Cover Image: Amid the Crowd of Stars

Amid the Crowd of Stars

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The world-building was the most attractive asset of the story, and its earliest strength. However, the further in I explored, the more my interest waned. I thought I would warm up to the characters, yet I couldn't connect with Ichiko, and Saoirse's quirkiness felt forced. The 'shipping had no chemistry, and I think their relationship took away from the larger ideas that the story originally presented. 

I did enjoy the scientific approach to the problem-solving: it was reminiscent of how some of Lovecraft's stories featured scientists that ruled out everything possible before contemplating the impossible. But the drop-off after the promising start, combined with a disconnect with the cast left me unengaged by the book's end.
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After a colony has long lost contact with Earth, Ichiko is sent to investigate their planet to determine if their planet is habitable, and likewise, if any of them may return to Earth. 

Lyrical and richly imagined, Amid the Crowd of Stars is a unique take on extrasolar planetary exploration. Where this story succeeds most is in its worldbuilding--focusing on the Lupusian’s society and the flora and fauna of the planet. Due to the nature of the story then, it’s definitely a slow burn. Don’t expect any large, hostile threats like giant worms from Dune or mutant bears like from Annihilation. Instead, the biggest threats are microbial ones and the fear of contamination. I find this a really interesting angle to take.

However, I have major unanswered questions about the story. For example, Ichiko is a sociologist, archeologist, and exobiologist all in one, and she refers to herself as belonging to a research team. We’re mostly limited to her POV. However, we don’t really see or hear about any of her team members going on expeditions to the planet. She's the only one. Moreover, I find it odd that the Terrans from Earth are attempting to use Earth antibiotics to combat alien microbes. Of course, that’s not likely to work. Why aren’t they focusing on finding and creating antibiotics from the planet they’re investigating? Even better, why aren't they trying to create vaccines by testing the antibodies of the Lupusians that are already immune?

Overall, I find Amid the Crowd of Stars conceptually fascinating. However, some of its execution failed for me. Ultimately, the story succeeds more in exploring the culture of another planet than it does as a well-thought-out alien contagion story.
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Went into this book with no expectations and was still somehow disappointed. The beginning was promising but the story quickly became dull and repetitive. I even had to skim some paragraphs towards the end because I just wouldn't be able to finish the book otherwise.

Both protagonists were fine, I guess, but I didn't feel anything for them. Ichiko just kept going back and forth from the ship to the planet with not much happening, and also had some strange reluctant relationship with her commander. I liked Saoirse a bit more for having at least some spunk and personality but after some time she started annoying me by constantly thinking of touching and bedding Ichiko (it's not really a spoiler because their relationship was too obvious from the beginning). She completely lost me when her first thought about anyone else from the ship was "is Ichiko sleeping with them?". Like, seriously?

The worldbuilding was also just okay and learning about this other sentient alien life never made an impact and didn't seem to be explored enough. There were interesting ideas and concepts but their execution just didn't work and didn't make for an exciting or compelling story.
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Over the past few years I've moved away from the idea that science fiction is the genre of “big ideas.” It can be a good descriptor, but unless a specific topic is discussed within a specific book, I find it unhelpful. “It’s a book about big ideas” has become a meaningless phrase to me, and I’m a better reviewer for it. That being said, if a book is marketed or said to explore a distinct idea, well, it’s extremely hard for me to say no to that book. It’s partially why my TBR is just an unending pit and I just need a book that shows me why it’s okay to die with tasks unfinished (now that’s a BIG IDEA). So when I stumbled about the description for this next book, I just had to read it. Amid The Crowd of Stars, by Stephen Leigh, is a tightly focused novel about the ethics and implications of interstellar travel and colonization that rarely goes beyond its central concepts both to its benefit and detriment.

The novel follows Ichiko Aguilar, a Japanese scientist sent to  investigate an established colony, called Lupus, cut off from Earth for centuries. Once there, she takes it upon herself to research and record the societies that have developed in response to the environment they live in. Through her short trips she meets Saoirse Mullin, a member of the Mullin clan on the Inish isles, and daughter of the clan’s matriarch. Now that the colony has contact with people from Earth, Saoirse dreams of returning to humanity’s home. Unfortunately, the centuries upon the colonized planets have not been kind to the people there, and they may harbor diseases that could ruin life on Earth. Tests need to be completed and research to be done in order to ensure that both the people of Earth and those on Lupus will not harm each other. 

Firstly, Leigh’s exploration of the subject at hand is pretty thorough from a psychological and biological perspective. He wastes no time in setting up the stakes, diving right into the issues from the get go. Some readers might find it a bit jarring, especially with the minimal worldbuilding outside the colony, but it pulled me right in and focused on the smaller aspects of the story. The conversations surrounding the ethics of being exposed to alien biomes and becoming a part of them feel natural, even in their thought experiment format. Leigh mostly succeeds in making the central thesis a part of the story, and allows the characters and events to dictate the debate. Rarely did I ever feel like Leigh was building to a point, allowing the situation to play out instead of feeling like a lecture on why it should be done a specific way. Leigh, without succumbing to a dooming perspective, also did not limit his imagination when it came to implications and consequences. It was an intricate dance of grounded realism and fantastical “what ifs.” Leigh wrote a far more curious book than I was expecting and that warmed my critical heart. 

However, while it was a great exploration of “should we colonize alien biomes and forever change the internal makeup of some humans,” it’s hard to say it’s an excellent story. It’s not bad by any means, and often Leigh manages to make it compelling, but on it’s own it isn’t much to write home about. There is a lot of slow revealing of information over the course of the book, but rarely does it feel overtly impactful. The fact that the story is limited to two points of view when there are easily more than four different perspectives lessens the stakes in some ways. I realize that the goal was more the exploration of “exposure to alien DNA and its ramifications,” but at the same time I felt the focus was a little too narrow. There were definitely moments that could have thrown a wrench into the proceedings, but the story seemed to stop outside of the character’s perspectives at some points. If there had been a little more discussion outside earshot of Ichiko and Saoirse from the people on and off Lupus, the grander story would have been more intriguing to me.

Fortunately, Leigh is good at writing characters. Ichiko and Saoirse are both interesting and have internal lives that make their actions and concerns tangible and natural. Their individual stories made the book feel like a drama for the most part, instead of a thought experiment. The debate has a real effect on both their lives, and they each do their part to solve the problem. Saoirse especially feels daring and bold when it comes to increasing her chances at leaving the world of Lupus. Ichiko feels curious, and views the situation as an opportunity to learn while at times forgetting that the people of Lupus exist on their own. Their relationship to each other is dynamic, and Leigh does a great job of making it feel tense between them when there are secrets and implications. The author rightly makes this relationship the focal point of the debate, but as I said before sometimes it has a penchant for feeling like the only part that matters. 

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Amid the Crowd of Stars, but it also didn’t surpass my expectations. It’s a powerful thought experiment with a narrative window dressing, not a thrilling tale with a cleverly nested discourse. The two main characters feel alive, as do aspects of the world in the center of the book. The book also feels ripe for metaphors if you want to aggressively read into some of the subtler themes, particularly in relation to a sense of place within nature, but they also don’t feel purposeful. There is a lot to like about this book, and if you’re at all the kind of person who reads science fiction to better conceive of a future, it should be on your list. 

Rating: Amid the Crowd of Stars - 7.0/10
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Stephen Leigh puts a new spin on the lost colony novel in Amid the Crowd of Stars when a starship from Earth comes to check on a colony that had been abandoned for hundreds of years after an asteroid impact threw Earth into chaos. High on the list of mission objectives is to determine whether or not the colonists are still sufficiently human for any of them to return with the ship after centuries of adaptation to a high-gravity world full of alien microbes.

The remaining colonists are surviving on the harsh world, if not quite thriving.  Over time, they split into two groups, one that has regressed to a level of simple but sustainable tech, and the other reverting to a life without engines or electricity, fishing with net and sail and living on an island where technology mysteriously fails.

Ichiko is an ethnologist con The Odysseus; her job isn’t to determine the biological compatibility of the colonists but to see how their culture developed. When the ship arrives it makes contact with Dulcia, the town nearest the abandoned First Base, but her interest is piqued by what she’s heard about the Inish, the group that split off to settle in the archipelago. Despite the suspicion of the Inish by the mainlanders, Ichiko makes friends with a local girl, Saoirse, who longs to go to Earth and see the wonders she’s only heard in tales.

The indigenous life on Canus Lupus comes in a wide variety of forms, from the arrachet, sentient Kraken that have formed a bond with the Inish, to microbes that have created linkages between all creatures.  This is problematic since the artificial assistants in the crew’s heads, as well as Odysseus’s computer, is partly biological.

Multiple conflicts play out. The question of whether or not the colonists can visit Earth, or if the Canus Lupus microbes are too dangerous, the Inish efforts to keep the sentience of the arrachet a secret, the increasingly-erratic nature of the individual personal assistants, and most of all, Ichiko’s struggle with loyalties to the ship and its crew, and her desire to know more about this world.

If you liked Sue Burke’s Semiosis, you’ll find this equally interesting. It’s a great read and an excellent addition to colony and first contact fare.
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