400 Billion Stars

April 20, 2014
Paul McAuley

This is the first Paul McAuley book I read that isn't from the Quiet War universe. Unfortunately, it's also a mediocre and forgettable read.

It's not a bad book, per se - there was no Ringworldesque wall-banger moments, no bloated florid prose, no infuriatingly nonsensical plot contrivances, no poorly-veiled sexism, racism or homophobia. Its problem is that there was also very little truly interesting about it.

It takes place on an alien planet, which might hold an answer to a galaxy-spanning mystery: Who is the alien species known only as "the enemy"? Humans (who live in a highly militarized society dominated by the Earth nation of Greater Brazil, following the Age of Waste - concepts that ended up getting recycled in The Quiet War and work much better there) have had contact with a hostile sentient race, and have discovered a planet which might be designed by the enemy, and might hold secrets useful to defeating them. A telepath (who also happens to be an astronomer) is dispatched there to help the scientific research into the nature of the planet and its subsentient inhabitants. Of course, things - as in all good science fiction stories - don't go according to plan.

I liked the explanations of the biology on the alien planet on which it is set (with one caveat, see below), and I liked the periodic sentience-to-subsentience-and-back-again lifecycle of the alien civilization that it focuses on. The human interaction between the characters is lifeless.

The characters are dull. They're not ridiculous stereotypes; they're believable people, but incredibly boring ones. The protagonist, Dorthy Yoshida, is annoying, selfish, sullen and entirely unsympathetic - and given that she can read minds and comes from a troubled background, this actually makes a lot of sense.

Speaking of mind-reading, I generally don't like psionic abilities in science fiction. They come across as thinly-veiled magic. I've rarely seen them done well, and they're not done well here either. Sometimes, the characters do some appallingly stupid things. For example, at one point, four scientists on a survey mission (on a planet with hostile fauna) go to sleep all at the same time, without setting up any kind of defenses. Predictably, this leads to fatalities. This is not the only example of the plot being moved forward by people doing dumb things. Some of them reach almost Prometheus-like levels of stupid.

I found that having the planet populated by modified organisms from different worlds (including some Earth creatures from about a million years ago) made little sense. If all the aliens wanted was an entirely stable ecosystem around a red dwarf star, then why make it a de-junked diversity zoo, rather than using life from such environments exclusively?

Dull, dull, dull. Closer to bad than to good, not recommended. This is highly unfortunate, because I know how good Paul McAuley can be.

In McAuley's defense, this was his debut novel. It seems to me that many of its flaws appear to be because he hadn't quite found his voice yet.

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