Book Review: The Killing Star

Here we will explore how not to write a science fiction novel.


Now, I really wanted to like The Killing Star. Pellegrino and Zebrowski’s novel is beloved in some sci-fi circles, and I can see why: their vision of the galaxy is a brutal place, where any civilization becomes an existential threat the moment it develops interstellar rockets, and the only logical action is to exterminate the other species before it does the same to you. It stands out especially because it’s a far cry from Roddenberry’s Star Trek utopia, yet it’s also cold and passionless unlike, say, Warhammer 40,000. This novel in fact had a considerable influence on my own science fiction—in eighth grade I read the interesting parts of it by way of the indispensable Atomic Rockets, laying the foundations for a grim and gritty setting that I’m still working on all these years later. So when I stumbled across a copy at my local bookstore, I was eager to read a work I’d previously seen mere excerpts of.

Man, did it disappoint. You see that wonderful cover up there, with aggressively angled text and alien missiles diving into the Solar System, all beneath a blurb proclaiming “conceptual ferocity” as if this were some hard-SF tiger fight? It has far more verve and dynamism than you’ll find in the novel itself.  Sure, The Killing Star presents an original and frightening thesis, but that core of borderline cosmic horror is drowned out by… well, the rest.

The story begins with the swift obliteration of Earth and most other inhabited planets in the Solar System. Alien rockets show up out of nowhere, zipping along at ninety-two percent of the speed of light, and impact with orders of magnitude more energy than today’s nuclear arsenals put together. Only a few survive. There are two people in the submarine Alvin, exploring the wreckage of the Titanic, and there are a few scattered clusters of humanity, on Ceres, the Saturnian rings, and the heart of a comet. All of them resort to inventive and usually ridiculous means of staying alive, as the aliens’ second wave hunts them down and the future of the human species hangs in the balance.

But we hear about the Titanic, too. A lot about the Titanic—the actual honest-to-God ocean liner that sank in 1912. Not only does a plot thread follow the aforementioned Alvin crew, one of whom spends pages and pages in a useless VR recreation of the Titanic disaster, other characters in unrelated circumstances also bring it up, completely out of nowhere. Pellegrino and Zebrowski have some strange fixation, I swear. Because of it I ended up skimming a good third of the book.

The Killing Star also features cloned dinosaurs straight out of Jurassic Park, because I guess that’s cool. I could have forgiven that particular stupidity if it were an isolated thing, but no, this novel is filled to the brim with poorly thought-out ideas: there’s clones of Jesus and the Buddha sharing a space station together, and there are magic bombs that can convert energy into matter, and I haven’t even gotten to the part where they fly a comet spacecraft into the sun and shield it using those stupid magic bombs…

The characters are almost universally dull and interchangeable, removing what could have been a saving grace. At several points, when the POV shifted, I’d catch myself thinking, “Please, not these tedious people again!” The emotional impact of losing Earth and virtually all loved ones is discussed, but it’s not really conveyed. In fact, during the first few chapters, the aftermath of the attack is downplayed, with everyone seeming oddly calm about it.

This novel only works at all because of the strength of its premise: relativistic travel is a nigh-unstoppable weapon and other civilizations will try to kill us before they let us deploy it. The concept is tidily explained towards the middle of the book, where the plot screeches to a halt, and Pellegrino and Zabrowski self-aggrandizingly portray sci-fi authors as the only people who saw the alien attack coming. Did I mind them stopping the plot to deliver what was essentially an essay? No, because the author tract was much more interesting than the outlandish plotlines smothering it all around.

Oh, well. The Killing Star wasn’t too much of a waste of time, since it was a quick read, it had some strong ideas, and the prose was elegant enough despite the failures in plot and characterization. I would recommend this for people who really want to read about relativistic warfare, and nobody else.

Rating: 4/10.

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