REVIEW: BOWL OF HEAVEN / AUTHOR: GREGORY BENFORD, LARRY NIVEN / PUBLISHER: TITAN BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Bowl of Heaven is a collaboration between two of the genre’s biggest names: Gregory Benford and Larry Niven. It tells the story of the crew of the SunSeeker who have left Earth for a planet called Glory. En route, they encounter a Brobdingnagian object – a vast bowl travelling through space with its own star in the centre. It has a surface area millions of times that of the Earth and the crew divert to explore and begin a journey that will lead to alien encounters, danger and mystery.
The book is divided into various parts. It starts in hard SF style, serving up lots of engineering info about both the SunSeeker and the enormous wok-in-space that is the bowl. Once the ship takes up orbit inside the bowl, a shuttle lands and its crew splits into two parties led by Cliff and Beth. Cliff’s party avoid capture and become our eyes as they explore the surface of the bowl and attempt to stay alive. Beth’s party gets caught, then escapes and they too seek to survive in this alien landscape. Occasionally Beth or Cliff makes contact with the rest of the crew back on the SunSeeker, who act as a balance to the more active parts of the story.
Bowl of Heaven bears inevitable comparison with Niven’s Ringworld and to his collaboration with Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye. The story starts with a lot of science, then moves to a more action adventure style. The bowl is a clever idea – a dirigible star that drags its inhabitants behind it. The main aliens are well conceived in that they have very different minds to ours and will be fascinating to anyone with an interest in psychology. There is plenty of mystery and slow reveals of a deeper story, and all in all it is a decent read.
But while enjoyable, Bowl of Heaven is very much a throwback to 1970s/'80s science fiction, and it's too focused on setting up a series (it carries advertising for the next book, ShipStar) to deliver a satisfying, self-contained story in its own right. This is a letdown and, considering that it took Niven 26 years to complete his Ringworld trilogy, fans could be in for a long wait for future instalments.