A good space opera can be many things. It can be funny or deeply philosophical. It can be touching, and it can be gory. John Birmingham’s latest novel, The Cruel Stars, balances all of those things, making readers laugh out loud even as it pulls them through an intergalactic battle for the soul of humanity.
Hundreds of years ago, humanity faced a terror like no other: the Sturm, a cultlike subculture bent on exterminating any human with genetic or cybernetic modifications. After a bloody and hard-fought civil war, the Sturm were forced to retreat. Because they weren’t heard from for hundreds of years, many thought the Sturm had to be extinct. That is, until they suddenly executed a system-wide, coordinated attack designed to cripple both human defenses and the enhancements of any “impure” humans. Led by a group of space pirates, a young military officer, a princess, a convicted criminal and a war hero, those who survived the initial onslaught must make a stand. Their mission? Drive the Sturm back before they can carry out their goal of system-wide purification.
The Cruel Stars showcases Birmingham’s remarkable mastery of scope. In just a few short chapters, he manages to paint (and then proceeds to destroy) a complex, flawed and deeply interesting version of human civilization. The grandness of this vision could be overwhelming. How, after all, can five point-of-view characters hope to encompass the entirety of a civilization or of a war? The simple answer is that they can’t, so Birmingham doesn’t try. Instead, he focuses his attention on a single planet and the Habitation satellites surrounding it. Instead of a grand, sterile view of the war, he creates a claustrophobic nightmare—well, as close as you can get to a nightmare and still have jokes. Despite the admittedly disturbing drive behind the Sturm’s crusade, The Cruel Stars manages to be deeply funny. In fact, it’s probably because of the disturbing potential consequences of the Sturm’s religious zeal that the humor works. Jokes about overly literal rhino men and space Nazis act as comic relief, breaking up the tension and letting Birmingham’s characters and universe shine.
If you aren’t a fan of gore (or if you just don’t like your humor and your gore to mix), then The Cruel Stars might not be the right book for you. But for readers who loved the frenetic pacing of the first few episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” or the gritty realism of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Cruel Stars needs to make its way to the top of summer reading lists.