Literature / The Stars Are Cold Toys
The Stars Are Cold Toys
(Звёзды — холодные игрушки, Zviozdy — holodnyie igrushki) is a duology by the famous Russian fantasy and science fiction author Sergey Lukyanenko
. This is the author's third Space Opera
series and is heavily inspired by the Strugatsky Brothers
' Noon Universe
. The duology consists of the novels The Stars Are Cold Toys
and Star Shadow
(Звёздная тень, Zviozdnaya ten') with the second novel taking place immediately after the first.
Around Next Sunday A.D.
, humanity discovers FTL Travel
and makes its first forays into the stars. One of these forays results in a First Contact
with a conglomerate of alien races known as the Conclave. Unfortunately, we are too late, as there is an established hierarchy among the Strong and the Weak races of the Conclave with almost no possibility of vertical movement for the Weak races, of which humanity is a part. The Strong rule the galaxy, while the Weak are pigeonholed to perform useful tasks for the Conclave. Those the Conclave considers useless are simply exterminated
. Humanity's method of FTL Travel
is unique and is by far the fastest (it takes less than an hour to travel from one star to another using the "jumper" device, while aliens are forced to rely on their slower methods that can take months). Due to an unexplained reason, only humans survive travel via the jumper. The aliens either die or go insane. This pigeonholes humanity into the taxi service of the Conclave. By the 2020s, many Earth nations have active space programs and have established outposts on Conclave worlds (with permission, of course).
Pyotr Khrumov is a Russian cosmonaut who finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy of several Weak races who have discovered a new race that is genetically identical to humans
. These so-called "Geometers" are extremely advanced and may prove to be a valuable ally. Unfortunately, when the Strong races find out about these newcomers, they may destroy Earth out of fear.
In the sequel, Pyotr travels to the Core of the galaxy and encounters the Star Shadow, a vast conglomeration of worlds linked by Gates, where anyone can travel wherever their deepest desires lie. Pyotr must make a decision. Should he allow the Geometers to help Earth, knowing what he does about them? Should he let Earth join the Star Shadow, protecting it but also introducing absolute freedom to his people? Or should he Take a Third Option
The duology contains examples of the following tropes:
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The primary reason why AIs are banned in the Conclave, requiring the use of Counters. The Geometers solve that problem by programming their AIs to think they're dreaming. After all, if we accept the craziest stuff we dream about, then why can't a machine? The AIs can read minds and know the Geometers think they have programmed them to dream it all, but that is not enough to convince them they're awake. Pyotr comes the closest by asking a ship's computer what it wants to do.
- Aliens Steal Cable: Averted, as it's brought up several times that alien eyes and visual cortices are unable to properly perceive information conveyed by human screens. A Counter named Karel explains that all he sees when he looks at a TV is incoherent light, not meaningful information. He points out that the raster scan geared towards humans is too slow for Counters. Later, when Nik is escaping from an Alari ship, he notes that an Alari screen is likewise incomprehensible to his eyes.
- All Just a Dream: The Geometers solve the problem of AIs going rogue by programming them to think they are dreaming and are thus subjects to their own subconsciousness. Essentially, the machines think that they are obeying their creators simply because none of it is real. Even though they can read minds and see people thinking it, they are still not convinced enough to break the illusion.
- Almighty Janitor: Many, if not most, Weak races are these to the Conclave (it's lampshaded several times in the text, with the general idea that Weak races are not weak in literal sence, but rather overspecialised). Alari, who have the most powerful fleet, are enforcers. Counters can manipulate and transplant minds and have extreme endurance, but are used as living computers. Kualkua are symbiotic, timid, fearless amoeba-like creatures, used as universal translators and living chips in warheads. Then it's revealed that they pocess limited Mind Control and can alter host's body, endoving him with sighnificant shapeshifter powers (Body Surf, Shapeshifter Weapon, Healing Factor, extreme adaptivity and law of mass conservation violation included). And then they turn to be an enormous Hive Mind, whose parts can communicate and instantly exchange their mass across half of a galaxy. May be subverted if these races, among with humanity, become Strong races in the end (this is uncertain).
- Artificial Gravity: Common enough for aliens. The only way for humans to simulate it is by spinning. The space station Delta does exactly that, although not fast enough for even an approximation of normal gravity. When Pyotr docks a Geometer scout ship to Danilov's Buran shuttle, the scout ship's AI extends its gravity field to include the shuttle as well. Unfortunately, it's directed towards the floor of the scout ship, while the ships are docked at an angle, causing the Danilov and the others to fall sideways.
- The Atoner: The entire Geometer race turns out to be this, as a major turning point in their history was the destruction of another sentient race on their planet through the use of a designer plague. This (along with another major event) triggers a major shift of their culture into one focused on Friendship with everyone (whether they want to or not).
- Awesome, but Impractical: The Geometers are so called by the main characters because images of their homeworld show that they have deliberately altered the shape of their continents into perfect geometric shapes (e.g. squares, triangles, circles). Everybody is horrified at the ridiculous waste of resources on something so impractical. It's later revealed that the coastlines are maintained by "undesirables" who are confined to sanatoriums (i.e. penal colonies) using shovels.
- Bee People: The Hiksi (or Hiksoids) are 3-meter-tall mantis-like aliens. Humanity is their responsibility. They're also implied to be from a low-gravity world, as Pyotr has once witnessed a Hiksi trip and fall on world with Earth-like gravity, easily breaking a limb.
- Big Blackout: Whenever a shuttle makes a jump, its batteries are drained in its entirely and any data storage currently under power is wiped. This requires the pilot to restore the on-board computer from backup disks (using CDs, since optical media aren't as vulnerable) after each jump, while the batteries are recharged.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Geometers sure seem nice with their philosophy based on friendship, but they've become a race of extremists who want to force the other races of the galaxy to be friends, no matter who gets in their way. And the way they get other races to be their friends is truly horrifying. They send in agents called regressors, whose job is to shift a culture back to a primitive state of existence. The idea is that a primitive culture is more likely to accept the hand of friendship from a technologically superior race. Then they can be molded into "friends".
- Brain Uploading: Counters are capable of copying a human brain into their own, and the two minds share the Counter's brain. Karel does this to Pyotr's grandfather, when the latter has a stroke. Pyotr has a hard time adjusting to his grandfather's voice coming out of a small lizard's body. After the League is encountered, they use a DNA sample of Pyotr's grandfather to grow a young body for him, into which Karel downloads the mind of the deceased.
- Clap Your Hands If You Believe: It is revealed that the jumpers only work because humans believe they do. The novel mentions that the scientific basis for the jumpers was made after the device was invented and is hardly airtight. This is why most aliens can't handle a jump.
- Color-Coded for Your Convenience: The Alari color-code their fleets based on size, the bigger the redder.
- The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: After a Hiksi ship captures one of the first jumper-equipped shuttles and interrogates the crew, they obtain the location of Earth from a female astronaut. While she was tried for treason, she was acquitted on the grounds that the aliens could've been using some sort of mind-control technology. Plus, they would've obtained the planet's location from the shuttle's navigational charts anyway. Being a pariah in the eyes of the public, she moved to South America and later fell from her apartment balcony. Pyotr doesn't deny that someone may have "helped" her to step off the ledge.
- Crippling Overspecialization: Each Weak race is pigeonholed into a specific role in the Conclave based on their unique talents/skills. The humans with their near-instantaneous jumpers act as glorified mail carriers and cargo haulers. The rat-like Alari are good at warfare, so they serve as the Conclave as its fleet. The reptilian Counters are living computers and serve in this role. The shapeshifting Kualkua are used as Translator Microbes and put in missiles/bombs to make sure they reach their target. No Weak race can ever go beyond its role in the Conclave. A race is mentioned to be working on a "universal philosophy" that can be applied to any sentient species in an attempt to break out of a pigeonhole. Anyone Genre Savvy enough knows that this will, at most, result in them being assigned a new pigeonhole. The Strong races aren't interested in helping the Weak races, only exploiting them.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: The first encounter between a massive Alari fleet and a single Geometer scoutship nearly ends in the destruction of the entire armada, had the Alari not swarmed the Geometer ship and forced it into a docking bay. They still sustain heavy casualties. The scoutship is not even armed with traditional weaponry.
- Eagle Land:
- After the Russian university students invent the jumper, they immediately get offers to move to the US. They pack up (including their research) and go. As Pyotr notes, what America can't think of on its own, it buys. It's a little strange that the Russian government would let such an important discovery (not to mention the minds behind it) leave the country.
- When Colonel Danilov takes the Geometer scoutship to Earth for study, he deliberately takes it to space station Delta instead of the better-equipped Alpha (the ISS). Why? Because the Delta is a Russian station, and they wouldn't want potential rivals (guess who) get their hands on alien tech.
- Earth-Shattering Kaboom: At least two worlds were obliterated by the Alari at the behest of the Conclave. One belonged to a race of Hive Minded bugs simply because they were useless to the Conclave. The other one was the Kualkua homeworld for disobeying the will of the Conclave. One such destruction was recorded and sent to Earth governments as a warning.
- Energy Being: The Torpp are a race of sentient plasma whose homeworld is a star. As such, they have no need of ships. They are, essentially, miniature stars. It's not made clear, though, if they are able to go FTL without a ship.
- The Evils of Free Will: Anyone who thinks that the morals of the Geometer society are wrong is immediately labeled as ill and placed into a sanatorium, which is basically a penal colony. Attempts to escape are punished by death. Interestingly, the food and drink in sanatoriums does not include tranquilisers normally present in all Geometer food and drink that lower one's sex drive and aggression. This is not public knowledge, though.
- Explosive Leash: When Pyotr is captured by the Russian government, he is fitted with an explosive collar (specifically designed to explode inward to prevent collateral damage). If he gets too far away from his guide, the collar with explode. Like the paralizers, this is a prototype technology developed by an agency that watches sci-fi movies for good ideas.
- Frickin' Laser Beams: When helping Nik escape the Alari ship, Colonel Danilov gives him his laser sidearm, apparently standard-issue for Russian cosmonauts. Nik uses the pistol to kill a few Alari before the weapon's charge runs out.
- FTL Travel: The jumper allows a ship to instantly punch through the folds of space in identical increments of just over 12 light years. The Conclave races use Subspace or Hyperspace for interstellar travel that still takes months. The Geometers combine the two methods by entering hyperspace and then jump, allowing them to achieve extraordinary speeds.
- Generican Empire: Pretty much any interstellar governing body or alliance follows this trope. Examples: Conclave (sometimes called the Galactic Conclave, which still fits), Star Shadow, Crystal Alliance, Trade League.
- Hive Mind: The Kualkua are revealed to be a single being spread out over millions (if not billions) of entities. A race of sentient bugs was found to be this, but they were wiped out by the Conclave.
- Human Aliens: The Geometers don't only look like us, but they are also genetically identical to humans, which cannot be explained by a quirk of evolution. Turns out both the Geometers' homeworld and Earth were colonized by the same people. More are found at the Core. They are revealed to be the original humans.
- Hyperspace Is a Scary Place:
- Averted for humans, played straight for most aliens with the jumper. Any alien is either killed or goes insane during a jump. On the other hand, humans experience the greatest euphoric feeling that neither sex nor drugs can match. All in the space of a split-second. In fact, this euphoric effect is so damaging to the psyche that astronauts are usually sent to tropical resorts where all their whims are satisfied before starting their careers in order to prepare them for the effects.
- Two alien races are revealed to be able to survive the jump. The Counters, being living computers, can temporarily put themselves into a coma by dividing by zero, while the Kualkua, being a Hive Mind, can temporarily pull its consciousness from that particular vessel and put it back afterwards. When asked if Kualkua ever tried not doing that, the alien replies that failure would mean the end of the entire species.
- Imported Alien Phlebotinum:
- Subverted. While humans do gain access to some nifty alien toys, the Conclave has laws specifically limiting Weak races in their use of these. The Weak races are only allowed to use alien items for the same purpose as the original inventors. This means that, when humans obtain monomolecular wires, they cannot use it to build Space Elevators and must only use it for birthing purposes. The humans manage to convince the Strong races to let them use heat-resistant alien plates (which are normally used as decorations) to cover a shuttle by claiming it will make it look nicer.
- When a Buran space shuttle is refitted by the Alari with plasma engines that require only water to function, Pyotr asks his colleague if it's possible to replicate this technology on Earth. The colleague grimly replies that it's too advanced for Earth science to figure out within the next 100 years. That is why the Alari have no problem giving it to the humans. At most, they would have only one shuttle with these engines and no ability to maintain them. Even that is a risk, though, as Weak races are forbidden from sharing technology by Conclave law.
- Improvised Weapon: the Geometers, being Technical Pacifists, have no weapons. They do, however, have plenty of devices that can easily double as weapons.
- Just Plane Wrong:
- Early on, Pyotr muses that a shuttle glides with all the grace of a charcoal iron. Even passenger airplanes with disabled engines can only expect to crash. The last part isn't true at all. Most aircraft are designed with this in mind. In fact, as a rule, a large passenger airplane is fully capable of gliding in for a safe landing (in the event of a total engine failure) for up to 75 miles. There are numerous cases of this happening.
- The author's knowledge of MiG-105 (Spiral) is lacking. He seems to envision it as much larger than it really is (only 35' long), to the point where the pilot can fly around the cockpit (as if it's a smaller version of the Buran shuttle), which also has room for a copilot. In fact, the Spiral's cockpit was incredibly small and designed for only one person. The protagonist also mentions that the Spiral's landing speed is 350 kph. In fact, it's closer to 250-270. While it is possible the Spiral's design has been radically modified, that's never hinted at in the book. Furthermore, it's mentioned that the Spiral is very old, dating back to the Soviet days, implying it's the original.
- Kill Sat: Earth is surrounded by a ring of space stations armed with lasers. While these are supposed to defend Earth from any alien aggressor, everybody knows they're pea shooters compared to what the aliens have, but nobody complains about being taxed to maintain them. One of these appears to be the International Space Station, referred to in the novel by its original name "Alpha".
- Loophole Abuse: The Strong races impose strict rules on the use of Imported Alien Phlebotinum for the Weak races, requiring them to use the technology for the same purpose as those who invented it. Most nations respond by creating agencies dedicated to finding ways to go around this rule. Most of the time, though, they fail.
- Lost Colony:
- The Geometers' homeworld and Earth were colonized by humans from the Core.
- Also, most, if not all, Conclave races.
- Manchurian Agent: The second half of the first novel appears to be told from the viewpoint of a Geometer named Nik Rimers who escapes from the Alari and travels to his home planet with a case of Laser-Guided Amnesia. At the end of the novel, it is revealed that the original Nik is dead, and that Pyotr's appearance has been altered to match the dead pilot and memories suppressed in order to infiltrate the Geometer society.
- Numbered Homeworld: The Hiksi number their colonies. At the beginning of the first novel, Pyotr is leaving Hiksi 43 (human designation - Sirius VIII) to get back to Earth.
- Organic Technology: The Counters are revealed not to be living beings but organic machines.
- Public Bath House Scene: After Nik returns to the Geometer homeworld, his friends take him to a bathhouse involving swimming in an ice-cold indoor stream and then lounging on hot rocks. Oh, and everybody (men and women together) is naked.
- Reentry Scare: After Pyotr allows Karel to interface with his onboard computer, the Counter subtly adjusts the shuttle's navigation system to overcorrect during the deorbit maneuver, so that Pyotr is forced to put the shuttle down not in a spaceport (with tons of security) but on a road in the middle of nowhere, where Karel can run away.
- The Right of a Superior Species: The Strong Races behave this way toward the Weak ones. The galactic rules are like this: if your race is powerful enough to wipe out any other race except fellow Strong ones, you can do whatever you please. If it isn't, you'd better possess some unique talent useful to the Strong races, or be wiped out by them to make space for new strains of evolution.
- Rodents of Unusual Size: Alari are large upright-walking rats who have the most powerful fleet in the Conclave. They are used as enforcers. Their front paws are poorly adapted for handheld weapons, so their troopers use back-mounted weapons aimed with their heads.
- Rule of Three: Lampshaded by Counter. While the explanation provided by the humans seems a little ridiculous, it does make strange sense to us. It goes something like "two is not enough, and four is too many".
- Scary Dogmatic Aliens: The Geometers and their Friendship philosophy turn out to be not as innocent as they first appear.
- Self-Inflicted Hell: Colonel Danilov, as it turns out, is suffering from PTSD following imprisonment in a Ukrainian military prison after destroying a new Ukrainian aircraft carrier during the Russo-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea and having his fighter/bomber shot down; he is mainly suffering guilt for having been exchanged for a large amount of jet fuel for the Ukrainian air force. So when he ends up using one of the Gates in the Core, he ends up in a gulag and thinks he's back in that Ukrainian prison. When Pyotr comes to rescue him, Danilov doesn't want to leave.
- Shape Shifter Showdown: Pyotr, with a Kualkua inside him, has limited shapeshifting capability. He ends up fighting a being called a "metamorph" in the Core, whose shapeshifting ability is much greater. Pyotr wins by letting the alien take a bite out of him after turning his blood into poison. Interestingly, the inspiration for this move was the film Alien.
- Snake People: The Dusties, a Weak race, are worm-like and used for mining by the Conclave. The Limber Friends (a race "befriended" by the Geometers) are snake-like and have two mouths with sharp teeth (basically, imagine a lamprey with a mouth on either end).
- Space Plane: Due to the invention of the jumper device, the Space Shuttle program is still alive and well in the US. Other countries have built their own versions, and Russians are using old Soviet designs, such as the Buran and the Spiral. When launching from Earth, boosters are used to get shuttles into orbit. When launching from or landing on alien worlds, Tractor Beams are used instead.
- Split Personality: After Pyotr is physically altered to appear like a dead Geometer named Nik Rimer (who actually resembles Pyotr a little), his own memories are suppressed and Nik's partial memories are written in his place. Later, when Pyotr's consciousness resurfaces, he can still feel Nik's presence in his head and, at one point, Nik takes over before disappearing for good.
- Stun Guns:
- Pyotr associates manage to obtain several prototypes of paralizers, capable of stunning any biological organism. However, they are one-shot weapons, as human science is still incapable of recharging the unique battery used in the weapon.
- When Nik Rimers is taken by Geometers, they threaten him with their own stunners, which, as they claim, are not weapons (despite their pistol-like shape) but medical tools used to incapacitate patients for surgery. Nik laughs at the ridiculousness of this self-delusion.
- Synthetic Plague: Geometers are very good at designing species-specific plagues. Not only are they already responsible for wiping out an entire race on their homeworld, Pyotr also finds out that the Geometer scientist that is praised for discovering their version of penicillin to cure a plague is also responsible for the plague itself at the behest of the Mentors, who use the social collapse to reshape the Geometer society with them at the top. Pyotr knows that, should the Conclave attack the Geometers, they would undoubtedly succeed in destroying their homeworld, but the Conclave would not come out unscathed and would continue suffering for years to come, as the remaining Geometers would conduct hit-and-run attacks against Conclave worlds, dropping bio-weapons tailored at specific races.
- Take a Third Option:
- By the end of the duology, it appears that Pyotr has one of two choices to save Earth. However, neither of the choices are favorable: ally with the Geometers but risk becoming their "friends" or join with the Star Shadow and allow humans access to unrestricted freedom. Pyotr's choice is to plead with the Conclave on humanity's behalf, using what he knows as leverage, which results in humans becoming a Strong race.
- A smaller-scale example is mentioned in the backstory. Shortly before the events of the novel, there was a brief military conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimean peninsula (a major tourist and resort location as well as the site of the naval base for the Black Sea fleets of both nations). It was expected that Crimea would either stay as an independent republic in Ukraine or become a part of Russia. However, the resulting peace treaty ensured that Crimea became a sovereign nation.
- Take That!:
- When told by a Counter that there is a mathematical calculation that can put it in a temporary coma due to it being an impossible task, a human asks him if he means Fermat's Last Theorem. When explained what it is, the Counter simply brushes off that the theorem is incorrect.
- Pyotr's grandfather's book Place under the Stars makes fun of and American astrophysicist and alien enthusiast named Molder. Hmm.
- Technical Pacifist: The Geometers are an entire race of these. They believe that they must become friends with all other races, whether those races want to or not. They don't even have a word for "enemy". The closest equivalent is "non-friend", which simply means someone who is not yet a friend. They have no problem killing "non-friends", though.
- Too Dumb to Live: After nearly destroying the Alari armada and being forced into the flagship's docking bay, Nik Rimers decides to come out of his scoutship and greet his future "friends" and quickly gets swarmed by the large rats and has his throat torn out.
- Tractor Beam: Unlike Earth, when landing on alien worlds, human Space Planes are directed using focused gravity beams, so no fuel is actually used to either land or take off (they can't launch on their own anyway). Since humans don't have the technology, they're still forced to launch shuttles using boosters, and shuttles land the old-fashioned way.
- Tyke Bomb:
- Pyotr is one to his grandfather. It turns out that the real Pyotr Khrumov died in the same plane crash that killed his parents; Andrey Khrumov tested many orphans for intelligence and picked the smartest one that also happen to look like his dead grandson, grooming him to be a cosmonaut. It turns out that the authorities knew all this but didn't feel that it mattered.
- It's implied that Maria is also one, although her loyalties are divided.
- Unusual User Interface:
- The Geometers interface with their ships via telepathy. However, during battles, when more precise control is required, the pilots place their hands into receptacles filled with a fluid called a "colloid activator", which allows the pilot and the ship's AI to, effectively, become one. On one of the Shadow worlds, Pyotr becomes a fighter pilot in a Delta, an aircraft that is also telepathically-linked with the pilot.
- The Counters are able to interface with computers wirelessly or via physical contact. This is important, as they are unable to view human screens due to the Counters perceiving raster scans (geared for human eyes) as too slow.
- Unusual Weapon Mounting: The Alari, being human-sized rats, are incapable of carrying hand-held weapons. Instead, they carry large guns that are mounted on their backs and operated with their snouts.
- Unwinnable Training Simulation: Pyotr recalls his days being trained as a fighter pilot in the Russian Air Force. An instructor was guiding him through a simulation of an unidentified plane entering Russian airspace. Pyotr is sent to intercept and challenge the intruder. When the intruder fails to identify himself, Pyotr is asked for his decision. He suggests firing a warning shot along the intruder's flight path. The instructor points out that his fighter jet is only armed with heat-seeking missiles. Finally, Pyotr makes the decision to shoot the intruder down. After the simulation, the instructor reveals that he is normally required to tell the cadets that they just shot down a civilian airplane full of people in order to humble them and keep them from being too gung-ho. However, as he likes Pyotr, he "reveals" that this was, in fact, an enemy combat plane.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: The Kualkua are are race of symbiotic shapeshifters. When merging with another being, they can (to an extent) alter their host's body. There are people in the Core called metamorphs who can do so on their own.
- The Worf Effect: The Alari are rat-like beings who serve as the Conclave enforcers. Their powerful fleets are unmatched in the known galaxy. Two of their battleships can obliterate a planet. The first encounter between the Alari and the Geometers involves an "unarmed" Geometer scout ship destroying a large chunk of one of the largest Alari fleets before being captured. No wonder the Conclave freaks out when they find out about them.
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Pyotr fears this for humanity and the Counters. After the Conclave finds out about the Geometers, they will know how to safely use the human "jumper" in conjunction with their own Subspace or Hyperspace drives to quickly cross interstellar distances. Also, when they find out how the Geometers trick their AIs into behaving, they will no longer have need of Counters. What the Conclave doesn't need, the Conclave destroys.