For the first time, Gregory Benford and Larry Niven team up for Bowl of Heaven. The first human expedition to another habitable planet takes them across interstellar space, where they encounter an object somewhat like a Dyson Sphere–only this one encompasses half the star instead. With their ship malfunctioning, and survival questionable, they investigate the ‘bowl’ in hopes they can re-supply for the remainder of their journey. Instead, half the landing crew is captured by the aliens, and the other half is running for their lives.
The beginning of the novel is quite promising. The send-off for the mission and introduction to the characters is revealing, and the authors set a brief pace. In what seems no time at all, the Bowl is encountered, and the entire plot to this point is mesmerizing. Once the crew is split up, however, things take a turn for the worse. The pace is slow, plodding, and repetitive. Niven and Benford attempt to keep readers interested by jumping to different viewpoints, which–though revealing some plot points–rarely does much to ramp up the story. There’s more frustration here than satisfaction, as just as tantalizing details are given, it seems the reader is whisked away to another viewpoint. It’s clear by the end of the novel that either everything has to be revealed very quickly, or that the story isn’t over. The last page indicates that another volume, Shipstar is due out, which will hopefully resolve the story set forth in Bowl of Heaven.
Fortunately, it’s an intriguing story, and there are hints that the resolution may be worth waiting for. Unfortunately, the pace of the novel is so slow that it may be painful to read through another, just to learn if it was worth it. It’s already clear that this is likely a story that could have been told with a single volume, rather than splitting it into two.
Nevertheless, Bowl of Heaven is worth the read. The characters are well-drawn, and the alien civilization is foreign enough to be believable. The sheer scale of the engineering involved is quite incredible, and will hopefully be explored further in volume 2. Niven’s influence is immediately apparent, and traces of the Ringworld books appear all over. Benford’s ability to bring complex, alien viewpoints to life is also on hand, to make the Bowl’s inhabitants aloof, yet relatable. Bowl of Heaven is most certainly a mixture of the two authors’ strengths–but their weaknesses also combine here to dramatically drag down the pace of the story.
With no current date or information about the second volume, Shipstar, readers will have to wait–and ponder–until they are rewarded with the second half of the story. Will it be worth the wait? Only time will tell.
– Reviewed by Bradley K. Brown