Edition: Gollancz, 1988
Review number: 702
McAuley's auspicious debut, this novel, won awards, which were well deserved. It is an imaginative and original piece of science fiction.
Humankind is engaged in a war throughout the galaxy with mysterious, high tech aliens, who attacked an unmanned survey ship. No alien has ever been seen, because they always self-destruct their ships when in danger of capture. There is a small clue to their identity, as another survey has discovered a planet which was already planoformed in the past - set spinning when it must have at one time had one face perpetually turned to its sun, as the moon does to earth. The planet has a strange ecology, which includes animals which have been extinct for millions of years from a range of locations including Earth. But it is the unique animals which draw the attention of the human scientific community and military it is thought that they are possibly the degenerate descendants of a colony of the aliens they are fighting.
Astronomer Dorthy Yoshida is sent to the planet not because of the speciality that she has chosen to follow but because of one she has rejected. She has telepathic powers, able to sense something of what is in the mind of others. The idea is that she can try to find out the truth about the origins of the animals by searching for clues in their minds. However, as she descends from orbit to the surface of the planet, she has the momentary impression of contact with a vast intelligence. Finding that intelligence becomes the focus of her time on the planet.
The novels that Four Hundred Billion Stars most reminded me of are both among the best known in the genre: Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead and Dan Simmons' Hyperion. While not as subtle as the former or as gritty as the latter, this gives an indication of the quality of the novel.