To Sleep is a Sea of Stars is the science fiction debut of Christopher Paolini, formerly better known for his fantasy works, entitled “The Inheritance Cycle”: Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr and Inheritance.
Paolini’s original four works were started when he was fifteen years old, and the reviews from these (I have not read the books) indicate readers were split between those who enjoyed the story, and those who couldn’t quite compensate for so young a writer’s voice.
Paolini has taken a significant, professional and well-researched step into the science fiction arena, and I would be surprised if there were not more from him in this genre in the coming years.
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars came to my attention because I was collating various different lists of the “best science fiction of 2020” for my holiday reading, and Paolini’s new work came up in more than one of these. The book won the ‘Best Science Fiction’ Goodreads Choice 2020 Awards, voted on by readers, and has gathered generally positive reviews.
Pace and Chase
The novel starts out in familiar science fiction territory, with Kira Navarez, a xenobiologist, working with an advance team checking a planet for its potential as a target for colonization. In so doing, Kira stumbles across an ancient reliquary of sorts, and inside encounters a very advanced alien technology, that binds with her in ways that cannot easily be undone.
From this point forward, the book picks up speed, and becomes a relentless race against time, as the awakening of the technology has some side-effects, both intentional and unintentional, that trigger a chain of events of cosmic consequences.
Kira finds herself at the center of this maelstrom, cut loose from moorings of family, friendship and civilization, and seeking to find her footing as the artificial symbiont of an alien technology that is both feared and venerated in equal measure.
Paolini’s science fiction is soft with hard edges. We have faster-than-light travel, but it’s far from instantaneous and it comes at a price. This gives the book a strange stop-start-stop-start rhythm, as events take place in far flung systems that require months to reach. Kira, by virtue of her alien technology, can no longer hibernate, and spends this time in relative isolation as her crew sleep through the trip.
The book follows a tried and tested method for maintaining dramatic tension: raising the stakes in each successive act.
What starts out as an escape from an unexpected attack evolves into a galactic race for supremacy, with the question hanging in the balance: what if the xeno, as the alien technology is referred to, is the only thing that can tip the balance?
The battles rage on three levels throughout the book.
On the one hand we have the obvious cosmic battle between different factions, as they fight each other using weapons drawn from extrapolated technology, all of which is creative, but not all of which I found understandable. The second level is interpersonal, as eccentric characters seek to find ways to work together. The third is the internal conflict in Kira as she seeks to understand what the alien technology wants, how to work with it, and where she ends and it begins.
The interpersonal conflict sometimes seems a little jarring. It’s not unfair to ask yourself, “who cares”, when someone’s affection is rebuffed, or someone’s difficult to get along with, when there’s also a fight for the survival of the species in the immediate foreground. Worrying about your new friendships, or even your distant family, can seem like self-indulgence in our heroes when the fate of every human being hangs in the balance. Paolini tackles this almost impossible juxtaposition well, by steering clear of self-pity and expressing the emotions through action rather than exposition as much as possible, although there’s no erasing it entirely and I did find it occasionally annoyingly self-indulgent..
A Space Opera Writer in the Making
For a first science fiction book, this is a very strong effort. It’s head and shoulders above the average author’s first-time book in the genre, and at 800-900 pages it cannot be mistaken for a lightweight piece of work.
While Paolini no doubt has a way to go before he reaches the introspective heights of Neal Stephenson, Iain M Banks or Kim Stanley Robinson, this book represents a step in that direction, and we can, most likely, look forward to ever greater things from him in the future.
That said, there are a number of weaknesses that, if you’re transferring from the likes of Banks or Stephenson, will be noticeable to you. The romantic subplot is weak (almost there out of obligation, since it does nothing to drive the story). The aliens are not clearly drawn, almost cartoonish, and stretch believability to its limits, for a number of reasons. The story’s momentum is driven by an externally-imposed need to get from A to B again and again, with a fight at each destination, creating a sense of repetition. The book could have been shorter without loss of story or eliminating any events.
Finally, and trying to give nothing away, the circle repeatedly drawn between the genesis of the threat and the protagonist, in my view, weakens the story rather than strengthening it. There are too many occasions in the book where our heroine wallows in guilt and self-doubt. It also serves to dramatically reduce the scope of the book, by turning what could have been a vast and open universe into a story that actually spans only a few events over a period of a year, including all causes and effects.
Paolini’s excellent reviews and Goodreads accolades are deserved; the book is good, and an enjoyable (if slightly endurance-building) read. With more practice will come stronger world-building and characterization, I look forward to his future work.