Don’t buy this book! Or rather, don’t buy this book unless you also buy ‘Shipstar’, the book which follows. ‘Bowl Of Heaven’ is not a novel, it’s half a novel. The story ends in the middle so it isn’t a part one that can be read independently of part two, namely ‘Shipstar’. Quite why they did it this way, I don’t know. The reading public is certainly ready to buy doorstops nowadays, in fact they seem to like them, whereas buying a book and reading it to the cliff-hanger ending only to find you need another book might be annoying. Luckily, I have ‘Shipstar’ to hand.
So, given the above…buy this book! At least buy it if you’re a fan of good, hard Science Fiction on an epic scale. The most obvious comparison is with Larry Niven’s solo novel ‘Ringworld’ which was similarly concerned with a huge artificial living space. Good writers can make gripping stories from the exploration of these wonders and, with Niven and Benford, we are in the capable hands of two old pros, if they’ll forgive the expression.
To the plot, then. On a colonising voyage in ramscoop ship SunSeeker to a distant star system, some crew members are woken from cold storage because the ship has encountered something unusual, namely the Bowl of Heaven of the title. About the size of our entire solar system, it’s an artificial habitat, something like half of a Dyson sphere. At, first they call it Cupworld. Problems with their own ship mean they may starve to death before they reach their destination, so they haven’t much choice but to investigate Cupworld. A team is landed but gets split up and lose each other and are soon on the run from hostile aliens.
The term ‘hard Science-Fiction’ should probably be changed, as it leads to the impression that reading it is hard or hard work. Not so. Writers like Benford and Niven make it accessible to the layman. There’s certainly a lot of science in here as there has to be to explain the workings of an entire world construct. Evolution, physics, engineering, biology and so forth are to be expected. There is also some sociology and quite a bit of psychology explaining how the aliens minds differ to ours.
Something else that puts people off ‘hard’ Science Fiction, perhaps, is the notion that it is all about science and not about people. Well, any good fiction is about people and that’s the case here. The cast are a mixed bunch of characters, some likeable, some not so much. The point of view changes frequently enough that you get some variety in how you see the adventure but not so frequently that you’re confused.
The main narrators are Cliff, his wife Beth and a high ranking alien named Memor. Showing the alien’s point of view is a masterstroke of storytelling as it lets the reader know things the poor, struggling characters don’t and gives him a better idea of the peril they face, increasing the tension. The aliens are also quite alien and go a long way to fulfilling what classic editor John W. Campbell, Jr. demanded of his writers, to give him an alien that thinks as well as a man but not like a man. A difficult task as writers inevitably think like men, except the women.
Given that both Gregory Benford and Larry Niven are in their seventies and presumably not sorely in need of funds after successful careers, I wonder why they bother anymore. But I’m glad they did. I also wonder what shaped worlds the genre will come up with next. I’m sure Dyson spheres have been done and Ringworld, and Discworld, and this is Cupworld. What next? Cubeworld? Coneworld? Spiralworld?
(pub: Titan Books. 357 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78329-432-9)