To Sleep In A Sea of Stars and the Importance of Optimism in Sci-Fi

We talk to the bestselling author of Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle), Christopher Paolini about his debut sci-fi novel To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars Cover
Photo: Tor Books

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To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is Christopher Paolini’s first foray into science-fiction, and the first of potentially many stories in the Fractalverse. The story follows xenobiologist Kira Navárez as a chance encounter with an ancient, alien artifact propels her into an epic space adventure across the vast expanse of the galaxy, in a fight for the fate of humanity. We talk to the author about the writing process, his sci-fi influences, favorite shared universes, and writing hopeful science fiction.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Den of Geek: What is it about science fiction that made you want to create within that framework?

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Christopher Paolini: I grew up reading as much science fiction as fantasy. So for me, it was a very natural transition. My dad was and is a huge science fiction fan. My mom was a fantasy reader, so I kind of got both genres from them. And I just love the possibilities of science fiction, and I love how a lot of science fiction talks about the future of humanity, especially as we may be moving off this planet and exploring the rest of the universe. And I was also wanting a change from fantasy after working on The Inheritance Cycle for about 12 years, from 15 to 26/27. That’s a large chunk of one’s life to be put into one project. So yeah, science fiction felt like a very natural fit.

Which came first for you, did you already have an idea that you wanted to write in science-fiction? Or did you have the idea of a whole story in one book, then decide that science fiction would fit with that idea in mind?

I had the idea for the story first and the idea first came about in 2006, 2007. At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a self contained story or series, but very early on, I decided that yes, it was going to be a one book story. That became increasingly important to me the longer I worked on The Inheritance Cycle, because I didn’t finish that series until the end of 2011, and then I was touring for it mid to late 2012. So when thinking about what I wanted to do next, was like, “Well, I’d rather write a self contained story and then move onto something new.” And also I wanted to get that experience for readers of not having to wait for years and years for the next volume. The ironic thing is that it actually didn’t really take me any less time to write To Sleep than if I had broken it up and just done two or three novels.

Were there any things that you maybe didn’t want to get rid of or cut to make the story fit into one tome that you had to get rid of? If so, how did you deal with that?

No, I told the story of what I wanted to tell. I actually had a unique experience with editing with this book where my editors at Tor, along with the other changes I was making, general revisions and copy edits… They actually had me add about 30,000 words of material to the book as I was revising, which I’ve never had that experience before. So no, everything I wanted to put in the story is in the story. It’s a book that is stuffed to the gills with stuff, and hopefully readers will enjoy all of that stuff. With that said, there is lots of material within the universe and within that setting that I want to write about and have plans for that isn’t in this book. But this book itself has what it needs to have.

Do you have plans for, not necessarily a sequel, but other stories that take place within the same connected universe?

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Absolutely. I mean, if people… At least in the hardcover edition of the book, they’ll see there’s the logo for the Fractalverse, not only embossed the cover, but also printed on an inside page and the Fractalverse is a setting that I’ve been working on for quite a long time. The idea is that any stories that I want to tell that aren’t explicitly fantasy can fit within the Fractalverse. So it includes the real world, the far future, the distant past. And even though some of those stories might seem a little disconnected, they will all tie together in the end.

What do you think makes a really good connected or extended shared universe?

Part of it would be theme and tone. I think about Star Wars or Star Trek or Babylon 5 or any of these big franchises, and usually there’s a certain feel associated with that franchise. You know that when you’re going to go watch a James Bond film, for example, or you’re going to go watch a Star Trek film or show, you’re going to get a certain something. So I think theme and tone is a big thing. I’m kind of in the same camp as Sanderson for this one, finding ways to tie in characters, or thematic things, or world events so that things really are interconnected on a deep level. It may not make much of a difference for any one individual story, but when you step back and look at the whole edit sets, you can see how all the pieces fit together.

What are some of your favorite extended universes, across all mediums?

The Cosmere by Sanderson would certainly be up there. Also the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, and how that ties into his other works. I’m not actually a fan of horror. I think that there are enough difficult things in the world already, without putting more of that in my head, but I really appreciate how the Dark Tower sort of ties together his other books, characters cross pollinate between his various stories. I think that’s pretty cool.

If you could choose any character from To Sleep in a Sea of Stars to put into another universe that you didn’t create, which character would you put into that universe and why?

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My answer probably won’t surprise you. Gregorovich.

And what universe would you put him in?

Oh geez. Almost anything, almost anything. I would love to see him in… Actually, this would make him deeply unhappy, but the way it tickles my storytelling brain, I would love to see him in Battlestar Galactica and see him grappling with divisions between the humans and the Cylons, and him being sort of an inter median between human and cyborg or even full on Android.

Were there any tropes or things you wanted to explicitly avoid in your writing for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars?

My general approach was to try to treat every character with dignity and respect the same way I would want to be treated or anyone else would want to be treated, to not make a big deal about people being the other, even if sometimes they feel like they’re the other. And also, the thing is, I’m sure there’s still going to be prejudice and discrimination and all sorts of other issues in the future. I mean, humans are humans, that’s unfortunately not going to go away. But there’s no reason to highlight that or make it a major point of your main story or character, unless that’s something you want to grapple with in a deep examination of “how can we do better?”

I wanted to know about the rules you set for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars where: you wanted it to be realistic science, you wanted it to not completely break physics, and you wanted to disallow time travel. What was the reason and the thought process behind that?

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The main point for me was that I didn’t want my spaceships to be time machines. Because if you look at the physics of a lot of faster than light travel in a lot of popular franchises, the math says that the spaceships really should be capable of time travel, which, if your story’s not about time travel, having your most popular transportation method allowing for that kind of wrecks your story. So I really, really wanted to avoid that. I really wanted a technical answer that I could wrap my brain around, which would give me a really solid footing for whatever I want to write in the Fractalverse.

What was the process of figuring out how to both be very technical, but also making it where a lay person could just read To Sleep in a A Sea of Stars and actually be able to follow along?

Well, that was very important to me. Having written fantasy, I definitely ran into challenges of info dumping and, and not wanting to info dump, and how do you convey large amounts of information to your readers in a palatable fashion? I definitely learned things when working on The Inheritance Cycle and I tried to apply them in this book. So the goal was to naturally introduce readers to this universe without overloading them with technical information. If readers want that technical information it’s in the appendices at the back of the book. So in some ways it’s almost like science is to science fiction is what magic is to fantasy, it defines the rules of what is possible in that universe. And it’s important for me as the author to know all those rules, but I don’t have to dump out those on the reader all at once.

Were there any habits that you had to break in the transition from writing a fantasy series, then going into a completely different genre and a different world?

Absolutely tons. First of all, I had an established approach style in a society that I had been working with for so long that it was really second nature. So I had to work very hard to come up with a cleaner, more modern style for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, which I enjoyed. It actually gave me a lot more freedom in terms of the tools I had to write the book. And then also just the pacing of the book is different because To Sleep is a complete story from start to finish. That was actually a little surprising to me, because when you write a series, you really get to know the characters in a way that you just can’t in one book, because you have thousands of pages to live with them. So the pacing was different and that was also a challenge to get used to. On top of that, the fact that a spaceship does not go in faster in an emergency, unlike horses or people, where if you need to get from point A to point B faster, you can just sort of spur the horses on a little more. You can run, you can push yourself harder. Spaceships don’t really do that. Machines don’t really do that. So that put some restrictions on the logistics of moving my characters around, it was a fun restriction.

Are there any common threads between your other series and this new one?

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There is a fairly significant easter egg from The Inheritance Cycle in this book that I’ll leave for readers to discover. And then there are my usual obsessions as a writer on display. For example, I find myself continually drawn towards stories of personal transformation, both physical and mental, and that’s on full display here. And a lot of questions of how the individual relates to society. What is your responsibility to people in general if society stopped caring about you as a person? Despite the fact that it’s science fiction, there is a very real ethic and physics to the story, as it proceeds, that people who are fans of that in my fantasy novels will find the same here and will enjoy that also.

If you had to choose for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars to be respectfully adapted into either of the following, a TV mini series, a standalone film, or a AAA game title, which would you choose and why?

I don’t know if it’s one film, but my gut says, a film. Simply because I would love for people to experience the story in one go, that was my whole reason for putting it into one book. I mean, a miniseries or TV show could do a wonderful job of it. But the pacing is different in a TV show and the beats and the emotions are different. So yeah, my gut reaction would be a film.

What are some of your favorite stories specifically set in space across all mediums— book, TV, film, comics, video games?

Well, video games. It would be the Mass Effect series, specifically if you’re playing with Commander Shepard, who is voiced by the amazing Jennifer Hale, who we were fortunate to get to read the audiobook. And she did an absolutely fantastic job with that. The Halo series, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, old school Star Trek, the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. Dune by Frank Herbert, including the David Lynch film, which I have a soft spot in my heart for. Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. I know that’s science fiction, that’s not in space. I think those would be some of the big ones. Oh, a lot of Iain Banks’ sci-fi novels.

What job do you think you would have, in the To Sleep in a Sea of Stars universe?

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Well, given that the To Sleep in a Sea of Stars universe includes the real universe, I have a feeling I’d have the exact job I have now, writing epic stories that people would hopefully enjoy.

If you could bring one thing from the To Sleep in a Sea of Stars universe into our real modern day, present day, what would it be and why?

If I had to pick one piece of human technology to bring, it would actually be the fusion drives from the spaceship, because that would allow us to access the rest of the solar system in a way that we can’t, and really start spreading. I mean, the solar system we have is huge. So that alone would really provide an enormous boost for us as a species.

If you had to convey what To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is about to someone or something that doesn’t communicate with language as we understand it, what vibes would you want to give off or what feeling would you try to express?

I love this question. Oh, I’m so glad you asked that. I would want to convey the same feeling that inspired me to write this book in the first place. And it would be a feeling of… A tingle down your spine, of awe and wonder, both horrible and beautiful at our place within the universe. At the fact that the universe even exists and that we exist, in a bittersweet ache, that things are never perfect, but we still have accomplished all we can. And there’s hope for the future.

That’s a really hard thing to combine into one word or one sentence. But I literally wrote this entire book to try and convey that feeling and hopefully to convey it in the very last scene, in the very last line of the book.

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This is a really good time for this book, I was surprised at how delicate and hopeful it was.

I want to write optimistic fiction, ultimately. I never wanted to leave my readers depressed when they finish one of my books. I’ve heard so many people over the years where Eragon got them into reading, or one of the books helped them, helped a person through a difficult time in their life. And it makes me think that, well, if they’d read the wrong book and the wrong time, it might’ve made life a lot harder for them. So I think it will be unlikely that you’ll ever catch me writing a grim dark fantasy or science fiction.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is out now.