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Bowl of Heaven    by Gregory Benford & Larry Niven order for
Bowl of Heaven
by Gregory Benford
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2012 (2012)
Hardcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Bowl of Heaven, a collaboration by science fiction giants Larry Niven and Gregory Benford and the first in a series, is heavy on science and slow to develop story. It also ends rather abruptly. That said, it has an intriguing premise.

Essentially, a perilous human expedition to a faraway star system, with a likely world for colonization, comes upon an artificial shipstar. This bowl-shaped structure (encompassing a territory the size of millions of Earths) is heading to the same desirable system. When Ship Captain Redwing sends a group down to investigate, half are immediately captured, while the remainder escape. We continue to read of their alternating adventures, of the actions taken aboard the human starship SunSeeker, and of the aliens' response.

The two human leads (Cliff, a biologist, and Beth, a pilot/engineer) are awakened from deep sleep when the ship star is encountered (there is also the problem of SunSeeker not performing to specs, so that they will be out of supplies before reaching their destination). Both in the landing party, they're separated when the aliens, led by Astronomer Memor, capture Beth's team. Readers share Memor's musings on his people's long past, and their integration (by conditioning and genetic manipulation) of species encountered into the Bowl's 'ecological and political balance' of Adopted Folk communities.

The plan is to do so with the captured humans too, but Beth's group escapes, 'living like mice in a gigantic alien supermarket ... inside a wok the size of the solar system.' Cliff's team continues to avoid capture, eventually making contact with rebel alien Folk. This first episode ends on a cliffhanger with Captain Redwing planning an attack on the Bowl; Beth's band hiding in a cave and considering a connection to Earth's dinosaurs; and Cliff's group in hiding with allies in the 'Bowl's structural undergrowth.' The story will continue with episode two, Shipstar.

Though I would have liked more emphasis on characterization and story and must admit I skimmed over some of the science, I still found Bowl of Heaven an absorbing read - and especially appreciated the very relevant quotations peppered throughout, such as Mark Twain's 'You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.'

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