Christopher Paolini began world-building at the age of 15, crafting an empire filled with dragons, riders and the adventures of a teenage boy. That world, “The Inheritance Cycle” tetralogy of novels, would earn the writer a Guinness World Record as a the youngest author of a bestselling book series.
More than two decades later, he’s still at it, although this time the world he’s constructed is built on more than pure fantasy. “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” (TOR) is Paolini’s first foray into science fiction, and what a fantastical launch it is.
The new book is epic in both substance and stuff. An advance copy landed on a reviewer’s desk with a thud despite its cheap pulp pages and soft covers — the substance of critical reading copies not designed to last, unlike the story, eons — because the book is massive. The final hard copy will weigh in at nearly 900 pages and more than 2 pounds. The audio version, read in a publisher’s coup by Jennifer Hale, runs more than 30 hours.
But this is Christopher Paolini, an author who needs such an expanse to fully flesh his ever-burgeoning worlds. You’ll recall “Eragon” began as a trilogy, and even now the author has vowed to write a fifth Alagaesia story once his nearly decade-long work on “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” is behind him.
And such is the promise of his new novel: Paolini has called the work a space opera, and one that will spawn future stories. “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” opens with xenobiologist Kira Navarez unearthing an alien relic on an uncolonized planet. The relic will consume Navarez’s life, and is the beginning of a galactic epoch that will launch interstellar wars between some of the most unique species and technology in the genre. And more, not only is Paolini’s world-building complete, his characters are real and the science behind such subjects as spaceships traveling faster than light (FTL) consumes an entire appendix of its own.
Oh, and there is Gregorovich, the Wallfish’s ship mind. You’ll love Gregorovich— and the idea of a ship mind takes HAL 9000 to an all-new level.
But because this is a Christopher Paolini novel, the story is not only the story. There is something more the author is trying to tell us, and not just about the Fractalverse — the universe that encompasses “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” — but of life, existence and the really big questions that consume our day-to-day. Paolini has said that metaphor is the “highest form of expression,” and in its sum and parts, “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” offers such articulation.
Paolini recently offered to share his expression — and all things “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” — with Mountain Times. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom Mayer: I understand that your journey from fantasy to science fiction took some interesting turns and the better part of a decade. Would you talk about how you took a break from Alagaesia to craft the incredible Fractalverse and “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars?”
Christopher Paolini: Sure. First of all, I grew up reading science fiction as much as I read fantasy, so it felt like a very natural transition. I love science fiction. To me it’s often the fiction of the future, as fantasy is often the — I don’t want to say the past, but it often is colored by nostalgia and a longing for how things were. So, I wanted to write about where I thought humanity might be going and the future we might have once we expand out about the stars, which I do think should be our future. And, I wanted to have fun, too. I wanted to tell a big, entertaining story for readers that would take them on a journey that hopefully would entertain them, and give them a bit of heartache, excitement and perhaps a few bad jokes along the way.
TM: You’ve said that this novel is a love story to the genre.
CP: I did, and I mean it. There have been quite a few stories about aliens and first contact and all this other stuff, but I wanted to put my stamp on that and say the things I wanted to say with regard to a big science fiction space opera. I was very much inspired by a lot of the greats in the genre like the “Hyperion Cantos” by Dan Simmons, “Dune” by Frank Herbert, (Robert) Heinlein, (Isaac) Asimov, (Arthur C.) Clarke, (Ray) Bradbury, the “Alien” films, Ian M. Banks, who is a great British science fiction author. All of these and more gave me a love of the genre and helped inspire me to want to write my own science fiction story.
TM: Your hero in this story is female. Kira Navarez is strong, smart and, like most heroes, ultimately flawed. To me, her Achilles’ heel is her self-doubt and a sometimes lack of confidence. She boosts and overcomes both by the friendship and trust she develops with the crew on the Wallfish. Would you agree?
CP: I would. She does have a number of flaws, and the thing is that, too, there is a stereotype in fiction whether it’s books or movies or what have you. You know, the lone wolf character who keeps to themselves and manages to do amazing things, but they’re not really a team player. That sort of character can be a lot of fun to read about, but especially as I’ve gotten older, I don’t think that human beings operate particularly well all by themselves. There’s a reason why solitary confinement is considered punishment.
TM: That’s interesting, because a major theme I see running through the epic is the emotional damage of isolation and loneliness. There is Gregorovich, of course, whose forced isolation led him to a level of insanity and to comment, “to be alone and without purpose is to be among the living dead.”
And Kira, herself, faces such trials. As you write: “She didn’t want to be alone, not then. She needed to see another person, to hear their voice, to be comforted by the nearness of their presence and know that she wasn’t the only speck of consciousness facing the void.” I love that line, “the only speck of consciousness facing the void.” The fear of being alone permeates the novel, Christopher. Is this a comment on the human existence?
CP: To a degree. There’s the quote that “no man is an island,” but that’s only true if we make the effort to reach out to others. Of course, if you look at us on a cosmic scale, you know, here we are as a species on this tiny, little speck of dirt floating through the universe, and you know, what’s ultimately important is each other. Life is important. There is only one of you, or one of me or each of our readers in the entire universe. So, whether or not you believe in a higher power, the very fact that we are unique and alone in the universe makes every one of us living on this planet incredibly special. That’s why the theme of preserving life and companionship was something I kept returning to in the story as a major theme because, what else is as important?
TM: If that’s so, then Kira’s suffering decision at the end of the novel is a true hero’s act. She does what Gregorovich would not. Agree?
CP: I agree. But she also has an advantage that Gregorovich doesn’t have in that she’s not entirely alone. She has a “sort of” companion with her, joined with her, and she’s been given the gift of life, the ability to help spread and protect life — which is a responsibility that gives her purpose. You can endure anything if you have a sufficient sense of purpose.
TM: Other themes in the novel I sense are the ideas of unity and respect on myriad levels. Not only is the story populated with various sentient species, but even among those are some with disabilities of their own. Again, a reflection of our culture?
CP: Everyone faces challenges in their own lives, whether those are physical or mental or emotionally. None of us gets a free pass in life, and you can look at people who seemingly have everything in life, but you never know what’s going on in their head. You never know what personal challenges people are dealing with.
I found it interesting the question of, how do you relate and deal with your body when it no longer behaves or acts like the way you want it to be? It’s something we all have to deal with at some point, as we move out of adolescence. Just because your body isn’t the way you want it to be doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. It doesn’t mean you are morally compromised, or anything of the sort. When that sort of thing happens you have to learn and grow and hopefully become stronger as a result. So, that was a very conscious thing I wanted to deal with in the story.
TM: Your allusions to Genesis, “The Farthest Shore,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Wizard of Oz” and so many others are seamlessly sown into this and your other novels. Why is it important for you to continue those earlier conversations and incorporate them into your own work?
CP: Culture is a conversation, especially creative works. It’s a conversation between what is and what has been done. I could not have written this book without all of the science fiction and other books I’ve read over the years, just like (J.R.R.) Tolkien couldn’t have written “The Lord of the Rings” without all of the European mythology and folklore that he was exposed to. But he grew and built upon it. And other authors built and grew upon what came before; especially with this book, because “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” and the Fractalverse encompass the real world. If all of real history exists in the universe, then it felt disingenuous to not acknowledge some of those references, or make a sly wink at them and say, hey, you did this, but I’m doing this, instead. And, I love those sorts of things when I’m reading, also. I love seeing authors weave in side jokes and Easter eggs, and I think my readers enjoy them, also. It’s a nice way to say in a non-obvious way to the reader, I’m aware of what I’m doing and here’s the conscious acknowledgment of that.
TM: And along that vein, you’ve acknowledged your earlier novels with this one, have you not?
CP: There is a significant Easter egg between “The Inheritance Cycle,” the “Eragon” novels, and this book, yes.
TM: Well, we’ll leave that for readers to find. But, beyond this book, you have an interesting virtual book tour coming up, including one at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. Would you talk about how those are going to work?
CP: Sure. First of all, all of the information on my tours are posted on my website, paolini.net, and all my social media. The way it’s going to work is that people can register with these different book stores for the different events, and the first hundred people — and you do have to pay to attend, essentially the price of a book — to register are going to get a signed bookplate for their book, and then at the event itself I’ll be in conversation with various other authors and interesting personalities and we’re going to be talking about the writing process of “To Sleep.” I’ll be reading from the book, telling interesting stories, hopefully making everyone laugh, doing Q & A and essentially having a good time.
TM: And speaking of virtual, you have Jennifer Hale reading the audio version of the novel. What a coup. And what a challenge for her, voicing more than 50 characters, including some who communicate through scent. Not all authors are happy with their audio release, but you must be pleased with this one.
CP: You’re right on. It’s like 52-53 characters. She did a wonderful job. This is her first audio book. She has the Guiness World Record for the most prolific (video game) voice actress and she’s done stuff for “The Lord of the Rings,” for Disney, a lot of video games, like Overwatch. I could just go on. She’s been doing stuff for so long it’s amazing.
I actually met her on book tour back in 2012 in Australia. We ended up chatting, and it turned out that she had done some uncredited work on the Eragon video game, and I threw out this offhand comment, “Well, I have this sci-fi book I’m working on and I’d love for you to read the audio book someday.”
You say a lot of things at conventions about wanting to work with people but schedules don’t always align and it doesn’t often actually happen. But when we were looking for an audio book actor to read “To Sleep,” we were all tearing our hair out trying to think of who would be good. And, it was actually my dad who said, ‘Hey, you need somebody like Jennifer Hale.’ And I said, ‘Duh.’ So, I hopped on Twitter and sent her a direct message and said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but the book’s coming out and I’d be honored if you read it.’ Well, as I said, it’s her first audio book and she just knocks it out the park.
TM: She did. I listened to all 32 hours of it, and the result is a phenomenal story experience.
CP: Wow. Yeah, and I do believe that people who order the audio book get a pdf download of all of the interior art from the book, also. There are seven pieces of art in the book that are maps and other cool diagrams. I did two or three of the maps and the others were done by my amazing assistant Immanuela (Meijer).
TM: Christopher, I have rarely seen an author who has had more apparent fun with a book launch. From releasing weekly excerpts and social media interactions to the excellent and really weird RTC newsfeed on your website, I want to thank you for the journey.
CP: I’m glad it comes across that way, because I really am having fun with it. I’ve had the advantage of doing this a few times now, and I’m at the point in my career, in my life, that I know what I’m doing with it, I’m having fun. I want the readers to have fun. My goal is, not just with the book itself, but over the Fractalverse as a larger concept, is to just keep giving people interesting things from the universe that I hope they’ll enjoy, that I know I enjoy making. Because that is what all of this is about. It’s not like, “you have to buy this, you have to read this.” No, it’s me telling a story that means a great deal to me personally, and hoping that it’s going to mean as much, or more, to readers all around the world.
TM: So, more fun, more stories coming out of the Fractalverse.
CP: Yeah, this is the setting that I want to tell essentially all of my future stories that are not exclusively fantasy. That’s why I put so much work into developing it, figuring out the science in it and generally thinking through what I wanted this to be. There are probably a few stories that aren’t fantasy that won’t fit in the Fractalverse, but the absolute majority of them are going to. And readers won’t have to wait very long to see more in the Fractalverse because I’ve already written a very long sequel novella, which will be released at some point. And, I’m currently working on revising a short prequel novel, which I actually wrote back in 2013. But it needs some decent work, so I’m picking that up now.
TM: You certainly did some extensive world building in “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars.” You have several appendices, and one just on the science behind the universe.
CP: I didn’t want to dump that on readers in the main part of the story. That’s not why they’re reading the story; it wouldn’t be fair to them. What I did want to do was to sort of show my homework so that if anyone is interested in the stuff the way I am, they can look at it and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I see where you’re going. I understand why you made the choices you made.’ And, it helps to make the universe feel more real in a concrete sense. But, yeah, trying to edit that very technical science was quite a challenge.
TM: Beyond the Fractalverse, you’ve promised readers another story from “The Inheritance Cycle,” haven’t you?
CP: I have. Once I finish this prequel novel, which shouldn’t take too long, I’ll step back and pick my next project. But, after doing a lot of science fiction like this, it would be nice to do a fantasy.
TM: Last question: You were famously homeschooled as a child. Any advice to parents during this time of global pandemic with schools at least partially shuttered or pushing classes online?
CP: Sure, a couple of points. Within reason, try to make sure that your children have resources to do things they might be interested in. They might be interested in playing a musical instrument, and maybe there’s one in the house they could pick up if they’re so inclined. Maybe there’s some art supplies. Some tools. Maybe there’s a program so they can practice computer coding. They don’t need expensive equipment. Just enough for them to figure out if this is something they want to pursue as a career.
On top of that, I would say, figure out how your children learn. Personally, I do very badly when my attention is split over multiple subjects.
And, there are tons of resources available on the internet. And if you have younger children, and this is going to be a shameless self-promotional plug here, but my mom is a trained Montessori teacher and has developed her own educational methods and has a website called paolinimethod.com.
Last year, she released a couple of books, and the biggest book is called, “Read, write and spell.” In this book is exactly how she taught me and my sister to great success. It’s what I would hope to do with any children of mine in the future. Homeschooling can be a wonderful thing as long as parents are engaged with the process. Just as with anything in the world, custom is always going to be high quality if you can do a good job on it.
Now, you can get a wonderful education with the right public school, but if you can mange to provide a handcrafted education for your children you’re going to be leaps and bounds above everyone else — mainly because you know your children better than anyone else.
TM: I, and many parents, thank you for that. Before you leave, any last comments?
CP: Just this: I wrote “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” in an attempt to capture the sense of awe and wonder I feel when I look up at the stars at night — and I look at the future that man may have out in the galaxy. I poured my heart and soul into this story over quite a few years, and I hope readers will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Ultimately, when they reach the end of the book, my goal would be for readers to finish that last chapter, that last paragraph, that last scene, that last line and for the story to leave them with a tingle up their spine, and that sense of awe and perhaps even a bittersweet ache that the story has reached a conclusion.