After authoring more than 30 books, including memoirs, military science fiction, alternate histories, and a book of writing advice, John Birmingham was ready to try his hand at the sweeping and dramatic science fiction sub-genre known as space opera.
But you’d never know The Cruel Stars (Del Rey, 2019) is his first attempt at epic, interstellar, battle-of-the-ages storytelling. His deft hand has produced a tightly paced, suspenseful, and bitingly funny adventure full of wild military tech, high-stakes conflict, and five eloquent characters.
“I’m a huge fan of the [space opera] genre, but it took me a while to get the confidence to write my own,” Birmingham told me in our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction.
The conflict at the core of The Cruel Stars pits the Sturm—who believe with Nazi-like conviction in keeping humans “pure,” i.e. free of genetic or technological enhancements—against the rest of humanity.
“I very much based [the Sturm] on the ultra-right, which was coming to scary prominence as I was first putting this book together. But in a way, the system against which they set themselves isn’t particularly pretty either.”
Set in the far future, the story follows multiple protagonists: a scrappy lieutenant who suddenly finds herself commanding a powerful warship, a pre-pubescent princess on the run from the Sturm, a sharp-shooting pirate, a centuries-old, reclusive and foul-mouthed war hero, and a prisoner convicted of treason whose computer-generated soul is facing permanent “deletion.”
Each character has a distinct voice and unique challenges. Princess Alessia, for example, transforms overnight from a coddled heir to an embattled leader while war hero Admiral Frazer McLennan must finally confront the guilt he feels for decisions he made hundreds of years ago when he last battled the Sturm.
But the story’s center of gravity is Lucinda Hardy, the lieutenant-turned-commander. “Hers is the story I want to investigate most of all,” Birmingham says. “She grew up poor, and she finds herself moving through rarefied and powerful centers of society. Early on, one of the other characters tells her ‘You don’t belong here.’ And the thing that she has to come to terms with over the course of her story is whether or not she does.”
The Cruel Stars, which came out in August, is the first installment of a planned trilogy.