The Killing Star, Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski

Avonova, 1995, 340 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-77026-1

Science-Fiction writer Jerry Pournelle once told Charles Pellegrino that he “must have fascinating nightmares.” With his third novel, Dust, Pellegrino almost ended the world on a note of ecological collapse. In his first effort, Flying to Valhalla, he spent some time discussing the planet-cleansing effect of relativistic bombs. The Killing Star bridges these two novels by destroying the human race with relativistic bombs.

To be fair, it must be said that The Killing Star is a sequel to Flying to Valhalla, though no previous knowledge of the first book is required. It takes up the story where the first novel left off, with one extra-terrestrial anxious to inflict maximum damage to human civilization. Enter relativistic bombs.

The concept is incredibly simple: Take something -anything- and accelerate it to near-lightspeed velocities. Arrange the trajectory so that your target is struck by the near-c projectile. The impact will produce an energy roughly comparable to pure mass/energy conversion (the closer to c, the closer the equivalent). For best results, send a projectile that spreads over a wide area at the very last moment. Total destruction quasi-assured. Best of all, aggressively speaking, is that by the nature of the weapons, you can’t see it coming until it’s far too late.

Now, obviously, no nation on Earth has the means and willingness to build relativistic bombs, and -more practically- to send them away at near-c velocities. This is where implications become fascinating: only a much more advanced civilization would be able to do such a thing. Though we can speak for ourselves as incompetent, what if other extraterrestrial races out there have this capacity?

Furthermore, what if they’re convinced that every race wants to do it to them? Wouldn’t they strike preemptively? Is that why the SETI project hasn’t intercepted any signals from other civilizations? Are we stupid enough to advertise ourselves to overly paranoid races? Are relativistic bombs heading our way as we speak? Pellegrino and James Powell make a convincing analogy about the galaxy being like Central Park at night. Sure, chances are that you’ll be able to walk through it unharmed, but as you crazy enough to shout “Hello! I’m friendly! Talk to me!” while doing it?

This review is halfway over, and still hasn’t talked about the novel itself. That should tell you something both about the novel and the strength of the ideas contained within.

Thirty pages in The Killing Star, humanity has been destroyed at the exception of a few isolated outposts under the sea, near the Sun, on comets or inside asteroids. The remainder of the novel is dedicated to the relentless hunter/killer game between alien predator and human prey.

To be fair, the characterization in The Killing Star is better than the two other Pellegrino novels… probably an artifact of the collaboration with Zebrowski. It’s still not good enough to give life to the characters, but it’s better. (Admittedly, it’s always difficult to be convincing when trying to characterize the clones of religious prophets.)

But purist of the hard-SF ethos will argue that characterization and complexity of plotting must take second seat to ideas and fulfillment of premises. In this regard, The Killing Star fares much better, bringing forth some intriguing ideas and presenting a convincing account of the ultimate alien invasion.

But beyond that, The Killing Star is simply a lot of fun to read. Some of the sequences are breathtaking by their audacity. There are rich ironies in almost every chapter. It’s a grim but fair novel that rigidly adheres to science. Devotees of Clarke will find here what they want to read, with a harder edge and more suspense.

But long after the details of the plot will be forgotten, it’s the central idea of aliens-as-conquerors -suitably modernized- that will endure. Whether this shows hysterical paranoia or healthy foresight will have to be decided by the reader’s prejudice, but you just have to thank Pellegrino and Zebrowski to present us with such rich material for speculation.

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