Greg Benford and Larry Niven
Shipstar’s predecessor, Bowl of Heaven, made a big splash upon its release. The thought of an All-Star collaboration between two of Hard SF’s biggest names, and their stated intention to update the venerable Big Mysterious Object trope had certain demographics salivating. BMO’s are admittedly hoary, but they go with Hard SF like sushi and wasabi-infused soy sauce. Now, with the author who really put BMO’s on the map with Ringworld and a highly respected, multi-award winning writer working together on a Big Smart Object, what could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, enthusiasm has cooled a bit after the first book. Like a reunion album from some famous 1970s band, many people checked it out, decided that things felt too dated, got nostalgic for the originals, and set Bowl aside. I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who loved it, but most of the people I talked to were lukewarm. Indeed, the review here was far more positive than most I read. I will be the first to admit Bowl’s flaws, problems that plague most Hard SF no matter the era. The characters were rather flat and the plot was decent, with both relying heavily on the Bowl to carry things off into the sunset. The authors are clearly from another time, lacking the cutting edge verve makes certain recent books so fascinating. Niven in particular has been accused of coasting on past glories, charges that Bowl did little to discourage.
Now, with expectations dampened and people buzzing more about other 2014 releases, Shipstar sails into port. All I can say to those who vowed not to go on is: forget your promises and get this book. Bowl could be a bit of a stage-setting slog, with the trapped humans to explain, the Bowl to introduce, the Folk to show, the conflicts to set up, the information to dump, etc. etc. etc. With Shipstar, the table is set and all that is left to do is bring out the roast beast, light the dessert on fire, and pull the tablecloth out from under the crystal at the end. (This is actually a fairly accurate description of what happens. Trust me.) We still get a few inexplicable moments of leaders musing on leadership and awkward human interactions, but they are overshadowed by the rest. (Greg, what happened? You used to HATE middle management types, now you’re writing effective motivational techniques into your fiction.)
This is still archetypal Hard SF. The humans are moderately engaging, but they mostly serve as an excuse for Science and Aliens. And what aliens they are! One would expect this from Niven, but non-humans steal the show. The Folk are fascinating, and have a pretty mind-boggling history that would be a total spoiler to reveal, so I won’t say anything. The Sil are doughty, the Finger Snakes are hilarious, and the authors pull a few more tricks out that will floor a certain type of reader. They’ve really dug deep into exobiology for this one, with stuff that will surprise even the most grizzled SF veterans. In contrast, Bowl focuses mainly on the Folk, with only hints of what is to come.
The Science bit keeps pace. We all know that the meat of the series will cover the Bowl, its functional basics, its destination and history, and probably a twist or two that will pull the rug out. This it does, in ways I can’t go into here. The Bowl is mind-blowing, but we all knew that before. It has to be, or nobody would write these books. The challenge is to blow minds in original and unexpected ways, and the authors pull this off with aplomb. Again, this is to be expected. Niven knows he has to outdo the Ringworld here, so he goes all in. Benford isn’t about to go down in history as a guy who can’t deliver the science fictional equivalent of meat and potatoes, so he is at his peak. Together, they check all the boxes for BMO’s, but never predictably or conventionally.
Finally, I should say a word or two about Ye Olde Sense of Wonder. The authors know what is required of this sort of book. They know we’re here to be wowed, and they come through. Not just with the Bowl though, they pull that trick we see in all the best SF, one that defines SF as a genre apart from other fiction. Benford and Niven wrote a book that keeps unfolding new secrets that continually expand the horizons of the story and its universe. This is something I see more in SF than anywhere else, the way that one revelation doesn’t just propel the plot, but opens new existential and physical possibilities. A fact is unveiled that changes not just our perception of a character or situation, but the way the universe is put together. Shipstar has these moments every 50 pages or so. New information comes to light, and suddenly everything means something different. It is 400 pages of, “Wow, that thing there is really cool. Wait, if A does this, that means that B is possible, which in turn makes C suddenly important, and hang on, what do you mean there are dinosaurs?”
If it’s not clear yet, I will summarize in fewer words. Everything in this book except the humans gets wilder and crazier on a straight line projection; I enjoyed every minute. Yes, it’s a throwback. With the exception of a nod here and there to climate change and environmentalism, this is 1970s, Big Idea science fiction, where massive engineering works cruise the galaxy and plucky humans figure things out. It is the epitome of meat and potatoes SF, but made with grass fed, gourmet meat and locally grown, organic Yukon gold spuds. It may not redefine the genre, but it is probably the peak of a particular, fundamental subsection of SF. Recommended for everyone that likes gargantuan, mysterious artifacts. (Yes, even for those who didn’t like Bowl of Heaven.)