I have a love/hate relationship with Science Fiction.
There are some Sci Fi stories that I’d rank in my top stories of all time. Then there are some that I really don’t like and I’d consider highly overrated. There are very few Sci Fi stories in between – there aren’t many that I kinda like. I’m all in or I’m all out. While it’d take a whole post to explain why that is, I can summarize.
All science fiction falls somewhere on a scale. Imagine there is a line. On one side of the line is “Science” and on the other side is “Fiction.” Every work of science fiction leans more towards the science or more towards the fiction. Some, especially classic Sci Fi books, focus solely on expounding on scientific theories. They want to know what it’d look like for space travel, time travel, robotics, AI, etc. to exist in a society. Story be damned. That’s how Sci Fi got the reputation of weak characters: traditional authors just didn’t care about the story aspect. Other sci fi, primarily movies or TV Shows, don’t care that much about the technical aspects; they utilize advanced science and technology to tell a story – similar to a magic system in a fantasy book. Sure, they’ll explain a bit of the science but that isn’t the point.
I love sci fi stories that lean towards the fiction side of the line. I hate science fiction that leans toward the science portion.
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini attempts to land squarely in the middle of that line, but leaning ever so slightly towards the Fiction side. I don’t think it was successful.
I didn’t particularly like this book. Let me explain why.
The plot of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars felt bland at best.
Like most Sci Fi, it borrows heavily from other Sci Fi stories. That isn’t an issue, per se, but often it was distracting. There were several times where it felt like Paolini played through the Halo video games and thought: “I could do this better.” I try to overlook blatant derivation in Sci Fi, but it was overwhelming in this book.
I know Paolini has a reputation for being derivative in his other series: the Inheritance cycle. I read Eragon and Brisngr in high school but I don’t know enough about it to comment on it. If To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is anything to go by, the stereotype of him being derivative makes sense.
I didn’t care what happened in this story. It was pretty slow – the book is over 800 pages long – and felt like a slog to get through most of the time. It was repetitive and predictable. They travelled somewhere – which took 75 pages – something bad happens, so they travel somewhere else. Rinse and repeat. That’s the plot. Towards the end, I didn’t want to finish. With about 200 pages left I contemplated DNFing, but I came that far, I needed to finish. You don’t bow out of a marathon with a mile left and this book often felt as tedious and taxing as running a marathon. So I finished it.
But I didn’t care. I didn’t care at all how the story ended, I just wanted it to end. And that’s not a good place to be.
The worldbuilding fell completely flat in this book. I mean, Paolini had, literally, the entire universe to work with, but we spent 90% of the novel inside a spaceship. We saw, what, two planets? One of them seemed super cool and we got to see it so briefly it didn’t matter much at all. The characters quite literally had to race through the only up-close encounter we had with a fascinating alien civilization.
There were two different alien cultures. One of them seemed deep an interesting (basically, the Forerunners from Halo). One of them was completely boring and flat (a less interesting version of Halo’s Covenant, complete with its own rebellious faction like the Forsaken in Halo). Unfortunately, we got a lot about the second culture and almost nothing about the first. There was also a third semi-species, the nightmares (Paolini’s version of Halo’s Flood), that was so rushed and underdeveloped that they can’t be called a separate culture.
Paolini spent most of his worldbuilding on the technological side of things. Most of the worldbuilding was spent figuring out how to get his characters around space. While I appreciate the amount of research and study he obviously did in this regard, I just didn’t care about it. None of that was interesting to me. I wanted to see special, unique, and deep alien species, biomes, and societies. Instead I got to read about characters getting into cryo tubes 17 times. The people who enjoy the science part of science fiction might love this aspect, but it was lost on me.
There were aspects of this story that showed potential for cool cultures. Like the Entropists. But we didn’t see enough of those cultures for it to move the scale.
Paolini also did a really good job showing the scope of this world – but that could be to the detriment of the pacing of this story. They spent so long traveling and not enough time doing things.
Normally I don’t include a section for writing style in my reviews, after all writing style is so subjective it shouldn’t factor that heavily in a review. But I felt I had to include something about it for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars.
Paolini is descriptive to the point of distraction. None of his characters do anything, feel anything, or think anything without it being meticulously described to the reader. This book could have been 300 pages shorter without all the unnecessary description.
This over-description throws off the pacing of pivotal scenes. When we’re in the middle of a tense battle, Paolini takes the time to explain every single movement of every single limb of ever single person. I don’t need that. I want to watch the battle, but the excessive description made it drone on and lose its punch.
Again, it is abundantly clear that Paolini did ample research and study before writing this book. Which is applaudable. I am very impressed with it. Frankly, it’s far more research and study than I would do for a novel. But it seemed like he wanted to prove that he did all of that research. So, any chance he got, he explained everything to us. The issue with that is I didn’t care about it. I don’t care how FTL works. I don’t care how the Jelly ships work. I don’t care about most of that, but I had to read it time after time. Other people might really enjoy that kind of over-description, but it wasn’t for me.
Also, the stakes seemed rather low. The amount of technology and the crazy science meant that I never worried about a character. Impaled through the chest? The doctor will fix that right up. Literally separated at the waist? Your suit will patch you up no problem. Any time something traumatic or tough happened, it felt the characters were reset after the chapter break and none of it mattered anymore. There were no lasting consequences for any decision.
I really respect what Christopher Paolini tried to do with To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. He tried to a write a scientifically realistic story that was adventurous and entertaining. In my estimation, he failed. It may have been scientifically feasible, I don’t know and I don’t care. My concern as a reader is with the story. And, unfortunately, this story fell flat at too many crucial points.
I wanted to like this book. I think Paolini is a good enough writer. This story had a lot of potentially exciting elements. But, at the end of it, I did not enjoy my trek through the nearly 1,000 pages. However, that doesn’t mean that you won’t. If you read this review and don’t think the issues I brought up sound like that big of a deal, pick this up. If you loved Eragon, pick this up. But it wasn’t for me.
I, regrettably, have to give this a 1.45 out of 5.