“A powerful piece of SF, with intelligent writing and big ideas.”
—Adrian Tchaikovsky, author of Children of Time
“Dazzles with otherworldly delights — and unearthly nightmares.”
“This is Paolini’s best book so far, skillfully done, brilliantly imagined and cleverly executed.”
“Sure to be one of the biggest literary moments of the year.”
First-contact stories in which humans encounter alien intelligence for the first time have always been the stuff of science fiction. Go back to War of the Worlds in 1897. Fast forward to 1974’s The Mote in God’s Eye by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, the standard-bearer for great first contact novels. What defines such a story? Authors stir their vivid imaginations into a stew that includes big ideas about life itself and what it means to be human. They add fascinating characters, wild action, plot twists galore and at least a measure of scientific plausibility.
Christopher Paolini aims high in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (Tor Books) and has crafted a tale that deserves to join the upper echelons of first contact novels, framed around a protagonist you’ll never forget, both for who she is and what she becomes.
It’s a big story because of its epic sweep, but it’s also a refreshingly smaller story at the same time because everything happens through the eyes of our heroine, Kira Navárez. She’s a xenobiologist who studies alien worlds, and she can’t wait to end a routine planetary survey mission so she can reunite with her fiancé. Then she finds an alien relic in an underground cave. The relic covers her in a mysterious black powder and morphs into something that’s hard to describe in a few words — sort of an intelligent bodysuit that will transform her and possibly lead to the end of humanity by awakening long-slumbering alien threats.
The mayhem she has unleashed inadvertently provokes a war with an alien race nicknamed the “Jellies,” jellyfish-like creatures who obtained much of their technology from a long-ago race called The Vanished. At first, there’s no way to even communicate with the Jellies as they mount attacks. They “talk” through scents, and no one on our side is even sure why they’re fighting.
The Jellies seem malevolent, but maybe they’re not, or maybe they can’t help the situation they’re in. Paolini does a terrific job of conveying the immense difficulties of establishing even a crude baseline of understanding between humans and aliens who, in this case, have no sense of personal freedom or any desire for it.
Eventually, through Navárez, some barriers get hurdled, and the old saying, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” becomes hugely important. Paolini again evokes The Mote in God’s Eye, which also explores the notion that when we encounter aliens, the biggest challenge might be understanding what really motivates them, even if we figure out how to communicate. Given our politically toxic world in which people seem to be talking at each other more than with each other, a fresh exploration of this problem couldn’t be timelier.
SMALL MOMENTS POPULATE GREAT STORIES
As threats emerge from every direction, Navárez evolves from a fairly self-absorbed young woman into a powerful force, helped greatly by her evolving (and well-written) relationships with her colleagues aboard the rogue ship Wallfish.
Onboard Navárez’s ship, we meet Gregorovitch, who has to be one of the most fascinating sci-fi characters ever. He’s a “ship mind,” sort of a human-turned-computer who is embedded into the Wallfish both physically and operationally. He’s extraordinarily intelligent, bitingly funny and sarcastic (he calls normal humans “meat bags”) and borderline insane. He’s ultimately the most human of all the characters.
Characters like Gregorovitch make To Sleep in a Sea of Stars special. Paolini understands that small moments populate great stories. He understands that humans crack jokes and use bad puns to get through impossible-seeming situations. They’ll spar with a ship mind, wisecrack about alien anatomy and might even bring a pet pig aboard a faster-than-light ship to break the monotony of spaceflight. There are many special moments like this to keep the story from bogging down in lengthy battle scenes. That’s important in a book that clocks in at nearly 900 pages and more than 30 hours as an audiobook, the latter brought to life by Jennifer Hale, an exceptional narrator.
Paolini has a large following in young-adult fantasy fiction that followed publication of his first novel, Eragon, in 2003 when he was 19. He followed that with three sequels that have sold nearly 40 million copies worldwide. Parents of Paolini’s younger fans should know that To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is for older teens and adults, mainly because of occasional obscenity and a sex scene that will answer any questions you might have about whether intercourse is possible with someone in a body-clinging suit of impenetrable fabric and a mind of its own.
It reportedly took nine years for Paolini to complete To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. His fans won’t want to wait another nine years for a sequel. My request is simple: Give me more Gregorovitch.