1988’s Four Hundred Billion Stars was Paul J. McAuley’s debut novel. It was followed by 1989’s Of the Fall (US title: Secret Harmonies), a prequel set some centuries earlier than Four Hundred Billion Stars. In 1991 McAuley published Eternal Light, a direct sequel to this novel.
The invention of the phase graffle re-opened contact between the Earth and its abandoned colonies. A few decades later, the Federation for Co-Prosperity of Worlds stumbled across an alien civilization living on and among the asteroids orbiting the red dwarf BD+20o 2465. The aliens are unrelentingly hostile; they are known as the enemy. Ever since contact was made, the Federation and the enemy have been locked in war.
Astronomer Dorthy Yoshida has no interest in matters military, but her telepathic gift makes her an intelligence asset too precious to the Navy to squander on pure research. The asocial scientist is drafted into the war effort.
The enemy commands much advanced technology but not, crucially, the phase graffle or any other means of faster than light travel. The war is therefore confined to BD+20o 2465. But that cannot be their home system. So where did they evolve and how did they get to BD+20o 2465?
Eight light-years from BD+20o 2465, an even more obscure M0 red dwarf system is home to a life-bearing world. The planet should be tide-locked and lifeless. It’s not. A million years earlier someone gave the planet a long day that suffices to keep volatiles from snowing out on the night side. The someone gave the world an engineered biosphere and introduced life drawn from a number of nearby systems . Then, as far as anyone can tell, the being or beings who planoformed the planet disappeared.
Two star-faring alien civilizations within eight light years of each other2seem an unlikely coincidence. If the two systems were settled by the same aliens, then the relics in the system that is not currently occupied by violently xenophobic sentients might provide valuable information about the enemy. If it happens the former occupants of the second system are only mostly extinct, then Dorthy’s telepathic gifts may be able to prise out even more information.
Even if the two sets of aliens are completely unrelated, recovering the technology that transformed the dead world of a red dwarf is potentially invaluable. After all, most stars are red dwarfs. The information could expand humanity’s reach from a half dozen worlds to billions.
It’s not until Dorthy is at Camp Zero on P’thsn (a name recovered from alien relics) that she learns the trip will likely be an extended one. The Navy has no current plans to retrieve any of its personnel from the surface of P’thsn. It is up to the researchers to give the Navy a reason to retrieve them.
Camp Zero has existed for less than one P’thsn day. Orbital exploration appears to have been perfunctory. It does not take long for Camp Zero to become less crowded as its inhabitants discover different ways succumb to local hazards. Dorthy herself always manages to survive, but her companions are rarely so lucky.
There are hints the world is not as empty of intelligence as it seems and yet nowhere are there any obvious intelligent aliens. The animals on the surface seem to be mere brutes. At least, until they begin to change.
Somewhere beyond Dorthy’s immediate ken, something is aware of her. It has no interest in opening a dialogue with humanity. It has reasons to want seclusion. For that seclusion to be preserved, Dorthy must die.
Under no circumstances go camping with Dorthy “TPK” Yoshida.
“Dorthy” is not a typo. I know some online sources give the protagonist’s name as Dorothy but the text in the first edition of Four Hundred Billion Stars consistently spells it Dorthy. There is no need to flood me with comments pointing out the supposed spelling error.
In many ways, the Four Hundred Billion Stars setting seems to be a version of Larry Niven’s Known Space written by a gloomy British author living in Thatcher’s bleak and utterly hopeless United Kingdom. Brits knew that the UK was going to become a bubbling parking lot as soon as the Americans and Russians got around to WWIII. Which indeed happened in the backstory to this novel.
This is a future where most of the colony worlds fell into barbarism soon after being established, where the Earth has only recently discovered concepts like “women are people.” Instead of the “preserve the human race at all costs” UN of Known Space, the Federation for Co-Prosperity of Worlds exists mainly to ship raw materials from the colony worlds for a Brazil-dominated Earth. Their reaction on finding an isolated system whose natives inexplicably lash out at any contact isn’t to retreat. The Federation has reserves enough to keep sending ships to BD+20o 2465, where they intend to subjugate the uppity natives and open the mines. It’s not a happy future.
The aliens also live in a dangerous, constrained world. Intelligence is metabolically expensive and has potentially dangerous consequences. The aliens have settled on a solution to the problem of intelligence, a solution that has served them well enough for millions of years. There is a reason they don’t want to be noticed. Too bad for the humans, who haven’t been at all careful about maintaining a low profile.
McAuley’s setting is also much like a version of Known Space written by someone who is a scientist, rather than a scientific illiterate. The Federation contains some odd, alien worlds but none of them are implausible. Terraforming a tide-locked world would be insanely difficult; it would take more than dropping some algae into the atmosphere. But McAuley has devised some plausible methods. He had to assume super-science to do so, but that’s allowed in SF.
This book isn’t a feel-good pick-me-up. It’s often claustrophobic and depressing. But I did care about Dorthy, I was intrigued by the mysteries she faced, and I appreciated the careful thought that had gone into the setting. I enjoyed the book when I first read it, back in the day and after that, bought McAuley’s books on sight. You might give this a try. You too might become a McAuley completist.
1: Which, since STARS MOVE, shouldn’t have been the same systems that are nearby now but oh well.
2: Not that they would necessarily have been close to each other a million years ago3.
3: STARS MOVE.