Christopher Paolini on SF and “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars”

Adrian Liang on October 05, 2020

Christopher Paolini on SF and 'To Sleep in a Sea of Stars'

More than 15 years ago, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon single-handedly turned a generation into readers.

Now Christopher Paolini has a new book, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, his first science fiction book and his first book for adults. Snappily paced and vibrating with action, it was an easy pick for us as one of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of September 2020.

I recently talked with Paolini by video call about To Sleep in a Sea of Stars—and I also got the chance to see his cat, Chiara, who “helps” him by occasionally walking across his keyboard. Here’s a portion of our conversation.

Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: Let's talk about the new book, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. It's your first published science fiction novel. I think sometimes people believe that because they're shelved in the same part of a store or cataloged online together, science fiction and fantasy are very similar genres, but that's not quite the case. So what drew you to writing science fiction after you had so much success writing fantasy?

Christopher Paolini: Well, I grew up reading as much science fiction as I did fantasy, so it was a very natural transition for me. Plus, although there are some large differences between the genres, they are both under the umbrella of speculative fiction, and not always, but often, they tend to deal with imaginary civilizations, peoples, and sometimes technology and physics and all of that. So a lot of the skills and tools that I had developed for writing fantasy translated very, very well over to science fiction.

Actually, one of my goals in writing science fiction was to attempt to write science fiction with realistic physics, or as realistic as I could make them while still telling a very mythic story. But overall, I love science fiction…. It's a very forward-looking genre. And fantasy—again there are exceptions, but it does tend to be a be a bit of a nostalgic genre. Personally, I love thinking about the universe and the future that I think humans are going to have out among the stars. And since I can't go live out on Mars or go exploring the galaxy myself at the moment, writing about it is the next best thing.

The main character is Kira Navárez. She's a xenobiologist and as the book opens she's just about to leave a planet that she and her team have been inspecting in preparation for colonization. Can you share what the scenario is that puts her right in the center of the action?

Right near the beginning of the book, she gets called out on one last little trip. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say she ends up finding an alien artifact that she probably would have been happier to not find, and it's that discovery that then sends her and the events of the story racing off on this whole adventure.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is the first book in what I'm calling the Fractalverse. The Fractalverse is the setting for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars and it encompasses the real world. So all of known history is in the Fractalverse—the distant past, the far future—and it's a place that I plan to tell stories in for the rest of my life. Anything that's not explicitly fantasy will probably fit within the Fractalverse. The themes of the Fractalverse are the themes that I personally find interesting and will return to again and again in my fiction, whether it's personal transformation questions, immortality, morality—and of course just to tell fun, interesting stories.

In an online panel you did, you mentioned that you had spent a year researching faster-than-light travel to try to figure out how to make it realistic in your book. Can you tell me more about that?

Sure; not just the faster-than-light travel but also the technology in general for this book. Technology is to science fiction what magic is to fantasy. In fantasy when you break the laws of physics and people ask you, “How did that work?,” you just wave your hands and say, “Oh, a wizard did it.” And when you break the laws of physics in science fiction and people say, “Well, wait a minute. How did you do that?,” you wave your hand and say, “I inverted the tachyon flow and flipped around the deflector dish” and so forth and so on.

But in my case, [my research] actually came about from a lesson I learned while writing fantasy, which is that when you are world-building, you will find little problems in the world and the story. And you're going to have the inclination to ignore those and just focus on the story you want to tell and gloss over the difficult bits if they interfere with your story. But again and again while writing fantasy, I found that delving into those difficult questions resulted in some of the best bits of my universe and my story.

I had a very similar experience with science fiction.

One of the problems with faster-than-light travel is that according to the physics as we know it, traveling faster than light means that you can travel through time, and you can go back and kill your own grandfather or some nonsense like that…. So I set myself a challenge and that challenge was to find a means of faster-than-light travel that a) hadn't been used by some other science fiction franchise, and b) didn't allow for time travel.

I did find a solution. My solution is fictitious; it perhaps skirts some of the physics we do know about but it doesn't outright break them. That took a long time, and I was very fortunate to find some physicists and some scientists who were willing to hold my hand and walk me through some rather esoteric theories.

I do want to say, the book is not a technical manual. I really tried not to dump a whole lot of technical information on the readers. The technical information is in the back of the book and some appendices, if readers are interested in that. But aside from that, I was trying to write a science fiction novel that even someone who doesn't enjoy science fiction or is not familiar with it can still pick this book up and read it through and have a good time.

I was so surprised at how long the book is! I read it as an e-book because I was reading an early copy, and then later friend of mine said, “I got my book in the mail. My gosh, it's enormous.” I said, “Nah, it’s maybe 350 pages.” But it's not! It's more than 800 pages. But, man, it moves along really well. How do you design the pacing? Does that happen as you're writing? Does it happen as you’re rewriting?

Some of that happens during the plotting, some of that happens during the writing, and some happens during the editing. Again, my experience with writing fantasy really helped prepare me for this because I didn't always get the pacing right. Fantasy is a long-winded genre. And even though To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a long book, I learned a lot on pacing from the Inheritance Cycle. Brandon Sanderson, who is a fellow Tor author, mentioned that he felt that this book was paced like a much smaller book, which I took as a compliment.

There are some technical things I did to keep the pacing moving forward. The book is divided into sections, the sections are divided into chapters, and the chapters themselves are divided into subchapters. And that is a technical tool that allows me to move in and out of scenes very quickly and jump ahead whenever I need to. But on top of that, I just tried to strive for informational density. If something was not happening that wasn't relevant to the plot or the character, I just tried not to write it.

You had so much early success with the Inheritance Cycle. I know you don't want to do time travel [laughs], but if you could go back and talk to your younger self, is there any advice or words of wisdom that you would pass on?

Probably the first thing would just be to grab myself by the shoulders and say, “It's going to be okay. Stop worrying.” You know, my family and I self-published Eragon and we promoted it, and it was a very stressful time in my life because we sort of bet everything on the book financially. If it hadn't proven to be popular, we were at the point where we were going to have to sell the house, move to a city and all get jobs, which wouldn't have been the end of the world—that's what a lot of people do to survive—but it would have made a very, very big change to our family lifestyle. So it was extremely stressful and I would love to tell myself, “Don't worry. It's going to be okay.”

And then the other thing I would tell myself is that just because you write a bad sentence or a bad paragraph or a bad character, a bad scene or bad chapter, or even a bad book, it doesn't mean that you're a bad writer. If you go and look at published examples of editing from Stephen King or any author who's been working for decades and decades, you will see that they're still ripping apart their own prose; they're still covering their pages with red marks. And that's normal. That's okay. No one gets it right the first time. As a kid, especially as a teenager, I had no exposure to other authors and I had no idea really what the process of writing a book was. And so I had this idea in my mind that writers just sit down and write the book and it just gets published and put on the shelf.

Of course, that's not how it happens. There is a process and you do write bad sentences and bad prose on occasion. That doesn't make you a bad writer.

What would make you a bad writer is if you saw that and you didn't try to fix whatever the problem is. If I write something and then I read it—or I get some feedback from my early readers—and I realize, “Hey, this isn't working,” I don't get discouraged anymore. I take a deep breath and decide, “Okay. Now I can fix this.” And that's just a normal part of the process. As they say in the military, “Embrace the suck”—you know, whatever it is that's hard about the process, you just kind of have to embrace it and go for it. And it's true for so many things.

Is there anything that you want to tell your readers about To Sleep in a Sea of Stars or the Fractalverse that we haven't covered?

Well, I would say To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is my attempt to capture the sense of awe and wonder I feel when I look up at the stars at night and when I imagine what it would be like to go out among them—when I think about the size and beauty of the universe. There are a lot of difficulties occurring in this book, but I'm ultimately an optimistic writer—a hopeful writer—and I'm never going to write a story that leaves people depressed because, you know, what's the point?

So my hope would be that when people reach the final chapter and the final page and the final paragraph and even the final sentence, that it will leave readers with a tingle down their spine—a sense of hope and perhaps even a little bit of a bittersweet ache that the story has come to a conclusion. I wrote the book to capture that feeling and to try to evoke that feeling, so if readers feel that, I will feel as if I've done my job.

Author photo credit: Lo Hunter

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