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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.

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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.


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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: their survival will be more important than those of other species, wimps don't become top dogs, and they will assume the previous points also apply to all other intelligent species. 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.
  • 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.
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    • 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 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 compare it to how human beings have viewed their own. In the colonial era, violence and exploitation of darker-skinned peoples was 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 an Class 4 event. In order to avoid capture, one group of humans causes a full-blown Class X-2.
  • Artificial Intelligence: The attackers are eventually found to be these. Originally built by a race of deep-sea octopus-like creatures, they had taken 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.
  • China Takes Over the World: Not exactly, but China was apparently the richest country and last democracy on Earth before the R-bombing.
  • 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 normal 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."
  • Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto Us: The aliens' motive for wiping out humanity.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Everything's Better with Dinosaurs: Before the R-Bomb attack humans had cloned dinosaurs and many other prehistoric animals, and were using miniaturized versions as 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.
  • 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 rule of law 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, 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.
  • 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.
  • Macross Missile Massacre: The battle inside the sun has both ships firing salvos of hundreds of missiles at each other.
  • 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.
  • Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness: A solid Type 5. The Valkyrie spaceships (and their alien equivalents) are a design seriously proposed by Pellegrino and Jim Powell. And, unfortunately, the R-bombings are pretty plausible too.
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: Subverted. While they're called "Intruders" much more frequently, the word "aliens" is still used.
  • 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 2 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.
  • 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.
  • Science Marches On: Pluto-Charon is mentioned as a set of twin planets and Ceres is said to have never been viewed as anything more than a large asteroid in the eyes of humanity. In the years since the book was written, Pluto has been found to have five moons and both worlds have been reclassified as Dwarf Planets.
  • 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.
  • The Singularity: It's heavily implied that the attackers achieved an equivalent to this some time ago.
  • Species Lost and Found: 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.
  • 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.
  • Star Killing: It's theorized that enough absorbic bombs, which turn energy into matter, might cause the sun to implode.
  • 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 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 aforementioned 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 under the icy crust of Neptune's moon Triton. Their captain commits suicide and they're later crushed to death by the intense pressure.

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