Review by John for Bowl of Heaven:
John’s quick take: Grand science fiction ideas and an epic-scale story, but a disappointingly executed novel.
John’s description: An expedition sets off from Earth to explore a distant star system and to populate a (hopefully) Earth-like plant. The journey will take many decades and most of the travelers are put into a deep sleep while skeleton crews take it in turn to pilot the starship. But after just eighty years Cliff Kammash, one of the lead biologists, is awoken early.
It soon becomes apparent to Cliff that there is a problem, but the problem pales beside the discovery of an unimaginably huge artifact that is the size of a solar system. Indeed, the bowl-shaped object seems to encompass a star and have a surface area that is millions of times that of earth. It also seems to heading towards the same star system targeted by the humans.
With the starship inexplicably losing velocity and struggling to reach its goal, the crew decide to investigate the bowl, hoping to replenish supplies that are being depleted too quickly. More of the crew are awakened and a landing party is sent down to the surface of the bowl. There they discover strange bird-like aliens, but half of the party are captured. The two separated groups then struggle to explore and understand the strange world, unsure of how they can ever get back to their own ship.
John’s thoughts: Oh dear. One of my pet hates is a book that masquerades as a standalone novel but in reality is only the first episode in a series – with no satisfactory conclusion to any of the plot threads. There are ways of creating a series that still provide a satisfying experience to someone who just wants to read one of the books, but no attempt is made to do that in Bowl of Heaven. Worse still, nowhere on the jacket or book description are you made aware that this is just the first in the series. This is the worst example of my pet hate that I have come across in a long time. Very frustrating.
Will I be tempted to seek out the next in the series? No. There are some interesting ideas in the book and I like some of the interaction between the different species, but the story drags on too much and lacks pace - I had a hard time reading more than a dozen pages at a time. It doesn’t help that the characters are all a bit two dimensional and some of the interplay between them just doesn’t feel plausible. It also doesn’t help that there is some weird editing in the book. There were at least three obvious discontinuities or contradictions in the story.
I can only rate this book 2 stars; and the only people I could recommend it to are die-hard fanatical follower of Benford or Niven who are prepared for the long haul of a series and can get beyond some of the shortcomings of this read.
Bowl of Heaven ~ by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven (Tor Books; October 2012; Hardcover; 416 pages)