To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
|To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini|
|Category: Science Fiction|
|Reviewer: Alex Mitchell|
|Summary: Paolini's first book for a adults has created a universe truly breath-taking in scope and conception, while also featuring a cast of well-written, fundamentally human characters and aliens that genuinely seem alien. A must-read for space opera and science fiction fans.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 880||Date: September 2020|
|External links: Author's website|
On the moon of a distant gas giant, Xenobiologist Kira Navárez is helping with the efforts to make the planet habitable to human life. However, a discovery of an ancient alien bunker under the moon's surface leaves her bonded with a strange alien entity. After the entity bonded to her loses control and kills half the staff of the research station, the United Military Command cruiser Extenuating Circumstances arrives in the system to take Kira in for examination. Things go from bad to worse when the Extenuating Circumstances is attacked and destroyed by an alien ship, and she has to flee to the 61 Cygnus star system. She is revived aboard the freighter Wallfish, crewed by Captain Falconi and a rag-tag bunch of misfits, and the news is grim. The same aliens that destroyed the Extenuating Circumstances are now wreaking havoc across all of human-occupied space, and only a mythical weapon known as the Staff of Blue can stop them. As the death toll climbs and more players are introduced into this war, Kira slowly begins to realise that she may have had a greater hand in the conflict than she could've possibly imagined…
Bestselling author Christopher Paolini has switched from fantasy to science fiction in his first book aimed at adults. I know Paolini gets some flak from some corners of the literary world for essentially ripping off the original trilogy of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings in the creation of The Inheritance Cycle. This book, however, demonstrates that Paolini has really upped his writing game, creating a truly massive universe on par with something like Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series, while still managing to keep a very human touch to the story. While I did have some quibbles with the writing, e.g. sometimes Paolini writes screams out loud, which at least for me killed the dramatic tension a bit, they were extremely infrequent and the rest of the book holds up enough that I can forgive them.
A good chunk of the book is spent on character interaction. The story follows Kira Navárez, a xenobiologist from Weyland, a planet orbiting around the star Epsilon Indi. An accident leaves her bonded with an alien entity called The Soft Blade, which takes the form of a black second skin that covers her entire body except her face. She is wracked by guilt over all the people whose deaths she has both directly and indirectly caused, including her fiancée Alan, but never seems to lose her basic humanity, trying her best to use the Soft Blade's ever-expanding capabilities to help those around her. The Wallfish, captained by Salvatore Falconi, a hard on the outside but soft on the inside. There is also Nielsen, the chronically ill first officer, Vishal, the doormat Medical officer, Sparrow, the hardened security officer who is in a relationship with Hwa-Jung, the ship's rather blunt chief engineer, and of course Runcible the pig and Mr. Fuzzypants the cat, the ship's two pets. The Wallfish also has it's own Ship Mind, the bombastic and mildly insane Gregorovich (who, in my opinion, the most entertaining character in the book), who was scavenged from a crashed freighter in which he was the sole survivor. The interactions between Kira and Gregorovich remind me a lot of the interactions between Sanda Greeve and Bero from Velocity Weapon, which endeared me a lot to both characters. They're also joined on the trip by Jorrus and Veera, two people joined in a hive mind who often finish each others' sentences. They are what's known as Entropists, a highly advanced group of techno-monks attempting to find a way to extend the lifespan of the universe. They're a really well-developed cast of characters, each with their own secrets, hopes, fears and woes, and really help ground the story at the human level.
The vast majority of human space is made up of the League of Allied Worlds, a United Federation of Planets-type body, protected by the United Military Command, with the exception of independent systems like Tau Ceti, where Hwa-Jung is from. There is also a little map at the front of the book that show what star each world orbits, the distances between systems and where they are in relation to each other, as well as maps and images of each system visited throughout the book. There are also a couple of appendices in the back of the book (both of which take the form of transcripts of in-universe lectures by experts) that explain both how the setting's faster-than-light travel and combat work, which is a really nice touch and shows the sheer amount of effort Paolini went to in order to create this universe. One of the more interesting additions to the book's world is that of the Ship Minds, which are not artificial intelligences, but human brains that have been expanded enough that they can run all the systems on a starship. The most prominent of them is Gregorovich, the Wallfish's Ship Mind, who revealed that he was once a regular human, who chose to become a Ship Mind after a what seemed like a pretty bad automotive accident. It's a very interesting idea, and not one I've seen much in other science fiction settings. While artificial intelligences do exist in this universe, known as "pseudointelligences", they're mostly just considered backups for actual human minds. There are also the Vanished, a highly advanced race that have long since, well…vanished, leaving behind only a few markers of their civilisation. They're not really featured much in the story, and they mostly serve as a catalyst for the Jellies' technological development. All in all, the scope of the world is absolutely stunning and I'd be interested in reading more stories set in this universe.
One of the most impressive aspects of the book are the main alien race, the Jellies (or "Wranaui", as they call themselves). They appear to have parts from both jellyfish (hence their name) and insects or crustaceans and communicate via scent [Alex here: which is interpreted like this, which is a little confusing at first]. The Wranaui also make use of a device called a Nest of Transference, which they upload their consciousnesses into and allows them to switch between bodies that are optimised for different tasks (e.g. you have one body for fighting, one for mechanical repair, etc). They are also biologically immortal, being able to turn back to an egg at the end of their lifespan. I think Paolini may have taken inspiration from the real-life immortal jellyfish, which reverts back into a polyp once it has procreated. It's revealed that they were originally an aquatic species with around an iron-age level of technology (which makes sense, since the discovery of fire pretty much kick-started humanity's evolution into a technological civilisation, and it is very difficult to light a fire underwater), before they discovered the technology of The Vanished, which allowed them to advance leaps and bounds. The Wranaui are by Ctein, an ancient being who has ruled over them for centuries, to the point of becoming an almost Cthulhu-esque entity, so massive and complex that it can't use a Nest of Transference (which is also a plot point in the climax of the book), and has also hard-coded the Wranaui to feel physically repulsed by the idea of attempting to attack him. They are an amazingly well-thought out race of aliens that genuinely feel alien, so kudos to Paolini.
Overall, this is a truly massive book, both in terms of page count and the in-universe size, written with a lot of humanity and featuring a well-developed cast of characters and aliens that seem realistically alien.
Similar books by other authors:
Velocity Weapon by Megan E O'Keefe – a similar space opera setting featuring a starship with intelligence and personality, and lost alien technology.
Leviathan Wakes by James S A Corey – another space opera setting featuring vastly superior, long-extinct alien technology.
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