Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
By Christopher Paolini
Pan Macmillan UK (Tor Imprint)
ISBN: 9781529046519, Paperback, 816 pages, Sept 20
The day that the final book in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series arrived, my children went wild, arguing over who would read it first, and in the end the only thing that calmed everyone was a sharing arrangement with each person reading a chapter. That didn’t work because whoever was reading couldn’t stop at the end of their chapter, but it was such a fast-paced read that everyone got their turn. I haven’t read the series as many times as my daughter, but I was still very excited when Paolini’s book was released late last year, specifically for an adult audience. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is Science Fiction rather than fantasy, and it’s 800+ pages. In spite of its size, the book is as fast a read as any of the books in the Inheritance series – action oriented, with enough cliff-hangers to keep the forward momentum.
To my mind, some of the battle scenes could have been tightened and shortened somewhat. However, I feel the same way about the battle scenes in Lord of the Rings, so you can take that assessment with a grain of salt. What worked perfectly for me was the world creation. The world of Alagaësia was detailed and rich, and the Fractalverse of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is even more encompassing: a future universe where very advanced science has led humans to inhabit outer space. In this world, it’s possible to travel very long distances using Faster than Light (FTL) technology, brains can be expended, de-coupled from the body, and preserved as “ship minds”, humans can band together to form “hive minds”, limbs, organs and even bodies can be printed, messages are sent head to head without the need for a machine, and colonisation is taken to its extreme. Paolini has successfully crossed-over into the sci fi realm and it’s obvious he’s done his physics homework, utilising existing science and scientific theories in a way that would make Arthur C Clark proud. The work displays a great deal of creative ingenuity, with well-developed and interesting aliens (who are neither like ET nor like super-humans), witty spacecraft banter, all sorts of fun technologies, a super fast-paced plot line that is deeply engaging—this is an easy-read— and description that is often poetic, charged by an obvious love of astronomy:
The orange gas giant, Zeus, hung low above the horizon, huge and heavy and glowing with a ruddy half-light. Around it glittered a field of stars, bright against the black of space, while beneath the goat’s lidless glare stretched a grey wasteland streaked with stone. (1)
The book is focused around its protagonist, Kira Navárez, a young, smart xenobiologist. Kira and her partner Alan have been working for the Lapsang Trading Corporation, an interstellar organisation that creates colonies on uninhabited worlds, and also seems to do a bit of mining. The couple have been moving from one job to another and spending too much time apart, but they have just had 4 months together while studying Adrasteia, an uncolonised moon, and have decided to apply for a more stable life as colonists on one of the new colonies. There’s just one small mission that Kira needs to do in order to investigate some unidentified organic material picked up by drone before they leave. The consequences of this visit are more wide-reaching than anyone can fathom, and transform Kira in ways that are both devastating and transcendent.
The book owes a big debt to the sci-fi canon. A few that came to my mind while reading this include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dune, and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. Paolini makes no secret of the influence, but Paolini’s Fractalverse is decidedly unique, and Kira makes for a deeply engaging protagonist whose narrative arc is extensive. I don’t want to give anything away, and this is a book where spoilers really matter, however, Paolini does a particularly good job in allowing the distinctive qualities of each of the aliens to remain mysterious and resists what would have been a natural desire to anthropomorphise. The Soft Blade in particular, is an evocative and rich alien (or Xeno as Kira puts it), with a point of view we only discern through Kira’s growing awareness:
She floated before a fractal design, blue and dark and etched into the surface of a standing stone. The design was complicated beyond her ability to comprehend, and it shifted as she watched, the edges of the shapes shimmering as they changed, growing and evolving according to the precepts of some unknown logic. Her sight was more than human; she could see lines of force radiating from the infinitely long border—flashes of electromagnetic energy that betrayed vast discharges of energy. (231)
A very strong theme throughout the book is the interrelationship between everyone and everything—something that the Buddhist-inspired Entropists Jorrus and Veela talk about early on, and which hints that there is much more to this story, and this universe, than we will know by the end of the book:
“…The point is that this act of observation and learning is a process we all share—-“
“—whether or not we realise it. As such, it gives purpose to everything we do, no matter—“
“__how insignificant it may seem, and from that purpose, meaning. For the universe itself, given consciousness through your own mind—-“
“—is aware of your every hurt and care…” (175-6)
The book is peppered with drawings and diagrams, quotations, and even a glossary of some of the terminology used in the book, though all of the words are understandable in context. This includes such things as “Farscent”, “Nearscent”, and Lowsound”- a scent-based means of communication by the Squid-like Wranaui – one of the alien species, or a Markov Drive, an anti-matter machine part that enables faster than light (FTL) travel. Of course these are based somewhat on actual science – pheromones and Markov models and chains, and so in spite of the fanciful invention which makes the book so fun to read, the technology is actually believable. aolini clearly enjoyed himself in its creation, putting in little easter eggs for Inheritance fans, and even an acrostic in the table of contents. Many of the characters are drawn with enough detail and complexity that I suspect we may see them again in another book. This includes the roguish Wallfish captain Falconi, the charming, enthusiastic youngster Trig, the tough-as-nails Sparrow, the super strong Hwa-jung, and witty ‘ship mind’ Gregorovich, who teeters on the brink of madness but who also has some of the best lines:
“…I worked on equations, mathematical concepts you could never comprehend with your puny little brain, and I read and watched and counted towards infinity, as the Numenists do. And all it did was stay off the darkness for one more second. One more moment. I screamed, though I have no mouth to scream. I wept, though I have no eyes for tears. I crawled through space and time, a worm inching through a labyrinth built by the dreams of a mad god. This I learned, meatball, this and nothing more: when air, food, and shelter are assured, only two things matter. Work and companionship. To be alone and without purpose is to be the living dead.” (512-3)
As with the aliens, Paolini allows for a great deal of diversity in his characters and doesn’t try to pigeonhole them into a specific type, which makes for a colourful and consistently enjoyable read. Overall, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a fantastic novel that offers its readers plenty of play, a lightning-pace and cracker of a story, and an underlying theme which is satisfying. In spite of its size, enough space and open ends have been left so that the reader is primed for more. Paolini has hinted that more is coming in the Fractalverse and judging from To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, that can only be a good thing.