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Literature / To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

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To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a science fiction novel by Christopher Paolini. Notably, it's Paolini's first novel not set in the universe of the Inheritance Cycle and his first novel aimed at adults. It was published on September 15, 2020.

While on a seemingly routine survey mission on an uncolonized world in 2257, xenobiologist Kira Navárez accidentally makes contact with an alien nanomachine swarm, which latches onto her as a quasi-biological suit of Powered Armor replacing her outer tissues. While Earth military locks her up to study The Symbiote, they are attacked by unknown spaceships of alien make and superior firepower — the worst case scenario of a First Contact. In the chaos of battle, Kira manages to free herself and races back to the inhabited worlds to warn them of an impending Alien Invasion, while also hoping against hope that someone can help her get rid of the alien symbiote instead of making her a guinea pig again.

You can read excerpts from the first eight chapters here. The official Fractalverse website can be found here.

Fractal Noise, a prequel set in 2234, was published on May 16, 2023.

Contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Alliterative Title: The title has a triple alliteration (To Sleep in a Sea of Stars).
  • Arc Number: Sevens and multiples thereof are all over the text — a fact that is lampshaded by the author in the Afterword.
  • Artistic License – Space: The planet Eidolon, which orbits Epsilon Eridani, is described as a Hungry Jungle Death World. In reality, Epsilon Eridani is only a few hundred million years old, far too young for any orbiting planets to have produced an Earth-like biosphere.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Trig is a goofy youngster with a love of hot peppers, electrified dancing, and bad puns. He is also one of the first named characters we see fight using Powered Armor and saves Kira's life during a fight aboard a Jelly ship.
  • Big Eater: Trig can always be relied upon to be carrying ration bars on his person. We eventually learn that he survived a famine on the space station he grew up on.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Kira and Neghar both vomit up blood after coming into the contact with the alien relic.
  • Body Horror: The alien lifeform that Kira encounters on Adra almost completely covers her body with a black substance like a suit.
  • Brain/Computer Interface: Both information and entertainment are delivered via implants, which Kira sorely misses when the Soft Blade's interface with her destroys them. Hers are limited, but those with more money can get ones that deliver a "full-sense recording" experience, with touch, taste and smell.
  • Central Theme: Working together is more productive than lashing out at those who are different, as the latter simply leads to escalating destruction. In the story's climax, Kira finally stops trying to maintain her sense of self apart from the Soft Blade and the Maw, and the three merge to create a new being which is mostly Kira, maybe.
  • Colonized Solar System: The Moon, Mars, and the cloudtops of Venus have been colonized, and Ganymede is home to a significant military base.
  • Cryo Sickness: Since FTL jumps between star systems take weeks to months in local time, starship crews go into cryogenic hybernation during this time. However, prolonged hybernation results in debilitating bouts of cryo sickness, especially if not enough time passes between jumps. This becomes a minor plot point late in the novel, as the Wallfish crew is forced to make multiple jumps only a day or two after each other, with their symptoms becoming more and more severe (especially for Nielsen, who is revealed to be over 100 years old).
  • Dashed Plot Line: Due to the way the setting's FTL travel works, each of the book's six major acts ends with a several months-long break in the action, during which Kira travels to another star system. These breaks are covered in short intermezzos uniformly titled "Exeunt" (a Latin directive to leave the stage), during which Kira trains with the Soft Blade (who prevents her from using cryo like the rest of the crew). As a consequence, each new act starts with Kira frantically bringing herself up to date on everything that transpired in the wider universe during the months that she was cut off from it. The only exception is act 6, "Quietus", which opens immediately after the end of act 5.
  • Doorstopper: The first published edition is 880 pages long (although, a significant chunk of that is made up by multiple appendices). In fact, the book's scope is actually closer to a trilogy, as each of its three main story arcs could easily have been its own novel: acts "Exogenesis" and "Sublimare" cover Kira's discovery of the Soft Blade and humanity's first contact with the Wranaui and the Maw; "Apocalypsis" and "Fidelitas" concern the deep-space expedition to Bughunt and its immediate aftermath; and "Malignatem" and "Quietus" see the heroes take the fight directly to the Great and Mighty Ctein and, immediately thereafter, the Maw. Word of God is that Paolini was tempted to split the book up due to its sheer size, but opted not to because of personal experience with frustration stemming from only getting a chunk of the full storyline per volume.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Maw, the driving intelligence behind the Corrupted, resembles a moon-sized mass of flesh covered in Combat Tentacles and teeth.
  • Enemy Mine: Around midway through the story, they learn that a faction of the Jellies want to team up with humanity to overthrow their ruler and then take on the Corrupted. During the climax, Admiral Klein and the Seventh Fleet decide to take them up on that offer, in direct defiance of their orders.
  • Flowers of Romance: Alan spent weeks growing and tending Kira's favorite flowers, Midnight Constellations, so he could surprise her with them before they leave Adrasteia.
  • The Future: The book is set in 2257 (237 years from the year the book was published), with humanity having advanced enough to develop reliable interstellar travel and establish numerous colonies around the galaxy.
  • Genre Mashup: Depending on what is going on, or how advanced the Sufficiently Advanced Technology the hero has just encountered, the story shifts between various subgenres of Science Fantasy, with certain elements later on just being straight up fantasy tropes, such as the Staff of Blue and the Staff of Green, or the "Magic" performed by the Entropists.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Gregorovich spent several years trapped alone on an alien moon after his ship crashed and his crewmates were killed, and he's still a little... off as a result.
  • Hero of Another Story: Kira last hears from Major Ilina Tschetter on Adrasteia, before running into her again on the Precursors' homeworld, where it turns out that Tschetter had her own share of adventures off-screen and somehow managed to ingratiate herself with (a faction of) the Wranaui, enabling a measure of cooperation between the two species for the first time.
  • Hidden Depths: Falconi is a swaggering merchant captain and smuggler, who is introduced extorting shipwrecked refugees in return for safe transport, and who keeps a cat and a pig on his ship. We also learn he raises bonsai trees in his free time.
  • Horde of Alien Locusts: The Corrupted, or "nightmares", are mutant abominations that consume and destroy everything in their path, organic or otherwise, with no regard for self-preservation.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: The Jellies refer to humans as "Two Forms." When asked if this refers to men and women, one friendly Jelly clarifies that it actually refers to bipedal humans and ship minds. The Jellies also have a hard time making sense of humans' audible communication, instead using a sophisticated olfactory method.
  • Last-Name Basis: No one ever addresses Major Tschetter by her first name, to the point you'd be forgiven for thinking it actually is "Major". She introduces herself as "Major Tschetter" to Kira in her first scene, and the only time her given name, Ilina, is mentioned in the entire book is when Falconi demands to know who she is when his crew runs into her on Bughunt.
  • Long-Distance Relationship: Kira is in one with Alan, due to them often being assigned to different parts of the galaxy for research missions. They get tired of not being able to see each other for months on end and decide they'll apply to be colonists so they can stay together, especially when Alan proposes to Kira.
  • Minovsky Physics: Most of the fictional science in the book is predicated on the fictional 22nd century scientist Ilya Markov's formulation of the unified field theory, which had not only enabled Faster-Than-Light Travel by wrapping spaceships in a "Markov Bubble" that would carry them through superluminal space, but also resolved potential time-travel paradoxes forbidden by special relativity by discovering new fundamental particles ("transluminal energy quanta" or "TEQs"), which make up both subluminal and superluminal particles (the latter of which are accidentally behind both the dark matter and the dark energy). The whole theory is presented as a transcript of an in-universe physics lecture included in the appendices.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The crew of the Wallfish, especially after they add Kira and a Jelly warrior to their number.
  • Sequel Hook: Obviously, The Reveal at the end that there are seven more copies of the Maw hiding out in the parts unknown is a major sequel hook, but there are also more subtle unresolved plot points like what exactly the Wranaui refer to as a "Ripple" — not only does the only friendly Jelly Kira asks about it clam up completely, but even the Fictionary at the end of the book simply states "record not found" for this word.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: The Wallfish's ship's pets are put into cryo midway through the story and don't appear again except for one comedic moment after a group of Jellies board the ship. Further, Trig is mortally wounded on Nidus and is kept in cryo until the denouement.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Multiple entities in the story are named after characters and corporations from the Alien series.
    • When she first ends up on the Wallfish, Kira runs into a refugee named "Inarë" — a term used for a mysterious species in Inheritance Cycle. The Afterword explicitly confirms that she "is who you think she is" and references "Letter from Jeod", which suggests that Angela, a character from Inheritance, may be an Inarë.
    • Gregorovich sometimes refers to humans as meatbags.
    • One of the Entropists offers Kira some cryptic advice: "Eat the path." This was the name of one of the levels in the third Marathon game.
  • Sleeper Starship: People get put into "cryo" when traveling to different planets or other celestial bodies, although starships are still implied to be pretty fast considering they're traveling over light years. The concern isn't a lack of supplies to last the journey, but rather the method of FTL in this universe making it impossible for ships to shed waste heat. Thus, any crew not put into hibernation quickly finds the ship becoming dangerously hot.
  • So Happy Together: Kira and Alan are deeply in love, they just got engaged and are making plans to settle down as colonists and begin a new life together. Then the alien life form that latched onto Kira kills him just a few chapters in.
  • Space Elevator: Most inhabited planets use these to ferry cargo and passengers to and from orbit. Ruslan's is destroyed by the Corrupted during their initial invasion of 61 Cygni, causing mass destruction on the surface.
  • Standard Alien Spaceship: The Jellies' ships are described as Shiny-Looking Spaceships that consist of numerous spherical (or "as close to spherical as possible") compartments. Kira does note that their engines are completely normal looking, since form follows function and the laws of physics are the same for everyone.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Technology: Some of the more advanced stuff the heroes encounter is far beyond anything humanity can achieve, but even the human Entropists perform one or two tricks that they only briefly explain as "magic!"
  • Tidally Locked Planet: Bughunt, a red dwarf star, has seven planets, all tidally-locked. The fourth, Nidus, is habitable and served as a colony of the Vanished, though Kira doubts any sapient species could evolve on such a world due to the temperature extremes on the day and night side.
  • Title Drop: Happens in the very last sentence of the novel, as the recently-ascended Kira enters hibernation before embarking on a long space journey in pursuit of the Maw clones.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: It turns out, Kira's own actions during her escape from Extenuating Circumstances directly spawned the Maw into existence and accelerated the Wranaui's plans to launch their invasion. While fighting a Jelly combat form, she accidentally caused an explosion that ejected the remains of the Jelly, a human interrogator, and, most importantly, a small bit of the Soft Blade into space. Unable to reconnect with its main body, the Soft Blade fragment instead fused together all organic matter it could find (read: human and Jelly remains) and attempted to resuscitate it, creating the Maw. The Wranaui, meanwhile, were fine with Kira obtaining the Soft Blade (if only because only a small faction knew about its existence), but when the Maw attacked a Wranaui star system, they traced its origins back to humanity and interpreted it as a proactive attack by the humans.
  • The 'Verse: The book is the first installment of Paolini's "Fractalverse" — an original science fiction setting where fractals (such as the one Kira finds at the core of the Seed a.k.a. Soft Blade) appear to play an important role.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Kira and the UMC. Pretty much any time she finally builds a rapport with any given group of the military, she runs into another group dead set on treating her in the most hostile way possible despite (or even because of) the significantly more pressing threats of the alien attackers.
  • Wetware CPU: Ship Minds are human brains removed from their bodies, given enhancements to make them much larger and more powerful, and placed into heavily-armored containers that double as life-support and computer interfaces, often used to control starships or space stations. Humans who are not ship minds are heavily discouraged from trying to engage in battles of wits or psychological examinations with them, and even the relatively advanced Wranaui consider the ship minds to be spectacularly dangerous foes, having no equivalent of their own.