Gareth L Powell is a multiple BSFA award-winning author, winning Best novel for Ack-Ack Macaque in 2013 and Best novel for Embers of War in 2019. He maintains a website at garethlpowell.com