Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, Christopher Paolini

Cover of "To Sleep in a Sea of Stars" by Christopher Paolini.

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.

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Cover of Stormblood

Review: Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

After the fumbling, fraught and frustrating exercise of launching my own book, I really wanted to immerse myself in someone else’s work.

To find something to read, I did what I often do and turned to the Guardian Newspaper’s ‘Best Recent Science Fiction’ column. Flicking through the various months, I came upon Stormblood by Jeremy Szal.

I didn’t want anything too cerebral, and I wanted something with a bit of pace. I got what I asked for, but perhaps misjudged slightly what I actually wanted.

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How To Find Good Science Fiction To Read

There’s so much stuff getting published these days that it can be a challenge to identify good fiction from bad.

In fact, quite a few years ago when I was reading fantasy and science fiction in my own time, I remember even then, when we weren’t downloading it from Amazon, that the ratio of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ science fiction was woeful.

Partly that was my fault. I assumed that if a book was published, then it had to be good. After all, it costs so much time and money to publish it would be folly to publish something bad. If it’s cover was on display in a bookshop, then it must be among the best because of the real estate it takes up.

Now I know a few things I didn’t back then:

  • Publishers buy manuscripts before they’re written, so they haven’t seen the end result before they’ve committed to paying for it any more than you have.
  • Publishers aren’t that good at choosing great literature anyway. They get it right more often than the Amazon algorithm, but that’s because they’re harder to manipulate, not because they’ve got mystical abilities to choose good writers.
  • The book that has pride of place in the bookshop has often paid to be there. At least online portals are required to indicate that the presence of a book at the top of your page is a paid promotion.

At least that explains some of the truly awful stuff I read when I started into the genre, and almost put me off for good.

Then I ran into a few people who course-corrected for me and sent me in a couple of new directions.

If you’re looking at science fiction and wondering why people read this stuff, then perhaps I can do the same for you. Here is my take on why you ought to give the genre a try, and how to get a good panoramic view of what it has to offer.

None of the rules of writing change in this genre

Good stories have well-rounded characters facing big challenges that they overcome in creative ways. They face challenges that alter the way they see the world and therefore change who they are. They are set in a world that is internally consistent with rules you instinctively, intuitively understand, even if the rules seem strange from the outside.

Just because you’re in the science fiction genre doesn’t mean a good book doesn’t need good characters, internal consistency and a dramatic premise. If you come across a bad science fiction book, remember this: it’s probably bad for the same reason some non-science fiction books are bad. It’s not bad because it’s science fiction.

The search for good books to read exists everywhere.

There are different subgenres, some of which may not be for you

If you read a book that’s narrowly-focused military science fiction, you’ll most likely read a lot about military battles, deployments of fleets and the characters of the marines or officers that are in command of these ships or part of their crew.

You might hate that.

If you hate that, you’ll probably also hate the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, because it’s exactly the same thing only set on earth in our not-too-distant past when we relied on sails and conscripted seamen to get large ships around. Nobody in their right mind (at least in my opinion) is going to claim that the Aubrey-Maturin series (all 19 books of it) is bad. That’s because it’s exceptional.

But it might not be for you.

Check what a book is about before you choose to read it. Science fiction is not what a book is about, any more than The Three Musketeers is about French history.

Ask people who know

While you may not know the people who know, it only really takes a couple of links to get to authors you like who will recommend (or whose readers will recommend) other things to read.

Of course, don’t get stuck in an echo chamber of similar stuff.

A good place to start for some recommendations that aren’t from me is the Science Fiction Roundup by the Guardian. Every so often they publish a list of the best new science fiction. I don’t agree with all of their recommendations, but a lot of the authors I enjoy reading today I discovered there.

There are some great authors that you should read at least once to see what’s available

Here’s a suggested list of science fiction authors that you might like to try, and the reason for each.

DISCLAIMER: This is by no means a list of the best, nor is it a comprehensive list of the good. It’s a suggested panorama of undeniably good authors whose work provides a safe and high-quality entry point into the genre. If I were to write this article again tomorrow, half the names and suggestions would change.

Isaac Asimov. Because it’s hard to pretend to have read any science fiction if you haven’t at least read Foundation. He’s the father of the debate around AI and its interaction with its human creators.

Larry Niven. Mainly because of Ringworld, which remains one of the great leaps of the imagination in the genre. Once you’ve visualised the Ringworld in your mind, it’s something you can’t unsee.

Iain M. Banks. An author whose worldbuilding is beyond compare. Iain M. Banks invented the post-scarcity society ‘The Culture’. If you can have anything you want, then what motivates individuals to act? Then he asked what would threaten such a powerful society and what challenges would it face, internally and externally. In answering that question he wrote some of the most satisfying science fiction out there. If you want to start where I started, read The Player of Games, but if you want to start with the book everyone talks about, read Consider Phlebas.

Alastair Reynolds is one of my favourite authors for hard science fiction. By this I mean science fiction with a strong emphasis towards not bending, breaking or ignoring the rules of physics. I think of his books as ‘crunchy’ and I enjoy them very much. Revelation Space is space opera with enough worldbuilding to keep you busy pondering it for weeks after you’ve finished reading it. Don’t stop there though, Reynolds is prolific and I’ve recently rediscovered him myself.

Alex Lamb is a more recent author. I really enjoyed his debut novel, Roboteer, published in 2015. I’m putting it here because it’s a very different vision than the other suggestions. The setting is conflict between Mars and Earth, and the technologies that make space travel possible. I also reviewed it when I read it, and you can read the review here.

Cixin Liu is a Chinese author, and his work has been widely translated into English. If you ever saw the film The Wandering Earth, then you should know that the story came from him. The work has a distinct flavour to it that comes from its foreign roots, which I consider a great asset. I suspect there is a lot of excellent science fiction being written in China and we in the west are deprived of access to most of it. I would suggest, just to pick something suitably different, The Three Body Problem.

Neal Stephenson is one of my favourite writers, and it’s extremely hard to pick what to suggest from his work because it’s all just so excellent. I’m going to cheat and suggest several novels because I can’t choose between them. The first, Seveneves, is a spectacular story spanning centuries that begins in the present day, with the destruction of the moon. The second, Anathem, tells the adventures of a monastic scholar on a world called Arbre, where knowledge is kept behind walls to protect if from the saecular world. Finally, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer; yet another fast-paced world-building epic with a strong message about the social ladder and how it works.

Ann Leckie exploded onto the science fiction landscape in 2013 with Ancillary Justice. Original and exciting, sometimes poignant, Ancillary Justice is about a synthetic person that is an extension of a ship AI, and how they must adapt to no longer being part of a collective larger identity while dealing with the larger circumstances of how the ship she was a part of was destroyed.

There is a ton of excellent science fiction

Literally more than you could ever read.

I’ve named mostly big names here, because Asimov, Stephenson and Banks are giants in the genre, but that’s not to say you have to stay in that particular garden. I just think it’s a good set of signposts to start with.

I’ve not named any military science fiction, although there’s plenty of that (for some fun, pulpy military science fiction you could try Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, starting with Dauntless. In a similar vein, you could try the excellent Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Also by John Scalzi, if you’re looking for something a bit (very?) different, and you’ve some experience with the Star Trek TV series, you might enjoy Redshirts.

I could literally type all day and not run out of suggestions.

I was about to say I’ll stop there, but then it struck me that I haven’t mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s fantastic novel, 2312. So… guilt.

Feel free to add your recommendations below. I’m always keen to discover quality writing, and the genre isn’t as well signposted as people think it is.

Happy reading!

Re-Read: Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

I’m an Alastair Reynolds fan.

Not ashamed to admit it, he writes crunchy science fiction that sits well with my critical mind. You know – the bit that competes with your enjoyment of a novel by whispering, “that’s not very realistic, is it?” in the back of your mind.

I’m not a very good fan though.

I found his books by accident, trawling the shelves of a local bookstore many years a in search of good science fiction, something which can be very hard to come by when you don’t know the genre well.

In the intervening years, I’ve read Reynolds intermittently, chancing upon one novel or another, and getting that spark of author recognition when I saw his name. I’ve enjoyed every single one, to a greater or lesser degree.

I recharged my kindle for the first time in about two years when the coronavirus-related confinement limited my entertainment options, and while flicking through books I’ve read and know well, I chanced upon Revenger. I remembered the title, recognized Alastair Reynolds’ name on the cover, which seemed familiar.

But I couldn’t remember anything about it.

Brilliant! A second run at a novel I’ve already bought, courtesy of a faulty transfer from short- to long-term memory.

The downside of reading a book you already know is that you read it much faster than the first time around, as your memory starts to fill in ever larger bits of the story for you. The upside is you get to rediscover work you enjoyed enough not to delete, which in my case is a sure measure of quality. I’m not short of memory on my kindle, but I’m still picky about what gets to fester there.

After I finished, I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Revenger and found that it’s referred to as “hard” science fiction. That I have to object to. Although much of Reynolds’ oeuvre is hard science fiction, this isn’t. The “glowy”, the “ghosty” and the “quoins” are anything but, and they’re central to the story. That said, his departure from the strict confines of hard science fiction poses no problem for me.

Fura Ness, as a protagonist, gets most of her character development out of the way in the first third of the book, and spends the rest of it coming to terms with the person she’s developed into. The world-building is, while not on a par with Seveneves, absolutely top notch. Reynolds’ willingness to kill off significant characters keeps you on your toes, but he doesn’t forego the character development of each of his victims for all that, which gives you the shock that a death in a novel ought to.

Finally, the moral complexity the book hints at is refreshing (at least to me), in a context where the real world seems ever more defined in absolutes. Even the protagonist and the anatgonist have, as we finally discover, a side to them that mitigates the obvious judgement their behaviour draws. It’s possible, in fact, that the most evil characters are on the periphery of the story, looking in.

I’d forgotten about Revenger, and I really enjoyed rediscovering it. I also discovered that there are two sequels, which I will now have to read, and other books by Reynolds that had passed unnoticed, and which will find their way onto a list that informs future reading decisions.

Coronavirus Workplace Upgrade

The impact of coronavirus on my personal situation comes with a particular silver lining.

Unable to go to the office to work, I worked from home in London for a while. After a while, that was unmanageable and a solution needed to be found. The solution I came up with was to relocate the family to the countryside until this blows over.

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Classic Revisited: A Wizard of Earthsea

I wrote back in January that I felt Ursula Le Guin’s passing was a great loss for both the art of writing and for SFF in particular. I was driven at the time by my memories of reading A Wizard of Earthsea, one of the first fantasy books I ever held in my hands. You know, back when paper was a thing.

Since I wrote that, I’ve thought back occasionally to the story itself, only to realise that I don’t remember it all that well.

Passing through an airport last week I came across a collection of the first four Earthsea books and it felt a little too much like divine providence to ignore. I ploughed through A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan over the next couple of flights, and rediscovered the work.

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How To Make A Spaceship, by Julian Guthrie

This is not a science fiction book, it’s science fact.

It’s the story of how one man hacked human motivation to create incentives for other people to achieve something he thought was very important. A biography of sorts, it tracks the meandering path followed by one man in an attempt to wrest spacefilght from the clutches of the public sector by inspiring private organizations and individuals to pick up the baton and run with it. Read More

The Iron Tactician, by Alastair Reynolds

This is a bite-sized novella based upon the same characters as the excellent short story, “Merlin’s Gun”.

When I say “Bite Sized”, I mean, “I read this in the first 45 minutes of my flight to Miami.”

It’s not long.

Merlin is a rogue element escaped from a civilization, “The Cohort”, which is under existential threat by an aggressor known as the “Huskers”. They pursue pretty much any and all life in the galaxy and extinguish it, for reasons that have never been made clear.

The Cohort have taken to a fairly nomadic lifestyle in vast vessels called Swallowships to evade and combat the Huskers, and they have been losing a war of attrition over a very, very long time. By that I mean the kind of “long time” that only becomes possible when you start thinking in terms of relativistic time and long-distance space travel.

Merlin ran off, as was described in “Merlin’s Gun”, on a personally-appointed quest to find a weapon of vast power, which could tip the tide of war in favour of the Cohort, after endless engagements lost to the Huskers and centuries of running for their lives.

His quest is so spread out over time and space that Alastair Reynolds has built himself an endless story machine, not too unlike the Stargate franchise where you never really know what lies behind the next wormhole.

The fact that this is only the second story in the franchise demonstrates remarkable restraint, if you ask me.

Upon discovering a long-dead swallowship, Merlin finds out from their records that they traded a Syrinx (the alien artefact that allows him to travel an ancient high-speed galactic highway) a few thousand years ago in a nearby star system. Since his Syrinx has been damaged and his quest depends upon his ability to use the Ways, for which the Syrinx is essential, he goes in search of this rare and essential replacement, only to find himself embroiled in a local war between different planets in the same star system.

The story is well tied together, and Reynolds’ prose is tight, clear and well-edited as ever. The read is fun and satisfying. Don’t expect too much of a novella, there’s only so much space for character development. Also, it feels ever so slightly expensive for a meal consumed so rapidly. It is, however, a very good addition to the Husker/Cohort universe and to Merlin’s story and I’m glad to have read it, even if I still had to watch two movies and write 3 blog posts to get through the rest of the flight.

The Burning Page, by Genevieve Cogman

I find I’ve grown into Cogman’s novels set in parallel worlds connected through her great Library. Her confidence and comfort writing in this world that she’s created also seems to have reached new levels with this latest instalment, which also benefits from not needing to introduce the characters, since we know them from the previous novel.

Despite her heroism in saving the day in the previous novel, Irene the librarian is on probation for breaking quite so many rules in the process. She is therefore given sub-par assignments that are riskier than usual, but she seems to be taking it in stride. Meanwhile, the Library, eternal and unmovable and outside of space and time, is under attack. Quite how this is being achieved is not understood, but old enemies rapidly appear in central roles and a conspiracy begins to appear on the stage.

Our heroine, relegated to the sidelines by her superiors, finds herself rapidly drawn back to the center of current events, due in large part to a pre-existing relationship with the malefactor-in-chief. As she tries to play by the rules of the library, while nevertheless using her connection to the enemy to draw him out and foil (or at least understand) his plans, she comes to realise that she is not the only one preparing traps and moving chess-pieces on the board, and that everyone is not always what they seem.

The adventure is fun and the world and its rules are entertaining, but it is the characters that make the novel. It’s not that they’re drawn with incredible depth, in fact its rather the opposite, with Vale, Irene, Kai and almost every other character playing almost entirely to their stereotypes. With these simple notes, however, Cogman composes a highly entertaining score, and the pages turn easily as the story develops and the characters play their expected parts to perfection.

The founding premise of the series, of parallel worlds each on a spectrum between orderly or chaotic, allows Cogman immense freedom to invent universes inspired by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, with a shot of steampunk and the occasional flying sleigh or talking bear. The implausible becomes plausible when things like magic, sorcery and impossible technologies are justified as manifestations of chaos that grows and fades as opposing forces of the fae and dragons bring their influence to bear on each world. More than in the previous novels, it becomes apparent that one cannot exist without the other, and that chaos and order do not correlate nicely with “wrong” and “right”, and perhaps this will be further developed in future novels that are sure to come.

The Gilded Cage, by Vic James

The Gilded Cage is a new novel by Vic James, and the first part of a new trilogy, and a very promising beginning to a new world of stories.

A revisionist take on history tells us of a world divided between the skilled, known as Equals, and everyone else. Those born without hereditary Skill are bound by law to serve ten years of their lives in service to the skilled, and these ten years are known as the slavedays. This metaphor for empowered nobility versus serfdom is the foundation upon which the story rests, and from which a more intricate tapestry is woven.

While the individual characters remain drawn in shades of fairly strict moral and ethical black and white, the pieces are mingled. Some slaves are quite nasty individuals and some Equals are strong moral characters. Of course, most of the pieces still land on the expected side of the chessboard but there’s enough ambiguity to keep things interesting.

The story is then told from the point of view of a family of five about to begin their slavedays. Trying to get it over with early on in their lives, the group manage, thanks to an enterprising elder sibling, to get assigned to an important family of Equals, thus dodging the unpleasantness of Millmoor, the slavetown on the outskirts of Manchester, where they live.

From here we are drawn into the politics and conflicts of an England more polarized by class than even your most staunch and radical socialist could have imagined, with individuals entitled by birthright dominating the rest of society in a way reality hasn’t seen since the Middle Ages.

But the politics are modern, and the intrigue is simple enough to understand without lessons in the politics of this alternate reality.

Vic James draws you into her world and its intrigues with skill and strong prose, and the result is amply rewarding.

My only regret is that by the end of the novel, despite the ordeals of the major characters and the events that have unfolded, nothing much has changed. A few unanswered questions and open threads lead clearly into the next novel, which I will no doubt anticipate with bated breath, but as far as this first novel is concerned, the characters have evolved, but their environment has not. A few Equals have had their political intrigue, but from the point of view of a commoner, the world remains much the same, and I was really hoping for a cliffhanger of epic proportions, rather than the very personal story that will form the beginning to the next novel.

For sure, their situation of our heroes is both complex and dire, but if we accept the founding premise of the book that the Equals have real power, rather than just some inherited noble title, then it will take events of much greater import than we have seen so far to change the structure of this world for the better. A hint at what those might be, rather than the vague shadows of possibility we have glimpsed, would have been welcome.