Bowl of Heaven

Bowl of Heaven
Greg Benford and Larry Niven

For a certain kind of SF fan, news of a Benford – Niven collaboration is a bladder loosening event. I kept control of myself when I first heard about it, but just barely. Larry Niven was my first favorite SF author and while I am occasionally hard on Greg Benford’s books, his best are very good. My life got even more fabulous when I found out that their book would be an update on the Big Mysterious Object trope that I dearly love. “Let’s take Ringworld,” they must have said, “make so it isn’t broken, so the creators are still in control of things, and, just for the hilarity of it all, send it cruising out in the stars, like a Dyson Sphere sized Winnebago.” This was in many ways the SF event of the year for me.

The collaboration is doubly intriguing because their writing styles are so different. Niven’s stories tend toward fast moving, brightly optimistic tales, with that kind of “science will make it all ok” attitude characteristic of an earlier age. Benford, in contrast, adopts a darker tone, not necessarily pessimistic, but almost seeming resigned to our final irrelevance, what with the impending heat death of the universe and all. Something I read or heard leads me to believe that Benford did most of the writing, with Niven taking the role of Idea Man. I think Benford himself explained this in a Google roundtable, saying that much of the book worked itself out on walks the two would take together, though I would have to track down said roundtable to confirm this. The book itself bears this out, with zany big ideas reminiscent of Known Space, but restrained prose.

I suspect that most people who pick up this book do so knowing exactly what is coming. With an all-star collaboration like this, there is no reason to expect that either author will suddenly strike out in a new direction. Sure enough, this is unapologetic Hard SF. It’s fairly safe to say that fans of the subgenre will love Bowl, while those who demand lyricism, depth, and grand insight will roll their eyes. My own stance should be clear to long time readers, but for any new faces, I will confess to treasuring whiz-bang engineering and plausible, inventive aliens over all else. This is, after all, why I read the genre. Anyway, not everyone is into this kind of thing I guess, but fans of stupendous and mysterious Stuff in Space should begin reading immediately.

Details about The Bowl are pretty easy to come by, but a quick summary follows just in case. Take a Ringworld, attach half of a Dyson Sphere, then dedicate most of the sphere part to a propulsion mechanism that turns the solar wind into a jet engine shooting out the base of the bowl. Put some aliens in charge of the thing and point it towards a yet unknown destination. Unlike most Big Mysterious Objects, this one is neither abandoned nor mysterious, not at least to the aliens in charge. The humans that stumble on it have no idea of course, but The Bowl contains a functioning civilization, not just a bunch of relics and ruins. Further, the aliens are the quality one would expect from Benford and Niven, with a well developed culture that is both comprehensible to us, but utterly different. No people in rubber masks here.

I must reserve judgment about plot, characters, themes, and other prosaic stuff, because Bowl is only half of the story. Part Two will come out in 2013, so for now we are left without any sort of conclusion. Most of the first 400 pages of this epic are concerned with finding The Bowl, landing on it, then having some adventures and capers. Everything points to major developments later on, but for now we have to make do with survival, some chases, and a whole lot of Big Science. I will say that a couple of things surprised me a bit. I didn’t expect as much Boy Scout wilderness survival. I also didn’t expect paragraphs about “leadership” and “team building” to randomly pop up. Earlier Benford spent a lot of time lashing out at management types, and I have never seen Niven pull out business-speak. Neither of these are bad things necessarily, just not what I expected.

The rest goes pretty much according to plan. I am not yet convinced that the characters will learn crucial life lessons or “grow.” Everyone is a rational, pragmatic science type, which is nice for anyone sick of people having emotions in SF. The Bowl, and a couple of aliens to a lesser extent, thoroughly overshadow the mere humans wandering around in it. James S.A. Corey gets credit for writing throwback SF in The Expanse, but Bowl is ten pounds of throwback in a five pound bag. It doesn’t get any more old school than Benford and Niven.

This ultimately is what will make or break the book. Nothing in this review will change an educated SF reader’s mind; the only way I could influence anyone is if the book were a flaming pile of crap and I said so publicly. (It’s not, so I won’t.) Beyond that, Hard SF people know what they want, and they probably want Benford and Niven writing a Big Mysterious Object story together. Other kinds of readers will skip it and read Honor Harrington, or urban fantasy, or whatever it is they prefer. I know what camp I am in, so nobody will ever convince me that half a Dyson Sphere crewed by giant, sentient birds and hurtling through the void is anything but pure awesomeness.

Rating: Zidane and Ronaldo teaming up. What could possibly go wrong?