Christopher Paolini’s To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a first contact sci-fi centered on Kira Navárez, a xenobiologist working on an uncolonized planet where she accidentally becomes attached to an alien symbiote called the Soft Blade. Throughout the course of the novel, Kira must learn to gain control of the form which has enveloped her body, leaving only her face exposed. It’s slow-going getting the Soft Blade to submit to her will (cue the Rocky training montage), and early in the story it lashes out in response to a perceived threat, killing Kira’s colleagues and fiancé. The awakening of the Soft Blade and Kira’s initial lack of control over it lead to further complications, including the inadvertent creation of a corrupted entity known as the Maw and resultant war with the Wranaui, an alien race who believe humanity has intentionally unleashed this destructive being. Whether in Kira’s struggle with the Soft Blade, the Wranaui and their reliance on replacement bodies, or the mad ramblings of fan favorite character Gregorovich, “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” is a novel centered around ontology, particularly in its treatment of one’s connection to the physical form.
For those who haven’t had a chance to read the tome–at more than 800 pages who could blame you?–Gregorovich is the ship mind of the Wallfish, a smuggler ship whose crew rescues our protagonist early in the narrative. A ship mind is a human who has traded his or her body for the “body” of the vessel they now control. Gregorovich is a brain in a nutrient bath, a “king of infinite space, bounded in a nutshell,” the ultimate poster child for gnostic dualism. Once upon a time Gregorovich had a human body, but an accident left him short several limbs and organs. His choices were to wait in a construct for a new body to be grown for him or “dare the unknown” and become a ship mind. As he says, in his “arrogance and ignorance” he chose the latter.
“…“Itari said, The form is unimportant.” “Bodies do tend to be rather fungible these days,” the ship mind said dryly. “As both you and I have discovered.” Kira pulled the blankets tighter. “Was it difficult becoming a ship mind?” “Easy certainly isn’t the word I would use to describe it,” said Gregorovich. “Every sense of mine was stripped away, replaced, and what I was, the very foundation of my consciousness, was expanded beyond any natural limit. ’Twas confusion piled upon confusion.” The experience sounded deeply unpleasant, and it reminded Kira—somewhat to her distaste—of the times when she had extended the Soft Blade, and in doing so, extended her sense of self.“To Sleep in A Sea of Stars” by Christopher Paolini
I’ve written previously about this kind of body hopping and swapping in a post I’ll link here where I addressed the question of whether or not Jesus was “wearing a brown body,” but essentially gnostic dualism proposes the idea that that which is material is evil and that which is immaterial (i.e., the spirit, mind, etc.) is good. The logical extension of this belief is that a person can be split into parts which can be fundamentally disconnected from one another, as with Gregorovich who retains his “humanity” yet has been forever severed from his body. Christianity combats this idea. While we recognize the dualism of man in that he is both body and spirit (i.e., substance dualism), ours is not a gnostic dualism. Man cannot be chopped into pieces and retain a coherent personhood. In other words, you are as much your body as you are your mind.
Science Fiction has always played with ideas of form. We see it in Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder series as characters merge with the native beings of Garden, in the gender-shifting inhabitants of Gethen in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in Frankenstein’s monster’s haphazard animation. What does it mean to be human? It’s one of the core questions of the genre.
In many ways, Gregorovich epitomizes the struggle over this question. He grapples with his new existence. Buried amidst his Platonic rambling and Hamletesque soliloquies, he speaks honestly of how he often yearns for his body. He misses the freedom of being able to move independently, apart from the Wallfish. And he hints at something more, at how wrong he was to assume he could so easily trade his body without losing himself. The madness of his character attests to this.
“I wasn’t so smart then as I am now. Oh, no, no, no. The only things I thought I would miss were hot splashes, sweet soft and savory and seductive spoonfuls and the pleasures of carnal company close held, deep felt, yes, and in both cases I reasoned, yes I reasoned, that VR would provide more-than-adequate substitute. Bits and bytes, bobs of binary, shadows of ideals melting starving on electrons, starving, starving … Were I wrong was I wrong? wrong wrong wrong, I could always avail myself of a construct to indulge in sensual delights as appealed to my fancy.” Kira’s curiosity was sparked. “But why?” she said, in as soothing a voice as she could manage. “Why become a mind at all?” Gregorovich laughed, and there was arrogance in his voice. “For the sheer thrill of it, of course. To become more than I was before and to bestride the stars as a colossus unbound by the confines of petty flesh.”
“To Sleep in A Sea of Stars” by Christopher Paolini
Just as Gregorovich sought to escape the bounds of the body, Gnosticism’s end is that one returns to a so-called enlightened spiritual state apart from the physical. Creation, from the gnostic perspective, is evil. The body is a cage, the material realm a prison. So then why not indulge in whatever hedonism suits your fancy? If the body is merely a vessel you eventually discard, then who cares if it becomes a slum of sexual exploitation and substance abuse. It’s unclear whether or not Paolini himself fully understood any of this philosophy or if he was subconsciously influenced by the predominately gnostic thinking of our culture. The irony is that while Gregorovich continually refers to the crewmembers as “meatbags,” he is, in the Cartesian sense, quite literally the “ghost in the machine.”
We see further glimpses of gnostic thinking throughout Paolini’s Fractalverse, as in Kira’s “transcendence” as the Soft Blade merges with the Maw and she creates the space station Unity, essentially becoming a ship mind on a larger scale. Falconi, captain of the Wallfish, wonders if she still considers herself human. She responds that “part of me does.”
Falconi inclined his head. A wry smile flickered about his mouth. “Don’t know why, but feels like I should be bowing to you.” “Please don’t,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to bow to anyone or anything. You’re not servants, and you’re certainly not slaves.”
“To Sleep in A Sea of Stars” by Christopher Paolini
The circumstances surrounding Kira’s transformation borrow heavily from Christian imagery (e.g., the Edenic motif), yet the fundamental theology is anything but Christian. The idea of Kira ascending to some kind of pseudo-godhood is straight out of the gnostic playbook. She has reached such an elevated plane as to be able to offer Gregorovich that which he desires–a new body. Had he accepted it would have been a sort of resurrection, but he refuses, choosing instead to remain in his disembodied existence for the sake of friendship, a formless ideal Plato would have applauded. While even Kira’s offering of a new body is done through a gnostic lens (she offers Gregorovich a body of any size or construction as if one is wholly disconnected from his form and may choose another at random), Gregorovich’s choice embodies the philosophy’s highest ambition, namely the ascension of the immaterial self.
“I have something for you as well,” she said. “If you want it.” *Oh really? And what might that be, O Ring Giver?* “A body. A new body, as large or small as you want, metal or organic, in any shape or design that strikes your fancy. Just tell me, and the Seed can make it.” To Kira’s astonishment, the ship mind did not immediately answer. Rather, he was silent, and she could hear his silence as a physical thing: a pressure of contemplation and uncertainty on the other end of the signal. “Think of it; you could go anywhere you wanted to, Gregorovich. You wouldn’t need to be bound to the Wallfish anymore.” At long last, the ship mind said, *No. But I think, perhaps, I want to be. Your offer is tempting, Kira, mighty tempting. And don’t think I’m ungrateful, but for the time being, I think my place is here, with Falconi and Nielsen and Trig and Hwa-jung and Sparrow. They need me, and … I won’t lie, it’s nice to have meatbags like them running around my decks. You might understand that now. A body would be nice, but I could always have a body. I couldn’t always have this crew or these friends.*
“To Sleep in A Sea of Stars” by Christopher Paolini
Unlike Gnosticism, Christianity fundamentally denies the idea that the material world is inherently wicked. That which God has created is good. He said so Himself (Genesis 1:31). God made both the visible and invisible, the material and spiritual, heaven and earth. Nothing exists apart from Him and all things were created for His glory. Therefore nothing in creation can be considered wicked in and of itself. Man, in his totally depraved state, may use created things for wickedness, but it’s nothing short of paganism to believe that any part of creation is intrinsically evil. Yes, creation is in bondage to decay. Adam’s sin and the resultant Fall brought about death and destruction at all levels, but Christians, unlike Gnostics, look to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ at Calvary as not only the redemption of His particular people (both body and soul), but also the redemption of creation itself. By bearing the wrath that we deserve, the just penalty of our sin, Christ has become the second and far better Adam, bringing salvation to man and to creation.
16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Colossians 1:16-17, ESV
Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the redeemer of all things, not just the spiritual man alone. After His crucifixion, He was raised physically and so Christians await the bodily resurrection, desiring not to be unclothed but further clothed (2 Cor. 5:4). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of how the physical bodies of believers are one with the body of Christ. In Romans we read of the “redemption of our bodies.” All of Scripture testifies to this fullness of man, culminating ultimately in the God-man Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man. Christians do not seek to cast off the physical, to float as disembodied spirits in a clouded heavenly realm. Here’s your nutshell: Gregorovich can have his halved existence; we look forward to dwelling with our Lord in the redeemed new heaven and new earth.
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8:18-25, ESV