Bowl of Heaven
By Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
Published by Audible Frontiers
Read by Zach Villa
When I first saw this one in the monthly Science Fiction Book Club flyer, I was interested. I have only read a few stories by Gregory Benford, but I have read a lot by Larry Niven. Most of Niven’s stories I have enjoyed, though I have to admit the more recent ones have not quite been top my taste. However, this one sounded like it was right up his alley and would be a return to the sorts of stories I enjoy. The collaboration of two renowned masters of the genre just had to be a worthwhile read!
I hate being wrong, especially about that. My first complaint is that the whole story feels like a rewrite of Larry Niven’s Ringworld. The artificial world in this book is half a Dyson Sphere that is propelled through space, forcing the star it half-envelops to send off such a great flare (If I remember correctly they literally do it with mirrors, go fig) that the star can journey around the galaxy going from system to system while dragging the Bowl (or Cupworld as some characters call it) along with it. It’s an interesting concept, though I must admit I wonder how much thrust is generated that way, or more to the point, how much thrust is necessary to move the star and how long you could keep it up before the propellant (the mass of the star) is depleted? I don’t claim to have sufficient knowledge of physics to even start to answer that. Maybe it works and for the sake of the story, let’s stipulate that this is a viable means of interstellar travel. The Ringworld was just that, a ribbon of material about one million miles across that encircled a star. It was considerably smaller than the Bowl, but still a supremely monumental achievement if it could be done and would afford the species that lived on it more than enough space to spread out in for millions of years.
What do they have in common? Well, they are both partial Dyson Spheres and fantastically large habitats to boggle the mind of anyone who understands just how amazingly large that is. To quote Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space, listen…” However, while the Bowl might not be as big as all space, it is still larger than any mere Superjovian world… It’s big… Really big. Both the Bowl and Ringworld are and they both have room for just about anything.
Ringworld, the first book, was a masterpiece of science fiction, although the rest of the series was badly flawed when Niven was forced to retcon the world and the people on it to fit physical facts various engineers pointed out to him and a really big mistake that he added to the Known Space series himself when he wrote Protector which hypothesized that humans, or their ancestors, H. habilis, were not native to Earth but came from the center of the galaxy. The sad part is that his claim there was no clear link to other Earthly species had been untrue for over a century with the discovery of the first Dryopithecus fossil. This was not Mister Niven’s only display of his lack of anthropological knowledge, of course. In his book A World Out of Time (which I enjoyed highly except for this part) he went on and on using Wittfogel’s Hydraulic Hypothesis as a basis for his “State” which could not collapse. It was a respected notion in its day and seemed to have a lot of proof in its favor, but a decade or two before Niven used it, it had been discredited by subsequent discoveries. It’s a clear example that one should not write about stuff one does not know. (And having said that, I admit to having been guilty of the same thing from time to time… it happens)
In this book, I got the idea that somehow, Niven thought he could write another Ringworldish story but one that did not fall afoul of the problems of his earlier work. However, I found myself wondering if the dominant sapient species in the Bowl could have built it. They do not seem intelligent enough to have done so and the certainly do not show any sign of having a sufficiently advanced technology to build such a thing. At one point these large bird creatures (imagine Sesame Street’s Big Bird with rainbow plumage and a brain and you will not be too far off) admit to having genetically modified a number of intelligent species including themselves. Could they or would they have “Dumbed” themselves down to the point they could direct where their world went, but no longer be able to build such a thing? Maybe.
I also had a lot of trouble wrapping my small little mind around the concept that these birds were smarter simply because they are capable to communicating with their subconscious minds (actually the authors call it the “Undermind” and humans are primitive because they cannot). I’m not certain that knowing where their intuition came from would make them any more intelligent, but maybe it would. They certainly seem at least as foolish as humans in that they assume they are the pinnacle of evolution and that all other intelligent species are beneath them because they do not measure up to the “Birds’” morphological standards.
But where I totally lost my respect for the story was in the assertion that evolution is standardized from one world to another. All of the life forms have Earthly analogues. The Birds even go on about how all Primates have certain behaviors in common, (Has either author actually studied Primates? Hard to believe after that statement) and then state behaviors that are not common across the entire order, but where do they know other primates from? Other worlds, it seems (unless the half-baked conjecture of one character that the Bowl was built around what was originally a companion star to Sol and left here at some time during the Mesozoic Era – an hypothesis that really does not work, by the way, but, then it was presented as oddball – is true to the story in which case… Let me drop that whole line. The point is that while I’ll admit I too have used parallel evolution to account for some SF species in my stories, it is highly unlikely that so many different worlds would have the same sorts of life forms, the only differences being which ones became sentient.
The story is partially about those Birds (is it fair to call them “Birdbrains?” Probably not, but it helped as I listened to the story) but mostly about a crew of humans navigating across the light years to a new world circling a distant star. Now having a construct like the Bowl headed in the same direction as you are is alarming enough to warrant investigation, but the authors here decided to have them stop because the interstellar ship is running out of air and food. Now what sort of moron would send a ship like that out such an incredible distance without having at least twice the necessary estimated resources on board? I ask because the reason they are running out is that their ship’s drive is not working as well as hoped so it is taking longer to get to where they are going. So they have decided to drop by the Bowl and see if they could borrow a cup of sugar… so to speak. And how do they approach? By flying straight up the solar flare that is strong enough to push a whole sun and a bowl that is at least the mass of an entire solar system (possibly much more). Well it was a lovely verbal image which the pilot likened to surfing… if one surfed on the sun, I guess. Strangely, in the future we can build a ship capable of sailing through a solar flare strong enough to move a sun and yet it is still considered fragile by any passing alien.
So the ship itself remains in orbit while explorers go down to the surface to negotiate. Some of them are immediately captured and the others run away, killing various denizens of the Bowl as they go. The Birdies start trying to teach their captives to speak a civilized language and them those captive get free as well.
As the story progressed I found myself more and more skeptical about the abilities of the Bird people and even more so about some of the human characters. One party of humans manage to steal a vehicle. I guess the crime rate in the Bowl is low since there is no way to track the car save by eye-witnesses watching it go by. Eventually the humans give up the car and hop a freight train. This had to be one of the most foolish things they could have done. The train is being loaded up by robots which had to have cameras for eyes. In a completely automated system I would not expect the robots to react to the appearance of humans except, perhaps, to do their best to work around them and for the most part it is the humans who are staying out of the robots’ ways. However to get on the train they had to leave the car behind and that would have been found leaving the Birds to conclude the runaway humans were on the train. Later it turns out the Birds have a recording of them boarding the train, in fact. Now the train ran along for over fourteen hours (one of the characters remarks that is how long he slept) so even if there were no recordings of the humans getting on the train that should have been plenty of time to call ahead and have a full security squad on hand when the train finally came to a stop. However, no. The only one to greet them was a representative of an alien underground of so-called “adopted” species asking their help in getting out from under the yoke of the Birds. Honestly, the whole sequence came off like the Keystone Cops trying to arrest the Three Stooges.
Insult is added to literary injury when the story does not actually come to an end or even a decent resting place. Indeed it looks like either the story was much longer but the publisher stuck a knife in from the back and cut it off at the point of deepest penetration. The whole thing is capped off by a clumsy attempt at an epilogue that is really just a long-winded means of saying “To be continued.”
It is not that nothing has happened so far. Quite a bit has happened, but the whole volume feels like a prologue for a real story. It is as though the authors are saying, “Still with us? Well, when you shell out for the next book we’ll start telling you what’s happening.” There is just no satisfaction for the reader and that is a shame because these are two accomplished and recognized masters of science fiction. We know they can write a darned good story. This just wasn’t it. They came up with an amazingly new engineering construct; one large enough to contain the wonders of the universe and then failed to fill it with the originality it deserves.
I read several reviews of this book because I wanted to make sure I was not missing something. I honestly do not know why several reviewers did not like Zach Villa’s reading of this book. Perhaps they did not like his voice (or voices?). However, I really think he did a creditable job without resorting to funny voices except for when one of the Sil (that rebel alien species) speaks and then it is allowable since he is described as speaking in what I would call a “Funny voice.” It would have been wrong to have him speak in clear, unaccented English especially when the narrative text specifically describes his pronunciation.
So, in summary this book appears to be how SF grandmasters collaborate, by “phoning in” a story, but it is read acceptably well. Always keep in mind when you read someone else’s half-baked review that your mileage may vary, so if you love the works of Messrs. Benford and Niven, maybe you’ll like this one too, but I did not.