On the brink of interstellar war, life (and sex) continues. Humans, aliens, and modified humans gather at the University of All Worlds in search of knowledge… and self-knowledge… but the first bomb has fallen and the fate of this multicultural, multispecies mecca is in question. Some will rush home to make love to their wife. Or wives. Or husbands. Or indeterminate gender human and/or alien partners. Others will be forced to decide where they stand — what is worth fighting for, or maybe even worth dying for. A thought-provoking work on sexuality and the connections between people–whether male or female, human or alien–The Stars Change is part space opera, part literary mosaic of story, poem, and art.Amazon
I am starting with style because it feels important. This book is more of a novella than anything else with an ensemble cast of characters who take turns being our protagonist as the chapters unfold. Not only are they interconnected, but they are also all brought together over the course of one horrible night at the start of a war. So yes… there is a general tone of tension in the air… and the air is on an alien planet.
I love Mohanraj’s voice. It is real and the way she weaves the chapters together to tell a complete story is masterful. I believed every sentence even though this was very much an alien world full of aliens.
One note about content. There is a lot of sex in this book. A Lot. Human sex, alien sex, human with alien sex… queer sex, interspecies sex… And I enjoyed it. No shame. Just heads up.
Another note about the style of this book: there are drawings. Now… I am not averse to drawing per se, but for my money, they didn’t actually add anything to the book itself. This book was primarily funded through Kickstarter and I sort of think that those drawings might have been better suited as perks for the funders rather than added into the text.
Another note about style: (Sorry) Most of the book is presented in chapters with shifting protagonists. (This was great and I will touch on this in the Characters section of my review.) But a few bits were presented as… shorter non-chapters… and formatted in italics. These italics interludes also shifted perspectives and I was hard-pressed to figure out why there was a distinction made. At first, it seemed that the italics were saved for one particular voice… the antagonist terrorist… but that did not hold true over the course of the story. I honestly don’t know why Mohanraj made this stylistic choice… sadly it was distracting rather than helpful.
I want to say something else about Atmosphere and Plot. The story could have happened on earth with a full cast of humans. It could have happened as an episode of sci-fi TV like Star Trek or Doctor Who… but it could have also been a more routine adventure story with no sci-fi elements. The fact that it uses the backdrop of a diverse university planet instead really ups the specialness of the story. Yes, this is a story about people trying to work together for a greater good… but the fact that they are a mix of species/aliens/etc that chose to work together… is really really cool. It isn’t necessarily the plot that makes this book so good… it is who is moving through the plot, and how.
I really enjoyed all the characters. A few got a bit short-changed, which is understandable in a novella with such an ensemble cast. The main characters take a few beats to really surface, but that was actually nice rather than annoying. At first, I wasn’t sure who our main characters were going to be and I found myself really caring about all of them. The fact that there was some very hot lesbian sex did NOT hurt my appreciation of the characters either.
I actually think that character building is where Mohanraj really shines. Yes, the world-building is interesting and complex (thankfully we are given the exact right bit of information so that we can follow along and care without getting overly bogged down), but it is the characters who will stay with me. I loved that not all of the characters were human or even humanoid. I sadly don’t read enough sci-fi that features non-human main characters. Creating an ensemble cast of characters that the reader can differentiate and care about is no easy task… doing all that without the easy default of “at least they are all human” is much harder and Mohanraj really excels. I love how the exposition of each alien race was woven into the character seamlessly… I never felt like I was getting a big info dump of “the biology and mating habits and social structure of Alein X.”
Another aspect of her characters (that is not as common, at least for me,) was that the human characters were not white. Now, that might not phase some people… and it might bother the bigots amongst us, but I really enjoyed it. I hope I enjoyed it in a respectful and not “oh how exotic sort of way.” I just really like that, again, Mohanraj threw out the default “humans in space are either white, white presenting, or non-racial because we have all moved on past such things….” trope and made her characters South Asian while at the same time not getting up on a soapbox and preaching diversity. She just wrote these cool complicated characters and let the diversity exist part and parcel.
Maybe I am overly sensitive having recently read NK Jemison’s introduction to Parable of the Sower where she talked about the lack of BIPOC voices in sci-fi, but I am pretty stoked to read an unapologetic BIPOC voice in sci-fi who is clearly writing for everyone with special emphasis on the BIPOC characters.
Oh my yes. I wanted more… and at the same time the story is completely contained and I think that sometimes it is ok for things to end. But damn, I enjoyed this book. It reminded me of Ursula K Le Guin a bit.
My only quibble would be italics style choice as mentioned above and then there was one chapter that didn’t seem to really fit into the larger narrative. It was a beautiful chapter, don’t get me wrong (and actually was the most Le Guin for me as it reminded me of one of the stories in Changing Planes) but it did take me out of the actual story for a bit… which is doubly disappointing because the book itself is so short that I was greedy for the characters I already cared deeply about.
Those two things aside (and your mileage will vary I am sure), I loved this book.
This: Why THIS book?
Ok… so I was planning on reading Circe this week, but then my Facebook memories started to blast me with FOGCon memories.
FOGCon, or Friends of Genre Con, is a great small convention of readings and writers of speculative fiction that happens every year in March. I was supposed to help plan and work the conn last year but my eyes had other plans and I ended up having to resign from my position. Which… sucked for a myriad of reasons… but one of the most disappointing bits about having to step down was that Mary Anne Mohanraj was going to be there as a featured author and I was going to get to meet her. To prepare I ordered a few of her books fully planning on reading them so that I could sound maybe halfway intelligent once in her presence.
Alas… again, my eyes and their infernal glaucoma ruined my reading and volunteering plans… and then covid ruined any hope I had of going to the conn.
This book, like so many other FOGCon books got shuffled off to other piles of books in my house… but when those FB memories started to resurface, I felt compelled to revisit my original plan and do some reading. I am so glad I did!
Would I recommend this book?
Yes! With the caveat of the sex. I like sex and I like sex in books, but if that isn’t your cup of tea, well maybe this isn’t the book for you. Really though, it is a fast read that is about a community coming together… a community of average regular not overly special people… who come together to make a huge positive change in the world. That message is never out of style and seems even more precinct today. Plus a happy ending for the lesbians! So yes, I highly recommend this book.
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?T This? Why did I read *This* book?