Christopher Paolini's YA fantasy series, Inheritance Cycle, was a huge publishing success, with a movie based on Eragon, the first book of the series, released in 2006. Now comes his much-anticipated entry in the science-fiction genre with To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (Tor, $32.99), which reworks standard SF plotlines, including first contact and interstellar wars. Paolini says he wanted the book to be "a love letter to the genre" and, unlike his fantasy series he "wanted to tell an entire story, beginning, middle, end, an entire series in one volume", so the narrative stretches to nearly 900 pages.
Kira Navrez, part of a xenobiologist scientific team on the moon Adrasteia, comes into contact with an alien structure, which infects her with a "xeno" presence, "the Soft Blade", leading to the killing of her colleagues, including her boyfriend. Kira quickly realises she must communicate and cooperate with her co-host, and use its powerful but dangerous powers to save herself and humanity, already involved in interspecies wars, notably with the biologically immortal Wranaui.
To Sleep would have benefited from editorial pruning of both the narrative and its scientific underpinnings, but overall, Paolini has successfully delivered in his first SF outing.
More space opera comes in British author, Alistair Reynolds' Bone Silence (Gollancz, $32.99), concluding his far future trilogy, which has been termed "Pirates of the Caribbean meets Firefly". Set 10 million years in the future, the galactic "Congregation", which includes both humanity and aliens, is facing one of its cyclical collapses.
Reynolds' main characters, sisters Arafura and Adrana Ness, have become galactic pirates, but also fugitives, wrongly blamed for an event which could cause the next collapse of the Congregation collapse. Reynolds is particularly good at creating exotic locales for the sisters' adventures in a novel full of pirate tropes.
Stephen Baxter's World Engines: Creation (Gollancz, $32.99) completes a duology, which began with World Engines: Destroyer. In this "bad child", astronaut Read Malenfant is woken from a cryogenic coma in the year 2469, after being frozen in 2019.
Malenfant exemplifies selfishness and aggressive individualism, traits needed on an Earth in a managed decline. Malenfant is sent to investigate a multidimensional portal on the Martian moon, Phobos, in order to trace the "World Engineers", who are tweaking the evolution of the solar system, a quest which continues in Creation.
Creation opens on Persephone II, with Malenfant and survivors from three separate timelines, battling survival but still exploring portals across space and time. Baxter's hard science expositions, however, mixed with multiverse alternatives, blurs character development and unbalances the narrative pace.
Micaiah Johnson's debut novel The Space Between Worlds (Hachette, $32.99) is another multiverse novel. While "Earth Zero" is now a post-apocalyptic, socially unequal world, there are 382 other earths that can be visited, although nobody can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive.
Cara, a queer, black woman, a "traverser", is able to collect data from alternative Earths as she has already died many times. Johnson, in a complicated narrative structure, examines questions of sexuality, identity, and nature versus nurture, as Cara painfully learns that her actions will determine the future, not just of Earth, but all the multiverses.
Zack Jordan's The Last Human (Hodder, $32.99) is another ambitious debut novel. Sarya "the Daughter", who is believed to be the last human alive, lives on an orbital space station protected by a giant spiderlike entity, Shenya "the Widow". The universe is dominated by the Network, an alliance of intelligences that have maintained galactic peace for half a billion years. Humanity has been sidelined by the Network because of its alleged aggression and resistance to the Network. Sarya goes on the run when her home is destroyed, but little realises her importance in a universe of godlike entities and sentient planets. Sarya never emerges as a fully rounded character, but she provides the focus, as Sarya "the Destroyer", for a galactic struggle over issues of free will and choice .
A change of narrative pace comes in Vagabonds (Head of Zeus, $29.99), a novel of ideas set in 2201, which is the first novel by Hugo Award-winning Chinese author Dr Hao Jingfang and translated by another Hugo award winner Ken Liu.
Luoying, a young Martian dancer , is trapped between the clash of cultures of an independent Martian Republic and Earth, planets with radically different political and social systems and philosophies. Earth is ultra -capitalist, while Mars is a government funded utopian democracy, although with rigidly enforced societal rules. Luoying's journey of self-discovery will also have huge implications for both planets. Jingfang's 600 page exploration of individual freedom in utopian and capitalist societies resonates strongly and reflects current ideological debates in China and America.