In this first collaboration by science fiction masters Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Gregory Benford (Timescape), the limits of wonder are redrawn once again as a human expedition to another star system is jeopardized by an encounter with an astonishingly immense artifact in interstellar space: a bowl-shaped structure half-englobing a star, with a habitable area equivalent to many millions of Earths…and it’s on a direct path heading for the same system as the human ship.
A landing party is sent to investigate the Bowl, but when the explorers are separated–one group captured by the gigantic structure’s alien inhabitants, the other pursued across its strange and dangerous landscape–the mystery of the Bowl’s origins and purpose propel the human voyagers toward discoveries that will transform their understanding of their place in the universe.
Bowl of Heaven is a story of space exploration and alien encounters as much as it is a study in the human condition. Authors Gregory Benford and Larry Niven have written a futuristic science fiction book about a crew heading to another planet that is thought to be habitable, when they dock at a giant alien space station engulfing a star with the goal of satiating their curiosities while hopefully resupplying their starship at the same time. The aliens capture some of the crew, while the others get away. As the governing aliens decide the fate of the captured explorers and attempt to track the remaining members, both groups concoct plans to escape.
Let’s talk sci-fi elements, first. For the most part, I really thought the authors did a nice job with this aspect of the book. What I like most about this story is how unique it is. At first, the idea of this “bowl of heaven” encircling a star seemed a little far fetched to me. But, as I got more into the story and theories about what the structure is and how it came to be becomes really intriguing. The other two big plot points are the exploration of the bowl, and the interaction with the aliens who govern it – both experienced by different crews and written from their respective perspectives. Strange animals, rocky terrain, mindgames, rebellions, intimate hookups, and many episodes of “Is This Safe to Eat?” make an appearance. It was all so interesting and exciting, and I found myself always wondering what was going to happen next.
I do want to note that this book felt more like classic science fiction to me than most of the complex space stories that are trending. It is definitely not a space opera, as its focus is pretty singular. The story does not involve other planets or systems, for the most part, and human-alien encounters are limited to the bowl. In my opinion, that is not a bad thing, though. While we all love a good space opera, sometimes it is nice to experience a more classically-told story, as well, as there is a certain connotation that comes along with it. As a reader, classic sci-fi puts me in a certain place, a particular mindset. I like the fact that this book took me there.
I mention the human condition before, because there is a lot of focus on the way humans respond and interact versus the aliens. This is not uncommon for a story such as this (it actually reminded me a lot of the TV show Falling Skies; a show that I really enjoyed), where the aliens are surprised by how witty the humans are and how much willpower they have. The humans are adaptable and work as a team; whereas the aliens are much more split in their actions. This is a fun way to present this type of story, though I do think it tends to get a little kitschy after a while.
One opinion I have held fast on is the fact that I think sci-fi is the hardest genre to write, for many reasons. One of the aspects that I find difficult is writing our world from our time but also different because it is in the future. I found that to be one of the challenges with this book, as a lot of the culture references (regarding music, literature, etc) are ones we would make today; for instance, one of the crew members quoted Shakespeare and everyone not only knew it well but seemed to understand the subtext. And, while I have no doubt Shakespeare’s work will still be around and well-known a hundred years from now, I am not sure if it will be an automatic reference everyone will understand. I do not consider this to be a huge flaw, but it is one worth mentioning as there are times where it stands out in the story.
Bowl of Heaven is a fun and exciting science fiction novel. It has a unique storyline that creates and a lot of intrigue and drives the plot. I recommend it for fans of sci-fi, and especially those looking for one that is written in a more classic style. I am looking forward to what book 2 in the series, Shipstar, has in store.