Stars and Bones by Gareth L Powell is a novel comfortable making obvious nods to its sci-fi influences. Occasionally quoting directly from Aliens and Star Wars, there are also similarities with Battlestar Galactica and Bladerunner later in the story, when the main characters no longer know who to trust. The alien threat also draws comparison with the protomolecule in The Expanse. If you like those movies and TV shows, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in Stars and Bones.
In order to protect its biosphere, humanity has been cast out of Earth by a vast alien, known as the Angel of the Benevolence. Fortunately, the Benevolence sees something in humanity worth saving and so the whole human race is left to travel through the stars in 1,000 space ships, known as arks. Each ark carries around 15 million people, where their every need is catered for and all can live in luxury. With the old rules of life gone, humanity has to adapt to a new way of living as part of what becomes known as the Continuance.
We begin the story aboard the Furious Ocelot, an intelligent Continuance scout ship piloted by Eryn, who has been sent with her crew to investigate the disappearance of her sister on the ominously named planet Candidate-623. The story is always interesting, but I did feel some of the decisions made by this follow up ‘expert’ rescue team were breathtakingly stupid. It felt like they made all their various choices purely for plot convenience.
The novel also suffers from some editing issues. The rescue team are motivated by being offered triple pay. However, how does this fit with the fact the concept of money (outside the Dissent Faction of the Continuance) no longer has any meaning on the ark ships? There’s another scene where someone is threatened with a gun after the arrival of the Benevolence. However, we’re specifically told the Benevolence removed all the weapons from humanity when it arrived on Earth, including bullets. It felt at times like the novel would have benefitted from another editing pass before being released.
The initial feel of the book is very similar in tone to the movie Alien, but the novel shifts massively after the first 25%. The breakneck, violent start gives way to a slower pace, as the story moves from a fierce fight for survival to become more of a manhunt. During this phase Eryn teams up with police officer Shepherd.
Shepherd really did feel like he was your ‘standard’ world-weary cop. He’s entirely written by numbers, delivering familiar cynical lines we’ve seen dozens of times in various TV shows and movies. His character fell flat for me and I also struggled to engage much with Eryn too. Throughout the novel she rushes about doing stuff but, although I knew I should, I just didn’t care all that much about her fate.
I also found myself wondering whether a ship’s navigator would work this closely in a police investigation, as Shepherd and Eryn effectively team up shortly after meeting. With the fate of 15 billion people at risk and all the resources at their disposal, why does the Council of Ships decide Eryn, a single cop and a talking cat should be sent out, basically without any support, into various do or die missions to save the human race?
There was still a lot to enjoy in this novel. The Benevolence feels truly alien and the glimpses of strange worlds, such as the Dyson Sphere, and other races are memorable and very well written. I just wish there was more of this. There’s a strong ecological message, the book also briefly touching on other interesting concepts such as capitalism, religion and humanity’s purpose in a post-scarcity world. Again, I felt there was a missed opportunity to expand on some of these ideas. Powell could have made room for them by dispensing with a romantic sub-plot that simply didn’t work for me. The way the romance was introduced, bearing in mind the circumstances the characters were in, felt forced and I have to admit it made me cringe at times.
Although the novel has some shortcomings, the book was entertaining throughout, keeping me turning the pages, and I thought the ending was strong. Powell took this in a direction I wasn’t expecting, although looking back he had cleverly foreshadowed those events and the eventual resolution.
Overall, Stars and Bones is great fun but if you stop and think about it for any length of time, the whole thing unravels. Nevertheless, the premise of the Continuance is fascinating and has lots of potential. It will be interesting to see where Powell takes this in future books.