Bowl of Heaven
by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
Edited by David G. Hartwell
Review by Mel Jacob
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765328410
Date: 16 October 2012 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Bowl of Heaven is a collaboration between Gregory Benford and old-pro Larry Niven. The novel follows the Sunseeker, a new starship aiming for a distant planet. It will travel centuries to reach this new home for humans. The crew, except for those needed to man the controls, will hibernate until they reach their destination. However, a strange phenomenon along the way and problems with the ship's drive change plans.
A starship is heading to far off Glory, light years away. We meet the crew as they set off and then go into hibernation for the journey. After centuries, problems occur. The ship's speed has slowed and the danger of exhausting their food supplies too soon looms. The duty crews have rotated in and out of hibernation during the trip.
The ship is low on food supplies and they encounter a strange world. The world is an immense bowl, has different habitats, far exceeds in size any known planet, and is also heading in the same direction as the starship. A shuttle with a crew is sent to explore and to obtain food and water.
The strange world is difficult to enter, but a few manage to cut into an access tube and enter. However, the opening closes behind them and they are trapped. The remaining crew are captured by the aliens and imprisoned for study.
Three separate narratives follow: the Sunseeker crew, the crew that entered the bowl world, and the captured crew. The captured crew has some communication with the aliens, large ostrich-like creatures, taller than humans. Among the things they learn are which foods are safe to eat. The indomitable humans forge ahead no matter what. Ingenuity is rife.
The aliens have advanced technology especially for gene manipulation. They adapt other suitable species they encounter and call them the Adopted. They use them as servants and workers. The intelligence and creativity of the humans makes them attractive candidates, but also causes them to escape and survive on their own.
Both Niven and Benford are established writers with long careers and well respected in science fiction. They are known for a hard science orientation. Benford is a Professor of Physics at the University of California. The Bowl represents careful attention to detail and how things might work on a shipstar.
The first of two volumes, Bowl of Heaven ends with all the strands still in flux.
As a likely minority of one and despite the lyrical language at the start, I found the action ponderous and slow moving. The big turnoff for me was the speculation about the evolved dinosaurs as possible creators of the Bowl to explain the bird-like nature of the aliens and the climatic similarities to Earth. Readers will have to wait for Shipstar to find answers to this and the many questions raised.