Russell Letson reviews Gregory Benford & Larry Niven

A collaboration between Gregory Benford & Larry Niven is one of those dream-team arrangements that publishers and readers, um, dream about. But as anyone who has watched a supergroup rock concert during pledge week knows, such dreams are not always fulfilled. So it was with some satisfaction that I found Benford & Niven’s together-again-for-the-first-time extravaganza* does indeed offer the kinds of synergies one would expect from these two. (And no pledge breaks!) [*I’m not counting Benford’s visit to Niven’s Man-Kzin Wars playground as a full collaboration. My column, my rules.]

Bowl of Heaven is the first half of a hefty two-decker novel of exploration, alien encounter, and Holy-Cow-Will-Ya-Lookitthat! engineering. (Volume Two, Shipstar, is promised on the last page.) The exploratory ramscoop starship SunSeeker is en route to a promisingly Earthlike world called Glory when it encounters something not only unexpected but barely believable: a bowl (‘‘wok-shaped mirrored shell’’ is the first description) broader than the orbit of Mercury with a hole in its center through which a small sun pours a jet of plasma. Even though it is not nailed down tight until page 71 (with a nice graphic, too), it is not a spoiler to reveal that this really big Big Smart Object (as Benford is calling it in interviews) proves to be not only a habitat but a vehicle, apparently also heading for the Glory system. Circumstances (to say nothing of curiosity) dictate that SunSeeker take a closer look and land an exploratory team of ten, led by senior biologist Cliff Kammath and scientist-pilot Beth Marble, but when the Bowl’s proprietors show up, half the party (including Beth) is captured by the giant-bird-like Folk, while Cliff and the other half escape. The escapees find themselves in a landscape of nearly-unimaginable vastness under a sun that never sets, where they encounter a range of creatures as strange as the Bowl itself. Beth’s team, on the other hand, are studied by Memor, a senior Astronomer of the Folk, and the human captives study Memor right back – until they too escape and make their own set of discoveries.

So this volume is mostly adventure-as-exposition, setting up questions to be answered and conflicts to be complicated and presumably resolved in the second half of the story. Details of the nature and operation of the physical setting – a world which is also an artifact which is also a vessel – unfold via the travels of the two groups of prisoners/escapees, while questions about the Bowl’s social/political and operational arrangements are revealed at a slower rate. The Folk are at the top of a hierarchy, organized into something between guilds and castes, perhaps reinforced by genetic engineering or breeding. Alien species encountered along the Bowl’s route may be ‘‘adopted’’ and adapted to fit into the artificial world’s carefully-balanced systems. Teasing fragments of the deep history of the Bowl and its voyage emerge from Memor’s interactions with her own kind and her reflections on the humans, and there are clearly some Big Secrets waiting to be sprung in the second half.

Part of the fun of a collaboration of this kind is trying to figure which bits ‘‘belong’’ to which writer. The Bowl itself is clearly an elaboration of Ringworld – a 2.0 design with major enhancements. (There’s even an homage to Ringworld’s planetary maps.) But I was more taken by the alien personality designs. Each writer has produced a healthy catalogue of non-human mentalities and societies: Niven’s Known Space hosts a wonderful menagerie of evolution-shaped personality types, while Benford’s vision tends toward the Stapledonian – the anthology intelligences of Beyond the Fall of Night (1990), the machine species of the Galactic Center sequence or the sentient black hole of Eater (2000). This story depends as much on mental as on giant-physical architectures, and here I get a Benfordian flavor. The Folk long ago re-engineered themselves to have voluntary access to their Underminds – the vast preconscious memory repository, data-mixer, insight-generator, and behavior-driver – a trait they see as one of their great strengths. Memor notes that, despite their technological achievement, these new primates lack any direct insight into their own ‘‘deep desires,’’ and that ‘‘to understand themselves is impossible for them, unless they can see their inner, unconscious minds.’’ Elsewhere she notes that humans have ‘‘a perceptual horizon limited by the curve of primitive worlds’’ and that they live in ‘‘the mire of cyclic mechanics… the tick of some planetary clock’’ that makes for an even more restricted ‘‘innate mind-time scale’’:

The [human] creature had a summing time of a few of its own eyeblinks, a trifling interval. It used that scale to integrate information. That meant it could not delegate to its lesser parts the boring business of keeping itself alive…. This small, intense being was forced to worry about its housekeeping, such as digestion, excretion, even the intake and outblow of oxygen. Could it be so pointlessly busy? Difficult to know, but depressing to contemplate.

Despite her acute analytical modeling of the evolutionarily-determined human condition, though, Memor clearly doesn’t get humans, and as the two groups of escapees manage to evade capture and make all kinds of mischief, she finds her status, and maybe even her life, on the line.

It’s been more than 40 years since Ringworld and nearly that long since the Galactic Center Saga knocked our socks off, and I wonder how much it takes these days to render us barefoot and gaping at the scale and scope of an imaginary world. There’s been plenty of competition from the likes of Iain M. Banks, Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, Neal Asher, Vernor Vinge, and other practitioners of the widescreen and/or Stapledonian epic. But Benford & Niven have given themselves the space (conceptual and page-count) to spread out. Bowl of Heaven has room to accommodate both the thrill-ride and head-scratching sides of its sub-tradition, and I think when the second half appears, this new effort by two of the Old Masters will hold its own just fine.



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One thought on “Russell Letson reviews Gregory Benford & Larry Niven

  • August 24, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    You capture the spirit of the whole project well.


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