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Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
Cover Artist: NASA, ESA, Hubble
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765328700
Date: 08 April 2014 List Price $27.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: G. Benford's Website / L. Niven Website / Show Official Info /

ShipStar by Gregory Bedford and Larry Niven shows off many of the virtues, and some of the flaws, of hard science fiction. Like the first novel in this series, Bowl of Heaven, much of the book is devoted to the exploration of the giant bowl in space, bigger than a ringworld, with space for millions of Earths, the bowl is like half a Dyson's Sphere with a sun in the middle. But unlike Niven's Ringworld, this object travels in space -- in fact, the characters determine a previous visit to Earth killed off the dinosaurs. This is hard science fiction with rivets; the book has an appendix explaining the science and a few illustrations in the main text.

The book also has lots of different types of aliens--the feathered birdlike lizard Astronomer Folk who in the first book seemed to rule the Bowl, but here are shown to be more the administrators; the Ice Minds have the long term plans and are the true rulers; and also there are another two races, the finger snakes and the Sil, who befriend the humans. There are also messages from another set of aliens, those that occupy Glory, the planetary system that is the destination for both the Bowl and the human spaceship SunSeeker.

The book, in hard SF fashion, has big ideas. For instance, the characters determine that far in Earth's past some of the dinosaurs gained intelligence and build the Bowl, but some wanted to revert back to primitive ways and so were wiped out, as the afterword explained, "by then, the dinosaurs didnít have a space program".

ShipStar is the second in a series and cannot really be understood without reading Bowl of Heaven first. The book opens with the human explorers on the Bowl still divided into two groups and chased by the Astronomer Folk. The team led by biologist Beth Marble, and assisted by the finger snakes, is able to rendezvous with the SunSeeker in an exciting sequence, except for one human who is captured. Meanwhile the group led by Cliff, and their alien Sil allies, are rebuilding the Sil city and burying the dead after the fight in the previous book with the Folk and their living skyfish.

Memor, one of the Astronomer Folk who had been in charge of the Folk's effort to capture and learn about the humans defends her actions and tries to convince her superiors that the humans, who they call the Late Invaders, could be useful. Memor is reunited with her brother Bemor, but the two do not get along and the fate of the humans becomes mixed into their power struggle.

At the same time, SunSeeker intercepts messages from Glory aimed at Earth, showing an alien defeating a human character Beth recognizes as Superman (and later in the book a message showing the alien defeating a human Jesus). The book builds to a confrontation between the humans on the SunSeeker and the Astronomer Folk to save the humans on the planet.

Unfortunately, the big weakness of hard science fiction is here too--a lack of characterization and convincing human interaction. There are certainly flashes of personality, especially from Captain Redwing that illuminate his command style; Beth Marble, who sometimes challenges her captain based on what she learned from being on the Bowl; and Memor, one of the Astronomer Folk, is more fleshed out than the other aliens, especially in her rivalry with her brother who tends to patronize her. Too much of the characters' interaction seem like the passionless adulterous affair of Cliff and Irma, which is mainly an excuse for therapy and conversation. When his wife finds out about it, she instantly dismisses it to the captain as a "field event"; the authors do not even show the husband and wife discussing it at all.

Overall, ShipStar is a stronger book than Bowl of Heaven. The first book has more setup and the opening of questions while this second book resolves most of the plot threads. However, there is certainly room for at least one more book on what happens when the human ship and/or the Bowl reaches Glory.


Our Readers Respond

From: Alex Weinle:
Good review, have Niven and Benford gone too far into the hard-sfi rabbit hole? It would be nice if we didn't have to feel that they had spent all their effort coming up with a new form of habitat and that the character groups weren't just pawns to move around in a plot of consequences.

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