Mary Anne Mohanraj, The Stars Change
2013, 148 pages, paperback, $11
ON A DISTANT planet, a missile has been fired into a neighborhood inhabited by aliens and humods—humans that have been genetically altered. Comprised of South-Asian immigrants, whose ancestors once lived on Earth, each member of a university community must decide the value of familial, platonic, and romantic relationships in the face of an interstellar war threatening to bring their world to a sudden, painful end.
In The Stars Change, Mary Anne Mohanraj, a Sri Lankan-American writer, has built a futuristic world based on the framework of South-Asian traditions practiced generations before humans would leave earth and populate other planets. As such, the novel’s various species have been given traditional names. Kimsriyalani is a Varisian; a beautiful creature which resembles a cat-woman. Gaurav, a large, wrinkled lizard-man, is the only Saurian on the planet. The book’s central relationship occurs between Amara, a human, and Narita, a humod. The two women, who were once in love, are unexpectedly thrust together the night of the missile’s launch. Amara, having agreed to an arranged life-long marriage instead of the now conventional five-year renewable marriages, has doubts concerning her husband Rajiv, a professor at the local university.
In a world where cars have been replaced with modern flying machines and the walls of dwellings can broadcast dozens of programs, inhabitants find solace in simple comforts preserved over many generations. As the community gathers to discuss the prospects of war and survival, the elders, who ask to be called Aunty and Uncle, a particularly South-Asian custom, refuse to be frozen by fear, instead choosing to fill the congregation’s stomachs.
“Vani Aunty, please!” In the kitchen, Amara was fighting a losing battle… Vani frowned. “Kunju, you’ve woken us up in the middle of the night. No one can think if they’re hungry. Even soldiers have the sense to eat before they go into battle. Have some chai, have a samosa. You’ll feel better.”
Mohanraj’s choice of cultural details envisioned in a futuristic society composed of immigrants from earth is one of the book’s charms. When humans surround Narita, a human modified for intelligence and beauty, it is the staples of South-Asian cooking which help to alleviate her discomfort.
Narita had seen plenty of unmodified humans. But it was different, being crowded in with them, with the flesh and blood and stink of them. God, they stank; it was hard to breathe, even with the filters going full blast. At least the stench of unmodified human flesh was being covered up, somewhat, by the rising scents of onion, ginger, mustard and cumin seeds, all tempered in rich ghee.
Mohanraj utilizes close third-person point of view, and each chapter focuses on one of a multitude of players in the fate of the town, planet and, ultimately, the universe. Readers experience the desires and regrets of characters that are male, female, and even gender-neutral—as is Jequith, a creature referred to as it. Through the weaving of these narratives, Mohanrag leads readers to understand the potential consequences of the destruction of a star system populated with seemingly isolated species. Themes explored by these narratives include the questioning of one’s self worth, parental abandonment, sensual love, the definition of community, and class and species prejudice. Mohanraj’s writing is particularly strong during moments when her characters ask, not only each other, but also the reader, to decide what is the moral and ethical right.
And searching for the right path does not absolve us from our duty to each other. Those aliens who live in the Warren—they may not be human. But if the gods want anything from us, they want us to take care of each other, no matter how strange we may seem to one another.
In the book’s acknowledgements, Mohanraj thanks the one hundred and sixty-eight Kickstarter donors whose monetary contributions allowed her time to write. Illustrator Jack Kotz was chosen from an open-call for artists and, though the book is not fully illustrated, Kotz’s scattering of images is generous in mystery, edge, and sensuality. The cover art is particularly alluring: the inky dark blue lines of a city fading into a black background where a rocket’s trajectory is indicated by a narrowing white line across the top of the page.
The Stars Change is a quick, easy jump into a world where family, friendship, and romance flourishes beyond the boundaries of humanity. It is curious inquiry as well as nostalgia for traditions that have successfully guided us and hopeful for a future where they will continue to do so.