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Literature / The Killing Star

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If a species develops space ships that can cross interstellar distances in less than a lifetime, its space ships can also be used as weapons of mass destruction. And if it encounters another species with an emerging civilization, it might figure that they could develop such weapons themselves — and decide to wipe out that civilization before it can get off the ground.

Such is the premise of The Killing Star, a hard science fiction novel written in 1995 by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski.

The first hint humanity gets that spacefaring aliens exist is the detection of gamma rays consistent with antimatter-powered engines. Our elation is short-lived, however. Almost immediately afterward, a fleet of "R-bombs" — spacecraft accelerated to 92% of the speed of light — slam into every inhabited planet in the Solar system, including Earth. The result is the near annihilation of the human species.

The rag-tag remnants of humanity must try to stay alive in a Solar system infested with aliens who are bent on our complete extermination.

This novel provides examples of:

  • After the End: The novel takes place in the aftermath of the aliens' attempt to wipe out humanity.
  • Aliens Are Bastards: It's hard to argue the fact after they launched an unprompted xenocide against humanity.
    • Discussed and Deconstructed among some of the survivors. When trying to apply logic to the aliens' motives, with all the speculation that SETI and Carl Sagan had done, they manage to boil it down to three rules concerning alien civilizations and conclude that their attack may have been an act of self-preservation, fearing that humanity would become a threat to them if left alone and allowed to advance. Turns out they're right.
    • They also put together, based on what they know, three rules that alien civilizations may operate by.
      1. THEIR SURVIVAL WILL BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN OUR SURVIVAL. If an alien species has to choose between them and us, they won't choose us. It is difficult to imagine a contrary case; species don't survive by being self-sacrificing.
      2. WIMPS DON'T BECOME TOP DOGS. No species makes it to the top by being passive. The species in charge of any given planet will be highly intelligent, alert, aggressive, and ruthless when necessary.
  • Aliens Speaking English: The aliens don't actually have the correct vocal apparatus to reproduce human sounds. But they do have a convenient translation device which was calibrated using the next trope on the list.
  • Aliens Steal Cable: It's how our attackers find out that our civilization exists — and why they considered us a threat. Old war movies made them conclude that we are violent. The high number of Rubber-Forehead Aliens in Star Trek: The Next Generation made them conclude that we were so xenophobic that we would never accept relations with anything that isn't humanoid.
  • Anyone Can Die: Considering that the story begins with the destruction of Earth and the majority of the human race, things still continue going downhill from that point.
  • Ape Shall Not Kill Ape: Another Discussed trope. Some 20th-century scientists had a debate over whether or not aliens would be peaceful or warlike, and compared it to how human beings have viewed their own. In the colonial era, violence and exploitation of darker-skinned people were justified on the grounds that they were less than human. Viewing others as lesser, different, or alien is how we become capable of acts of violence. Conversely, we have an intrinsic, growing desire to protect members of our own species, which is why murder is not the norm and why people protest the death penalty even for serial killers. Likewise, wolves don't kill members of their own packs, since they're all family. However, both wolves and humans have no reservations about killing other species, even intelligent ones like dolphins, so it doesn't follow that intelligence would automatically equal omnibenevolence.
  • Apocalypse How: The aliens cause a Class 4 event. In order to avoid capture, one group of humans causes a full-blown Class X-2.
  • Artificial Intelligence / A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The attackers are eventually found to be these. Originally built by a race of deep-sea octopus-like creatures, they took over some time ago and now keep the descendants of their builders as pets.
  • Author Appeal: Pellegrino and Zebrowski really enjoy talking about the Titanic in a work about aliens destroying humanity.
  • Author Avatar: The historical-in-universe character Richard Tuna is a thinly-disguised Charles Pellegrino, right down to his discussions with Jim Powell.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: A group of humans being chased through the Solar atmosphere conclude that they will eventually be captured. Rather than risk whatever horrible fate the aliens might have for them, they set off their huge stockpile of freeze bombs to destroy themselves, their pursuers, and a healthy chunk of the Sun.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Apparent in Justin and Joshua's argument about whether to lay low or strike back at the aliens.
  • Cassandra Truth: One of the survivors of the R-bombings digs up an email conversation between a group of scientists dating back to the 1980's, where they discuss the potential danger that aliens may present to human civilization. Their conclusions is that the universe may be a Cosmic Horror Story (see below). In response, they were derided, SETI's funding was cut and the matter was forgotten about. They were more right than they could ever have possibly known, and one of the survivors laments that maybe they could've had time to prepare if their contemporaries had only listened.
  • China Takes Over the World: Not exactly, but China was apparently the richest country and last democracy on Earth before the R-bombing.
  • Clone Angst: Interestingly, inverted. Clone Jesus and Buddha are quite accepting of the fact they are not the originals. It's the resurrectionist groups that cloned them who become sad (and eventually furious) when they realize they might not be their actual prophets.
  • Clone Jesus: And Clone Buddha! Made from, respectively, the Shroud of Turin and a tooth of the original Buddha by a doomsday cult, they and their other clone friends rebelled against the cult and went off to forge their own lives. Jesus and Buddha ultimately wind up in control of one of the last few surviving human settlements.
  • Clones Are People, Too: After The Plague, cloning became a regular part of future society.
  • Colonized Solar System: By 2076, humanity has spread across much of the solar system. There are outposts on the moon, Mars and its moons, Europa, Ganymede, and Miranda; Mercury has become a solar factory churning out antimatter fuel for humanity's Valkyrie rockets; and many asteroids and comets have been hollowed out and become worlds unto themselves. Unfortunately, most of them are wiped out by the initial R-bombing, leaving just a few scattered survivors.
  • Computer Virus: The aliens send one of these to our SETI listening dish. Even with the dish unplugged from the computer network, the virus still manages to reprogram it into a Killer Robot.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: The discussion between the 20th-century scientists from SETI suggests this may be the norm for life in the universe. No species can be sure of another's motives, but they will assume anyone who does manage to avoid self-destruction will be intelligent, aggressive, and ruthless in their goal to preserve their species. Therefore, the logical conclusion is to destroy any civilization they might come across to eliminate them as a possible threat. They compare the universe to being in Central Park late at night, when the criminals come out and you have no way of knowing who's dangerous and who isn't. Your best bets are to find a policeman, look for a way out, or hunker down and wait for daylight.
    "There are, of course, a few obvious differences between Central Park and the universe. There is no policeman. There is no way out. And the night never ends."
  • Crapsack World: During the late 90's, known as the "Plague Years," Earth had become this. Thanks to the accidental release of a resurrected prehistoric virus, all birds were wiped out, leading to a mass proliferation of insects that decimated crops. This caused widespread famine, worsened by the overfishing of the oceans, escalating into violence and unrest. A nuclear exchange took place between India and Pakistan, Turkey and Bosnia collapsed, China invaded Australia, and more than a few cities like Seoul and Ho Chi Minh City were wiped off the map. The Plague Years came to an end when the technology to clone birds was finally implemented, but humanity's numbers never recovered to what they were before.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The people at Ceres station are unable to save themselves, but they do have a very thorough plan to ensure if they die then they'll Fling a Light into the Future, and make it clear that Camp Unsafe Isn't Safe Anymore. Also those orbiting the sun preparing the nova bomb, and Justin having already built a computer to avoid Ceres‘ fate when he hears their last message.
  • Dated History: At one point, during the Titanic simulation, the narrator mentions that robot probes in the early 21st century confirmed the belief that officers aboard the ship had locked the way to Third Class, with the brass gates still in place a century later, and Jonathan even sees the officers locking the way while the lifeboats are still launching. This is an old myth that has since been debunked, as the gates were locked mostly out of confusing and ineptitude, not elitism, and that this happened after most of the lifeboats were already gone, after the passengers themselves still found their way up to the decks.
  • Death World: Earth becomes this after the R-Bombings. From space, it's described as looking like a cotton ball stained grayish-yellow. Down on the ground, the air is unbearably hot, the boiling oceans have dropped by five meters, massive radioactive hurricanes have formed and the surface has been almost completely scoured of all signs of life, let alone civilization. Not even bacteria survives. The last two people on the planet, Hollis and Jonathan, only survive thanks to being in a sub in the deep ocean at the time, and they still have to evade a continent-sized wall of debris as it sweeps across the seafloor. But even then, they both recognize that they'll be dead before long.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Lots of characters who fall victim to the aliens. Most notably the Ceres group, who are wiped out before the halfway point.
  • Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto Us: The aliens' motive for wiping out humanity.
  • Downer Beginning: Humanity finds the first irrefutable proof of spacfaring aliens in the form of gamma rays consistent with antimatter-powered engines. Almost immediately afterward, every inhabited body in the Solar system is hit with relativistic bombs moving at 92% the speed of light, instantly destroying civilization and annihilating most of the human species. That's all within the first four chapters.
  • Downer Ending: The solar system is completely destroyed after the sun goes nova, leaving just two groups of humanity behind. The Earthbound team is captured by the aliens and will likely remain in a zoo enclosure for the rest of their lives, all while believing they're the last of their species. The Saturnian team lead by the Jesus and Buddha clones is left debating over whether they should simply hide inside a Brown Dwarf in interstellar space or build their forces back up and declare war on the aliens — a debate that may eventually tear them apart.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: The group who blow up the sun, in an epic, yet disturbing fashion, and the Ceres survivors, in a Fling a Light into the Future way.
  • Dramatic Irony: Most of the characters in each group believe themselves to be the last surviving humans, and even dismiss messages they get from a few others as tricks by the aliens.
  • Easy Sex Change: In the future, sex changes are apparently so easily accomplished that people can change sexes many times if they want. One of the characters on Ceres has an ex-wife who had transitioned to a man twice.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Lenny aboard the Gaius doesn’t feel terror in his last moments, just disappointment that they failed, and he tries to comfort one of his companions and take in the beauty of their surroundings. Also the Ceres colonists and Fling a Light into the Future.
  • "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner: all three of the main Ceres characters, with the later two being directed to each other.
    Bishop: One other thing. I'm afraid it's gotten through the material in my suit and into me. From the feel of it, I'd say even the iron and calcium in our bodies is vulnerable. I've had it, Isak. Better that you don’t see what will be left of me. Good-bye.
    Sargenti: How much time do you think we have?
    Isak: Enough.
  • Fallen States of America: Implied to have happened before the R-bombing, with mention of Mexico protesting the influx of American refugees flooding across the Rio Grande. The Preservationist Society was obsessed with recapturing America's glory days, with Long Beach being preserved as it was back in 1995.
  • Fire/Water Juxtaposition: Sargenti-Peterson, a frozen comet, hiding inside sun.
  • Flat Character: Most of them, unfortunately, which might be a reason for the book’s relative obscurity.
  • Fling a Light into the Future: The last thing Ceres does, although they express concern that anyone out there with the technology to receive if might have already been subjected to genocide by their killers, or laying low to avoid that fate. First, Sargenti broadcasts out a warning to any other human survivors about their fate and describes exactly how to avoid being found by the aliens the way that they were, then...
    she went on repeating the message five times, and when she was through she called, "death-cry" into her pad and in simple binary code the music went out to the light-years, with stereoscopic pairs of Tutankhamen's gold mask, Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night; the collected works of Shakespeare, Poe, H.G. Wells, Clarke, Lord, Stanislaw Lem, and Guilder; the films of Kubrick, Spielberg, and Limardo; and Henry Roth’s great American novel, Call it Sleep. She instructed the transmitter to repeat the message over and over again, for as long as the power lasted. Like the old Jackson message, it shone hundreds of times brighter than the sun on certain wavelengths. Decades from now — perhaps centuries from now, Sargenti guessed — some alien civilization would receive the music and art of her people and, beginning with the collection of children's books she had included, might be able to understand, or at least develop some small appreciation for her civilization's accumulated beauty, if not its wisdom.
  • Fossil Revival: Between 1996 and 2076, cloning allowed numerous extinct species to be resurrected, either for environmental purposes, scientific research and curiosity, or simply to create pets.
  • Freeze Bomb: Humans had developed a devastating tool decades ago that transforms ambient energy into matter, leaving the surrounding area completely frozen. One group of survivors uses this to hide inside the Sun's atmosphere and ultimately to destroy the Sun after choosing death over capture by the attackers.
  • From Bad to Worse: The story begins with the destruction of Earth's biosphere and nearly all of humankind. Things go downhill from there.
  • The Future: The story takes place in 2076 and skips ahead to the 2090's at the end.
  • Gaia's Lament: In 1995, an ambitious scientist attempted to gain public support and funding for her research by cloning a virus extracted from preserved dinosaur blood. Said virus proved lethal to birds and nearly wiped out all species in less than a year, leading to an explosion in insect populations, the extinction of several other species, and an ensuing global famine.
  • Godwin's Law: While fine-tuning his Titanic VR program, Jonathan comes across the barred entry way to third class and comes across the officers who kept it locked, yet have no problem letting out first-class passengers' dogs. Angrily, he says the people of his era have romanticized the past too much and even says he can see the seed of Hitler in men like them. Naturally, this being a simulation of 1912, nobody knows who he's talking about.
  • Grey Goo: Weaponized by the alien invaders to destroy one of the last groups of humanity hiding in the asteroid belt.
  • Guilt-Free Extermination War
  • Had to Be Sharp: When discussing the invader's motives, some of the survivors come to believe this is the law of existence among aliens. Space is a vast, unforgiving place with countless threats to the existence of a species, so anyone who does survive and does make it to the top ultimately has to be highly intelligent, alert, aggressive, and ruthless when necessary. No species is going to survive by being passive or self-sacrificing. If they find a threat to their existence, they're going to wipe it out before it has a chance to harm them, including another species.
  • Historical Domain Character: Isaac Asimov, Jill Tarter, Robert Ballard, and many passengers on the Titanic (though holographic reconstructions) play minor roles in the background.
  • Hope Spot: There's mention of bacterial colonies forming in the oceans, the first signs of restored life in the aftermath of the relativistic bombings, giving hope that maybe something will survive. Then the sun goes nova.
  • I Am Not Shazam: In-Universe. The clones of Jesus and Buddha prefer to be called Joshua and Justin. Both also display aspects of the Reluctant Ruler.
  • Jerkass: Dr. Leslie Welles, one of the historical-in-universe characters. Her first appearance has her email a threat to shut down SETI because they haven't gotten any results and because she disagrees with Jill Tartar, Jim Powell, and Richard Tuna's suggestion that the universe may not be a friendly place. Fast forward to the 90s and she starts a smear campaign against Tuna, from spreading false stories about him to accusing him of embezzlement, just to get rich off of stealing his idea to clone dinosaurs. An idea she'd previously derided as ridiculous. It's also thanks to her that The Plague that killed off all birds and lead to the deaths of billions was resurrected from Saurian blood, leading to it being named the Welles Strain.
  • Killed Offscreen: The crew of the Sargenti Paterson, assuming they even did die and not just find a way to leave behind a time-released Nova bomb or something while fleeing themselves. As we don’t see their final battle, just the effects of it on the rest of the solar system. Also, the Ceres colonists, although in their case it's more of a Gory Discretion Shot.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: Especially when they're going 92% of the speed of light.
  • Last of Their Kind: The Earth team and the Saturnian colony are all that's left of humanity by the end.
  • Late to the Tragedy: A few starships were outside of the Solar System when the R-bombing took place. By the time they return and find human civilization in ruins, they begin loudly broadcasting on all channels looking for anyone left. Many are quickly picked off by the aliens, but some by their fellow surviving humans. The risk of them accidentally leading the aliens to the remaining pockets of civilization is just too great.
  • Layman's Terms: The narrative notes Sharon of the Neptune group is good at making poetic versions of this.
  • Macross Missile Massacre: The battle inside the sun has both ships firing salvos of hundreds of missiles at each other.
  • Mad Bomber: Chief engineer Anjinn is a reluctant version, as he is primarily responsible for developing the bombs used to harness the sun against the attacking aliens.
  • May–December Romance: Two of the residents of Ceres are very close and obviously have feelings for each other, but one of them pushes it aside since he's twice as old as her.
  • Mistook the Dominant Lifeform: Two human survivors of the alien attack are abducted and have an audience with the invaders. Initially, they assume that the octopus-like creature that they're having a conversation with is one of the leaders of the invasion. In fact, it turns out that the rulers are actually the little robots that are taking care of and feeding it which the octopus race had created long ago.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: Crichton, a cloned dinosaur. Named after the author of Jurassic Park.
  • Nausea Fuel: An in-Universe example. As Johnathan, one of the last two people on earth in the wake of the R-bombing, explores the ruins of what used to be Long Beach, New York, he's hit by a burst of hot air from the eyewall of a hurricane. Among the scents carried by the wind, he catches the smell of hundreds of millions of carbonized human beings and runs back to the submarine, gagging.
  • No Sense of Distance: Averted. The distances involved are so huge that measurements between different sites in the Solar System are measured using light-minutes, light-hours, and light-days instead.note  There's also mention of archaeological evidence on Triton that a sun-like star passed by the Solar System in the distant past, but while it tore at the outer planets, it still would've been too far away to be seen as anything but a bright star from Earth or Mars and would've had no effect on the inner planets.
  • No Sense of Velocity: The speed of light is quoted to six digits of precision as 305,040 kilometers per second. In Real Life, since 1983 (13 years before the book was written), the speed of light in a vacuum has been defined as 299,792.458 kilometers per second.
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: Subverted. While they're called "Intruders" much more frequently, the word "aliens" is still used.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Richard Tuna is described as "a strange palaeontologist who occasionally designed rockets."
  • The Plague: Decades before the story begins, nearly all birds on Earth are wiped out because an ambitious scientist cloned a virus that had been preserved from the time of the dinosaurs.
  • Population Control: Was instituted at some point before the story and not always under humane circumstances. By 2076, humanity's total numbers are around two billion across the entire Solar System, and China is mentioned as having a population of only around 400 million.
  • Regional Redecoration: The Earth's geography is noticeably altered by the R-bomb attacks, with New York City entirely replaced by a new body of water and the only remnant of Cairo being the tops of the pyramids buried in debris.
  • The Remnant: The group hiding near Saturn. Has shades of this by the end.
  • Sadistic Choice: the ship orbiting the sun are fully aware of the potential horrors of using a Nava bomb with could potentially kill all life left in the solar system, including themselves, but recognize that it would also warn away any remaining Late to the Tragedy Valkyrie rockets, but if they wait those people will come back and be slaughtered, while the aliens might eventually end up killing their group and everyone else left hiding in the solar system anyway.
  • Sanity Slippage: Lenny, the captain of the 'Gaius'', the ship exploring Neptune, suffers this hard and fast after seeing signs of the battle near the sun.
  • Scenery Gorn: The aftermath of the relativistic bombings is thoroughly detailed and destructive.
  • Shown Their Work: For the era and even today, the details on display regarding everything from spacecraft to details on the Titanic are impeccable.
  • Shut Up, Kirk!: The aliens shrug off arguments made by Jonathan and Hollis, the prisoners from the submarine, about the wrongness of their actions.
  • The Singularity: It's heavily implied that the attackers achieved an equivalent to this some time ago.
  • Star Killing: It's theorized that enough absorbic bombs, which turn energy into matter, might cause the sun to implode.
  • Starfish Aliens: The aliens themselves are described as octopus-like and aquatic, with perfectly white skin, an Eyeless Face, and a hideously yet fascinatingly intricate skeletal structure. And it's implied they're actually the pets of the robots.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: The Earth is hammered so hard that the top three feet of the oceans boil away.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: The book follows the few survivors of the aliens' attack hiding out across the Solar System.
    • One spacecraft circling the sun, playing cat and mouse with the aliens. They ultimately decide that it's Better to Die than Be Killed.
    • A colony on Ceres that escaped the attack unharmed, but who've lowered their power consumption and fear the aliens will eventually discover their infrared output. The aliens wipe them out with Grey Goo.
    • The last two people on Earth, who were in the Alvin submarine in the deep ocean at the time of the attack. They're captured by the aliens and kept in a zoo-like enclosure.
    • A group in Saturn's rings, lead by the clones of Jesus and Buddha, who plan to lead their flocks to a Brown Dwarf in interstellar space to rebuild and strike back at the aliens. They succeed in escaping and swear revenge on the aliens.
    • A colony of survivors hiding on Neptune's moon Triton. Their captain commits suicide and they're later crushed to death by the intense pressure of Neptune's atmosphere.
    • This is zigzagged though, as the group on Triton barely get twenty pages worth of page time and the Ceres Colony is eradicated before we ever meet the groups on Triton and Saturn.
  • While Rome Burns: One of the submarine survivors chooses to keep working on a VR simulation of the Titanic, in part as a way to escape from the situation and part because he doesn't want to leave it unfinished. He chooses to delete it on the urging of a program he makes quite similar to his mother, but then goes back to working on it once he and his companion are captured by the aliens as a way to keep a fragment human history alive.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: When the submarine duo comes across the bodies of dead pilot whales, all of which they find contaminated with radioactive elements from the R-bombing, they take pieces of them for food. One surmises they'll be dead by Labor Day anyway, so it doesn't matter.