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To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars by Christopher Paolini (book review).

November 10, 2020 | By | Reply More

Humanity has reached the stars. Across nine star systems only one alien artefact has been found and that remains a complete mystery. The dream of finding intelligent alien life drove Kira Navárez to become a xenobiologist. She has spent years, both in real time and cryo-sleep, travelling through space assessing planets for colonisation. They were almost done on Adrasteia, an Earth-sized moon devoid of life and therefore ripe for terraforming, when a drone detects organic material.

Trace amounts, but it has to be checked. Reluctantly, Kira investigates and finds a cave that is suspiciously smooth and symmetrical. Kira is too well versed in the protocols for finding possibly alien artefacts to touch anything but she can’t resist blowing dust from a strange carving. The dust that swarms over her until everything goes black.

When she wakes up in sick bay, Kira finds her body encased in a black substance that defies all tests and removal. Instead of studying alien life, Kira finds herself being studied that becomes a matter of life or death when they are attacked by what can only be an alien ship. Understanding what she has found might be the only way to save everything.

Many readers will remember the name Christopher Paolini from his ‘Eragon’ series published all the way back in 2002 when he was just a teenager. I dimly recall reading ‘Eragon’ and there being a dragon in it. The book didn’t make much of an impression. 18 years later, ‘To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars’ has left an impression. A good one.

‘To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars’ is not particularly original. Those who have read other space opera and Science Fiction will recognise the tropes in play. Find an alien artefact? You get infected. From there, it’s a short trip to unfeeling government labs and aliens trying to get their artefact back or is it theirs at all? Only with the help of a rag-tag bunch of spacers in their rusty bucket of bolts that’s got it where it counts will help her and perhaps end up saving life as we know it.

Tropes, however, exist for a reason, they’re appealing. It’s what an author does within those cosy familiar bounds that make a story worth reading. Paolini has taken these well-known SF tropes and woven them into something highly engaging. Within the framework of the familiar, Paolini has built an entire universe to explore, which presumably he will, given this novel is prefaced with ‘a Fractalverse novel’.

Humans are sharing this ‘Fractalverse’ with the Wranaui, what humans call Jellies, and the Vanished Ones or the Old Ones, an ancient alien race that has left behind technology far beyond that of humans. The Wranaui only achieved technological advancement by reverse engineering what the Vanished Ones left on their home planet. The Wranaui use artificial bodies which take several forms, many of which are tentacled or crab-clawed due to their natural aquatic environment. As they can replace their bodies easily, individual safety is not a priority and provided their genetic base form remains intact new physical forms can be built, rendering them essentially immortal.

With the interactions between these races being a key element of the conflict, I found some things a trifle to easy. The language barrier in particular was too easily overcome. While it makes sense that Kira, with her strange alien suit, could learn and speak the scent based language of the Jellies, I find it highly doubtful that a human with no olfactory augmentations could learn it within months. I do acknowledge that someone trapped and alone with only Jellies for conversation would be highly motivated and, if it were any sort of sound-based language I wouldn’t have any doubts. A scent-based language would require the human to be able to emit and identify specific odours which we can’t. It’s why tracking dogs and truffle pigs exist. You might get a sense of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ or perhaps ‘danger’ but actual back and forth conversation about complex technological, social and historical details?

No, I don’t think so. This narrative leap does free Kira from being bogged down with translation services and even more distrust as the only person who can talk to the attacking forces, so she can go off and save the world. Given the technology use in the Fractalverse, it would be less of a leap for an augmented human or AI to be designed for the purpose. Several novels have explored the issues of language between humans and aliens, in particular I’m thinking of China Mieville’s ‘Embassytown’ but even lighter novels such as Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Tower And Hive’ series has human children being raised alongside alien children to be translators. While making communication more difficult would have expanded this book to probably another book for me it would have set slightly better.

The size of this book reminds me of why I bought an e-reader. At nearly 3 inches thick and 880 pages it is a difficult book to carry around or even lift for long periods of time. As a paperback, it will likely be fatter but a more manageable size. If you plan to read this out and about, if that’s something you can do at the moment, I highly encourage the e-book edition.

This is a fun read with hijinks across a well thought out universe. ‘A Confusion Of Princes’ by Garth Nix follows a similarly space operatic idea with a single point of view. Fans of James S.A. Corey’s ‘Expanse’ series I think will enjoy this less politically complex novel. ‘To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars’ is a standalone novel but I do anticipate more from the Fractalverse given its excellent grounding here.

LR Richardson

November 2020

(pub: TOR, 2020. 880 page hardback. Price: $29.99 (US), £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-25076-284-9)

check out website: www.tor.com and www.paolini.net

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Category: Books, Scifi

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