In his 2020 novel To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, it’s clear that Christopher Paolini’s writing skills have come a long way. That’s a pleasant surprise, as authors often get worse after a wildly successful debut. Sea of Stars is an odd space-opera setting, something of a mashup between The Expanse and Mass Effect, with a bit of Star Trek thrown in. Ships depend on constant thrust to maintain gravity, but they also have faster-than-light engines for interstellar travel. Humans haven’t encountered any other sapient species,* but they have found remnants of an ancient civilization that previously inhabited the galaxy. And at over 260,000 words, there’s a lot to talk about!
Spoiler Notice: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
This book has all the basics you’d expect from a space-opera world. It’s got spaceships and aliens and cyborgs oh my, plus strange new worlds and an interstellar war. But what does Sea of Stars have to make it stand out from all the other stories that also have all those things? Not much, I’m afraid, but let’s take a look at what there is.
Paolini’s previous novels are, shall we say, limited when it comes to depicting a diverse world. Fortunately, he’s gotten a lot better in that area, and we see that right away. Sea of Stars has a cast that runs the spectrum of both skin tones and national backgrounds. Protagonist Kira is Latina, one of her shipmates is Indian, and another is of Korean descent.* The list goes on. Gender diversity is decent, with a roughly equal number of women and men among the main cast, though it’s notable that most of the authority figures we encounter are dudes. Of the two prominent romances, one is gay and the other straight. And I’m glad to report that no gays were buried in the writing of this book.
Best of all, none of the story’s diversity is treated as unusual. That’s just the way things are in the future. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: spec fic stories should portray bigotry-free diversity by default. It normalizes the appearance of marginalized characters, it helps readers imagine a better world, and it doesn’t entail the harm that comes from telling a story about real-life oppression. I hope that one day soon, this worldbuilding choice will itself be so unremarkable that I won’t even have to mention it; readers will simply expect it unless the author has a very good reason to do otherwise. But until that day, Paolini is doing a better job than some other scifi books I’ve read recently.
The main place where Sea of Stars stumbles is in trans and nonbinary representation. Not only are all the human characters cisgender, but also when Kira explains humanity to her new alien friends, it’s always in terms of men and women. These aliens don’t have binary gender,* and the story defaults to “it” as their pronoun. Now, there are people in real life who use it/its, so that’s not always a terrible choice. But when referring to an entire species, singular they is simply the better option for cis writers.
Speaking of aliens, they’re called the Wranaui,* and they’re very cool. Admittedly, I might be biased because I’m a sucker for aquatic aliens. Wranaui are distinctly non-human, taking many different forms depending on their career and stage in life. Soldier bodies have thick armor and powerful muscles, while technicians possess a multitude of delicate appendages for repairing complex machinery and getting into hard-to-reach places. An individual Wranaui might switch bodies many times throughout its life, paying no more heed to past bodies than a human would to yesterday’s laundry.
The scent-based Wranaui language is also very interesting. It allows them to communicate without humans even noticing, so when they first appear, they seem like an entirely silent species. The effect is creepy. As you might imagine, translation between sound and smell is extra difficult, creating additional conflict in the early chapters. Of course, this is space opera, so it’s not long before they fire up a universal translator, but the communication problems are fun while they last.
There is just one species of alien, which is unusual in space opera. Technically, there’s a second group of aliens, but they aren’t the kind you can talk to. While that means there’s little hope of forming a United Federation of Planets any time soon, it also means that Paolini has more time to develop the Wranaui. As a result, they’re actually better explored than the humans are. Although I can’t find any reason why there’s a silent “w” on an alien name that was translated from a scent-based language. That one will always remain a mystery.
Intriguing Ship Minds
By far my favorite piece of Paolini’s worldbuilding is the ship mind, a twist on the trope of the ship-borne AI so often found in space opera. The main difference is that fully sapient AI doesn’t exist in this universe. Instead, ship minds are human beings who undergo an intense transformation. New tissue is grown and grafted onto their existing brains, increasing their cognitive abilities until they can run an entire starship. While it’s difficult to define if ship minds are “smarter” than baseline humans, they certainly have faster reaction times and can handle more tasks at the same time.
This allows Paolini to make the ship a living character without rendering the human characters completely unnecessary. While it’s understood that ship minds are the only ones who can effectively pilot a ship in combat, they still need humans for anything that happens at a personal scale. That includes repair work, repelling boarders, leaving the ship to find a MacGuffin, etc. Ship minds do have remote drones, of course, but those are vulnerable to signal jamming. At the same time, ship minds aren’t any better at abstract planning than baseline humans, so the whole cast can still share in decision-making.
In most space-opera stories, we just have to suspend our disbelief over the question of AI. If sapient AI exists, it means that in most logical scenarios, there’s no reason for human characters to do anything dangerous. AI can perform the same task but more efficiently and with less danger. Ship minds dramatically cut down on the problem, and they still give us ships that can talk and have feelings. It’s an elegant solution to a common scifi problem.
Other than a few bright spots like the ship minds, Sea of Stars’s setting is rather slapdash. It feels like Paolini threw together various tropes from both inside and out of space opera, giving little thought to how well they’d fit together.
Inconsistent Suit Tech
This book’s inciting incident is when Kira discovers an artificial alien symbiote calling itself the Soft Blade and is accidentally bonded to it. This symbiote takes the form of a black suit and covers Kira head to toe, and I’ve already made the Venom joke in a previous article, so let’s walk on past that one.
At first, the suit is clearly built for personal combat. Its primary abilities include serving as a suit of armor, impaling enemies on spikes, and protecting Kira from environmental hazards. Sounds pretty useful. Then we learn it can also create fleets of combat ready bio-ships. Uh huh. Kira never uses it for that, thanks to a handful of plot contrivances, but it seems unlikely that aliens would design this symbiote to be both a suit of powered armor and also a shipyard.
Surprisingly, the Soft Blade’s wildly varying capabilities aren’t its most inconsistent feature. For that, we turn to its personality. At first, the Soft Blade seems to have an animal mind. It’s only vaguely aware of its surroundings and depends on Kira for guidance. It’s also on a violent hair trigger, killing several people because Kira gets frightened or stressed. She eventually trains it not to do that, but it’s obvious the suit is designed for violence.
A few chapters later, and suddenly the Soft Blade has full awareness of what’s going on around it. It’s as smart as Kira, and it can even talk to her when it wants to. There’s no explanation for why it would default to murder if it’s so intelligent; the story just keeps going like this all fits. Then we get another reveal: the symbiote’s real name is “the Seed,” and its purpose is to create life. In addition to being a shipyard, it’s also a terraformer.
I have a question: if its purpose is to create life, why does it default to murder when its wearer is upset? I have another question: if it’s called the Seed, why did it first tell Kira its name was the Soft Blade? What I don’t have is any answers, because all of this is left unexplored.
Boring, Contradictory Zerg
The Wranaui are a pretty cool species of alien, but they’re not the only extraterrestrials our characters encounter. This second species is called the Nightmares, and they’re basically the Zerg, except less interesting. Like Zerg, the Nightmares can somehow replicate space-opera tech using only meat, and their appearance is similarly monstrous. But where the Zerg had complex plans and leaders who could hold a conversation, the Nightmares are driven entirely by instinct.
That’s just not very interesting. At one point, the Nightmares are described as a “gray goo” scenario – a life form that replicates out of control until it consumes everything. Gray goo can be quite scary, as anything thrown against it only makes it stronger. But the Nightmares can be fought with conventional guns and missiles, which goes against the whole gray goo concept. They’re basically the faceless CGI army that Marvel trots out whenever it’s time for a third-act battle.
How the Nightmares operate is also confusing. We’re told that they’re driven to destroy everything because they’re mad that their existence is basically endless pain, which is fairly grim. But they’re also driven to constantly reproduce because… I don’t know. If that’s properly explained, I can’t find it. Seems like reproduction might not be the first priority for a species that hates being alive, but what do I know? The Nightmares are also described as being highly instinctual, but they can somehow construct complex battle plans for their spaceships.
To add insult to injury, the Nightmares seem to understand the importance of ranged weapons like lasers and missiles, but only on their ships. Once they engage in personal-scale combat, it’s all claws and teeth. Even the book acknowledges that this isn’t very effective against guns and powered armor, but we’re still supposed to be frightened by Nightmare boarding parties. The contradictions just don’t stop with these guys.
I’ve already discussed how much I like the Wranaui, but Paolini can’t quite leave well enough alone with them. The more we learn about these aquatic aliens, the less sense they make. First, we’re told that their scent-based language doesn’t really translate into any human languages, which makes sense. You might assume that names like “Wranaui” were deliberately constructed, either by humans or by aliens themselves. Nope. Kira somehow translates them, along with a bunch of names from individual Wranaui. I would just love to know where Kira got the phonetics from, but the book doesn’t tell us.
Later, there’s a long explanation about how the Wranaui can store their consciousness in an advanced computer, then use the stored information to resurrect themselves if they die. Seems fair. But when the heroes hatch a plan to assassinate an evil Wranaui leader, no mention is made of the resurrection tech. Near the end, there’s finally an explanation for why it doesn’t work on this particular leader. Not only is that confusing, it’s pointless! No Wranaui ever uses the resurrection tech in this story. We could remove the tech entirely and nothing would change.
On their own, inconsistencies like this aren’t a huge problem, but there are just so many of them. Later, we encounter some scrappy rebel Wranaui who say they’ll take over the government once their evil leader is killed, but how they’ll do that isn’t explored. This same evil leader has a kind of mind-control effect that stops other Wranaui from hurting it, which includes preventing them from asking an AI to launch a missile, but not from asking a human to launch the same missile. The list goes on.
On a final note, some of the tropes in Sea of Stars just don’t match the world Paolini has built. The most blatant offenders are easily the Entropists and the cryotech. Entropists are space wizards, very similar to Babylon Five’s Technomancers.* They use advanced tech to simulate a Gandalf-like aesthetic, right down to the robes and impromptu fireworks display.
In a scifi setting, that means they somehow have more advanced tech than everyone else, and that they’re hoarding it so they can cosplay as a wizard. It’s not mystical and cool; it’s implausible and selfish. The Technomancers have the same problem, but at least they’re only in one episode. The Entropists are major characters for most of the book.
The cryotech is just a case of unnecessary confusion. Since this is a setting where FTL is commonplace, the natural assumption is that people treat space travel just like a long distance flight, or maybe a sea voyage if it takes days rather than hours. But in Sea of Stars, it’s standard procedure for spacers to be frozen in cryopods as their ships sail between systems. The narration waffles a bit on why this is necessary, but eventually settles on heat management. Apparently, ships can’t radiate heat while traveling faster than light, so everyone has to be frozen to keep the ship cool.
It’s true that if a spacecraft can’t get rid of heat, things will go bad very quickly. That could be a compelling problem in a more realistic setting. But these ships have laser cannons and fusion reactors – technology that puts off so much heat, the only way to dissipate it is with radiators that are effectively magic. That’s fine as a conceit, but when the story declares that those magic radiators somehow don’t work in FTL, it leaves you questioning how they worked in the first place. The story is poking holes in its own space-opera premise!
What We Can Learn
Despite being an improvement on Paolini’s previous work, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars misses the mark when it comes to worldbuilding. Even so, there’s plenty to learn.
Introduce New Elements Via Plot
Sea of Stars has a recurring problem: when new worldbuilding elements are introduced, they’re confusing rather than interesting. Near the beginning, Kira’s thoughts suddenly deliver us an exposition dump about something called the Great Beacon, and I had to listen several times before I figured out that in this setting, humans have discovered exactly one alien relic, which they call the Great Beacon, because of the signals it emits. The Beacon isn’t part of the plot in any meaningful way; it’s just there to foreshadow the Vanished and their suit-like symbiote.
The introduction of ship minds is equally confusing, but for different reasons. There’s no exposition this time – Kira just starts thinking about something called a ship mind, as if we’re supposed to know what that is. It’s not until much later that any of the details are made clear. It might sound like ship minds and the Great Beacon suffer from different problems, but it’s actually the same thing: Paolini doesn’t use his plot to introduce the world. In one case, we get a long explanation about something in another part of the galaxy. In the other, we’re expected to figure out an important concept from context alone.
In both cases, the solution is to make them part of the plot. For example, if Kira started the story working at the Great Beacon, it would be much more natural for the narration to explain what it is. At the same time, if Kira’s team was working with a ship mind in orbit, that would set the stage for necessary information about ship minds. Not only does this style of exposition feel more natural, but also it’s easier for readers to remember too! Readers care about information that’s relevant to the plot, and this makes the worldbuilding relevant, rather than dry text to absorb.
Novel Elements Should Fit the World
Something about the Entropists bothered me long after finishing the novel: they’re not at all important to the plot. They perform a couple of minor tasks, then get lost in a cast that’s numerous even without them. So if they aren’t important to the main conflict or to Kira’s character growth, why are they in the book?
Most likely because Paolini thinks space wizards are cool, or as Mythcreants would say, they provide novelty. And in a vacuum, that’s true. Space wizards do provide novelty, as they’re something weird and different that we don’t see in real life. But the Entropists clash badly with the rest of this book’s setting, so any novelty they provide is overshadowed by the problems they cause.
There are ways Paolini could have had space wizards without damaging his setting’s integrity. The most immediate option would be to give them actual supernatural powers rather than technology that mimics magic. Believe it or not, magic isn’t out of theme in space opera. Usually it’s called “psionics” or something else that sounds more scientific than “sorcery,” but in function there’s not much difference. Alternatively, the Entropists could have been from a much more advanced alien culture whose technology really does seem like magic to humans. Maybe that would have been a way to make the Vanished more relevant? Just saying.
Either way, the Entropists give us a cautionary example of what happens when authors reach for every trope that catches their fancy rather than doing the work of integrating those tropes into the world. Instead of cool technomancers, you get annoying cosplay wizards.
Speculative Elements Should Be Fully Developed
When reading Sea of Stars, what really sticks out isn’t that the worldbuilding is especially bad, but that very little of it stands out as good. There are mistakes, certainly, but lots of other books have mistakes that are far worse. Instead, the setting’s biggest problem is that it just feels bland.
One reason for that is theme clashing. In The Expanse, thrust-gravity stands out because it’s part of a suite of other tropes that make the setting feel more realistic than space opera usually is. The Expanse still uses a number of highly unrealistic technologies, but it downplays them whenever possible. This has a lot of novelty, especially if you’re used to more traditional space opera.
Sea of Stars has thrust-gravity alongside FTL engines, antimatter power, and medical tech that can cure anything short of an exploded brain. At that point, the thrust-gravity isn’t creating realism. Ships might as well have Star Trek-style artificial gravity, with all those other advanced technologies floating around.
A similar problem can be found in the Vanished, an ancient precursor species similar to Mass Effect’s Protheans or Halo’s Forerunners. In keeping with their trope, the Vanished’s ancient civilization disappeared a long time ago, leaving only their ruins and technology behind. But Sea of Stars doesn’t use its precursor species to the same extent that most stories do. Kira’s symbiote is Vanished technology, but otherwise they’re largely absent from the plot.
You’d at least expect the Vanished to be an excuse for why humans and Wranaui have roughly the same tech level, with everyone basing their stuff on ancient designs, but Sea of Stars doesn’t even do that. Wranaui tech is based on the Vanished, but human tech isn’t. The tech levels just happen to be roughly equivalent thanks to random chance, I guess. This leaves the Vanished feeling like an afterthought, an entire species put in to justify one cool MacGuffin.
That’s actually a good summary of the worldbuilding in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars: it’s not terrible, but it’s certainly not good. Combined with an okay plot and decent characters, you have a book that will probably sell well coming from an established author like Paolini, but would languish with a mere handful of ratings if it came from someone less well known. A book’s setting should grab readers, showing them wondrous sights or making them feel like part of a living world. This book does neither.
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