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Book Review: ‘The Stars Too Fondly’ by Emily Hamilton

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What is love? That is the question that is at the heart of Emily Hamilton’s new sci-fi novel The Stars Too Fondly. Cleo McQueary has a hard time opening up to people. She has her three best friends, Kaleisha, Abe, and Ros, and that’s it. They’re her family and they’re all she needs. Well them and tech. Cleo loves engineering and technology more than anything. Maybe even more than her friends (just kidding…maybe). But then a freak accident happens and she finds herself rocketing through space (literally) with her three best friends, and the AI that runs the ship. Cleo is connecting with the AI more than she’s ever connected with anyone. She’s trying to deny her feelings because being in love with a computer is crazy. But what if the AI has feelings too? Just what is love anyway? These are the hard questions that Cleo has to face in The Stars Too Fondly, all while trying to save herself and her friends from death on a distant planet.

[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of this book contains some spoilers!]

The Stars Too Fondly is a deep space adventure

There are two main stories going on in Hamilton’s The Stars Too Fondly. First, we have the sci-fi story of a planet on the brink of extinction (yes, it’s Earth and yes, it’s our fault). The best possible solution that the brilliant minds of Earth can come up with is to send a rocket of people out into space to colonize a new planet. Thanks to a new dark matter engine, this seems like an actual possibility. But something goes horribly wrong and instead of being launched into space, the entire crew disappears, never to be seen again. The whole world is so traumatized by the experience that space exploration is completely abandoned and humans accept their fate of a slow death on a dying planet.

Now twenty years after that fateful day, the children who grew up inspired by that space race are all grown up and looking for their own answers about what happened. Everything from that launch twenty years ago was just left to rot where it was. So Cleo and her friends decide to break in and see what they can discover.

As they’re exploring, they accidentally manage to launch the rocket, and now they’re flying through space to a new planet with no hope of turning around or seeing Earth again for at least 14 years. Complicating matters, the dark matter engine seems to have given some of them strange new, potentially dangerous, powers. Trying to master these powers, deal with their terrifying situation, and return home will test their friendships to the breaking point. 

But Emily Hamilton’s new sci-fi novel is also a love story

The second story is a rather unusual love story. Cleo grew up hero worshiping the Captain of the Providence (the spaceship she and her friends are currently stuck on). And it just so happens that the AI running the ship is that Captain. Known as Billie, the AI isn’t just an imitation of the Captain. The real Billie spent days uploading her actual entire consciousness into the system, so it’s basically her.

Cleo spends so much time with Billie that she begins to develop feelings for her. She denies it as long as she can because Billie is a computer and that’s just crazy. At the same time, Billie is developing feelings for Cleo. Hamilton poses some fascinating questions about just what love is. Who can we love, and how are we allowed to love them? With all the advances in AI, a real love like Cleo and Billie’s might not be so far away, so it might be a good idea for us to start thinking about it now. 

We especially need to think about the wrench that Hamilton throws into the Cleo/Billie relationship. Because after Cleo and Billie begin to get close they discover that the real Billie might still be alive, and what’s more, they might be able to save her. So that brings up the problem of who does Cleo really love, AI Billie or real Billie. Is it possible for real Billie to have the feelings for Cleo that Cleo has for her (if her feelings for AI Billie transfer)? What would happen to AI Billie if Cleo left her for real Billie? It’s a really messed up situation with no easy answer. Hamilton comes up with a workaround to get the result she wants, but I think that the basic sticky questions remain and aren’t necessarily answered that well in the book

The Stars Too Fondly by Emily Hamilton book cover

The author asks, “What is love?”

Even though The Stars Too Fondly  is a space (and extradimensional) adventure, the really interesting part of the book for me is the love story between Cleo and Billie. It’s essentially a love triangle with Cleo, AI Billie (AIB), and real Billie (RB). It brings up all kinds of questions about love, who can we build bonds with, what does sexuality have to do with love, and expectations surrounding love. 

One interesting thing I wondered about was how sexuality was factored into Cleo and AIB’s relationship. AIB was just a computer program with a holographic interface. She presented as female because RB was female, but can an AI actually feel gender? I suppose the argument could be made that because AIB was the consciousness of RB and RB identified as female that AIB would also be female because gender is a concept. But does that gender identity really apply to a computer program?

Cleo is a lesbian and does feel sexually attracted to AIB, even though logically, she knows that there can be no physical relationship between them. I wonder if she would have felt that same attraction if AIB hadn’t had a holographic projection and had just been a voice. What if that voice had been robotic? Or male instead of female? Would Cleo have developed the same feelings?

And what about AIB? RB is presumed heterosexual at the beginning of the story. She had a husband who she deeply loved and was devastated by his death. No mention of bisexuality was ever made. Yet, AIB was attracted to Cleo pretty quickly. Now, spoiler alert: RB develops intense feelings for Cleo as well, so RB isn’t exclusively straight. But it does make me wonder about AIB. Does she develop feelings for Cleo based on her as a person first, or is there some sexual attraction at the start? And how exactly does a computer program feel sexual attraction? 

Then there’s the question of who Cleo really loves. AIB is who she fell in love with, but since AIB is an exact copy of RB, does that mean she fell in love with RB too? It reminded me a lot of when people develop unhealthy obsessions with celebrities. Just because you think you know everything about them doesn’t mean you actually know them. It could have been very weird when Cleo and RB met because of all the feelings Cleo had for AIB and potential confusion between AIB and RB.  

The Stars Too Fondly is a great LGBTQ+ novel

Hamilton’s probing about what love really is makes The Stars Too Fondly a great LGBTQ+ story. Looking at love between a human and a computer removes the sexuality (okay, for spice, Hamilton adds the sex back in, but it’s not the focus) that can complicate love and just looks at what is love in its most basic form. I would argue it is seeing all the different facets of a person and still wanting what’s best for them. Sure, it’s more complicated than that and there’s lots of different levels to love, but that’s the most basic. And if that’s all you need, then there’s no “right” or “wrong” love, there’s just love. And that means that all loves are valid. At least that’s what I took away from reading The Stars Too Fondly.

Hamilton might not have every letter of LGBTQ+ covered in The Stars Too Fondly, but she does manage to hit quite a few of them with a lesbian lead, a bisexual love interest, a nonbinary character, and a demisexual situation (that’s how I would classify the relationship between Cleo and AIB). And there’s the always nice presentation where all of this is normal (Cleo and AIB struggle with their relationship because that is new even in the 2060’s). It always makes me happy when such things are just presented as accepted in literature. I know that stories about the struggle to be accepted are needed too, but the more stories there are where society just accepts these concepts, the more they become normalized in real life. Life and Art creating an infinite feedback loop! 

The Stars Too Fondly by Emily Hamilton is a different kind of summer romance

So we all know the pattern of summer bombarding us with silly romances to read poolside. The Stars Too Fondly is another summer romance, but it’s not a silly one. Hamilton gives us a deeper story that makes us think instead of a silly fluff piece that makes us horny. It can still be read poolside, but don’t expect it to stay there. Cleo and Billie’s love is going to follow you around for a while, asking questions and demanding answers to just what love is and who deserves it.

Rating: 8/10

The Stars Too Fondly by Emily Hamilton is available in stores now! Are you reading this book, or will you soon? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus!

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Luna Gauthier

I've always been a bookworm and fantasy is my favortie genre. I never imagined (okay, I imagined but I didn't think) that I could get those books sent to me for just my opinion. Now I am a very happy bookworm! @Lunagauthier19 on Twitter

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