Book Review: Bowl of Heaven
Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
Kindle eBook: 414 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Language: English
Sold by: Macmillan
ASIN: B00842H6HQ

Plot Summary:

In the future, humanity begins to colonize the solar system and then the nearby stars. The next such ship is the SunSeeker, a ramscoop vessel en route to a star some 45 light-years, and centuries of travel time, from Sol. Its passengers ride in stasis, while its crew travels in shifts, two-person teams spending some years awake tending to the voyage, then going into stasis for the remainder while another team takes over. Their destination is Glory, a possibly habitable, possibly terraformable world orbiting the target star. Strange gravity waves have also been detected emanating from the same star system, or maybe from somewhere far beyond it - no one is really sure.

Five light-years short of their destination, Cliff Kammash, a biologist and one of the colonists, is awakened out of stasis to face two major problems. First, the ship is not taking in enough hydrogen while in flight and is not traveling fast enough. At their current speed they will run out of consumables before the ship arrives. Second, they have encountered something unprecedented in space: a star that seemed a first to have appeared out of nowhere, and was then revealed to have been hidden by a vast, artificial half sphere, or bowl, hundreds of millions of kilometers across. The bowl uses huge mirror arrays to reflect the star’s light back onto a specific point, heating the stellar surface and causing it to fire out a jet of plasma that is controlled by magnetic fields produced by the bowl and fired backward thru a hole in the structure. The star is pushed forward (very slowly) and the bowl is dragged along.

Deciding to move in closer to this astounding construction, the crew soon sees indications that it contains a habitable area millions of times that of a planet and decides to land. Upon their arrival they encounter the alien inhabitants, are attacked and separated, with one group captured and the other on the run - and then the adventure truly begins.

OA Relevance: Moderate to High

Bowl of Heaven has been described as hard science fiction, and mostly lives up to this description. Certainly there is nothing in the book that openly defies the laws of physics, such as FTL drives, or anti-gravity, or the like. And a habitable structure the size of a small solar system is certainly within the realm of OA relevance. In addition to the centerpiece structure, there are also mentions or descriptions of Direct Neural Interface implants, (non-relativistic) ramscoop starships, biostasis technology, and robots. Although human equivalent AIs do not appear to play a role, at least in this first book, the basic story could take place at various points in the OA timeline, particularly the earlier parts, without much modification.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

While Bowl of Heaven does quite well in terms of hard science SF storytelling, it suffers from various issues of logic, editing, and having its characters simply running around in large circles for no apparent purpose beyond filling pages or introducing some new aspect of the Bowl’s infrastructure.
Perhaps the largest logical issue is when the authors fall into the trap of forgetting just how big their imaginary construction is. In one scene they have SunSeeker send a lander down to the surface of the bowl near its outmost rim. As is not mentioned until near the very end of the book, in order to generate surface gravity, the bowl is spinning at hundreds of kilometers per second. Yet, the lander manages to match velocity and set down in about a page and a half and without any mentioned effort or difficulty.

In terms of editing, there are scenes that jump from one event to the other with no apparent transition and one point where a character seems to be in one place but then spends the entire rest of the book being in another.

In terms of characters just running around to fill time - they do this a lot. Especially the escaped humans who travel around on foot for what seems like days or weeks living off the land and occasionally seeing a few of the alien inhabitants - but mostly just learning how to hunt and forage (conveniently they never once consume anything poisonous and eventually get their hands on a dietary guide sent from the captured (but now escaped) other party. It seems the alien creators of this super-habitat have either never needed to develop serious security systems or are overly sure of their own abilities to the point of metaphorically leaving the keys to the prison within easy reach on several occasions. Certainly they spend a lot of time being supremely confident of their own abilities and not putting much effort into finding the escaped humans or properly managing the ones they have - even to the point of letting them keep their hand lasers after they’ve demonstrated what they are. This may be some quirk of alien psychology, but it doesn’t really sit well with the reader.

Niven has demonstrated an awareness of these kinds of issues in his past books, giving the reader a sense of just how vast the Ringworld is and the difficulties in docking with it and addressing issues of non-human mental blindspots in Footfall, his collaboration with Jerry Pournelle. In Bowl of Heaven the treatment of these issues is somewhat lax and unsatisfying. Based on past experience with the author’s works, I would have expected better. I’m not sure what role Benford had in this story, but the characters feel similar to ones I’ve seen him create in the past. They are three-dimensional and developed, but also feel a little cool or detached.

Overall Rating: OK

I’ll buy the next book in the series, because I want to see what happens, but I can’t say I’m straining at the bit to do so. The book is interesting, but not as well done as past works by either author, and suffers from some issues of lazy reasoning and an overabundance of space filling exposition that does little to advance the story, but lots to expand the page count.

If you buy it, don’t go for the expensive hardcover version.

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