Science fiction masters Larry Niven and Gregory Benford continue the thrilling adventure of a human expedition to another star system that is jeopardized by an encounter with an astonishingly immense artifact in interstellar space: a bowl-shaped structure cupping a star, with a habitable area equivalent to many millions of Earths. And which, tantalizingly, is on a direct path heading toward the same system the human ship is to colonize.
Investigating the Bowl, or Shipstar, the human explorers are separated—one group captured by the gigantic structure’s alien inhabitants, the other pursued across its strange and dangerous landscape—while the mystery of the Shipstar’s origins and purpose propel the human voyagers toward discoveries that transform their understanding of their place in the universe.
Shipstar, the follow up to Bowl of Heaven and the second book in the series of the same name, is pretty close to perfect as sequels go. Authors Gregory Benford and Larry Niven expanded on Book 1 nicely by showing us more of the Bowl: it’s functions, processes, life forms, and history. We also learn more about the Earth crew as more of them are awakened, and their interpersonal relationships continue to develop. As the humans continue to fight for freedom, and the aliens try to hold on to their captives, the plot gets more intense and enthralling.
When I talk about expanding on information about the Bowl, that is not a statement to be taken lightly. One of the things I really love about this book is that it goes DEEP explaining the forces and dynamics that make the bowl work. It dives heavily into the physics of it, and as someone who really nerds out about processes and particles and electromagnetic forces I enjoyed being immersed in that knowledge.
This carries over to other aspects of the Bowl, as well. As the humans’ struggle to free themselves goes on with the help of other alien species present in the Bowl, the reader naturally learns more about these aliens and meets new life forms, as well. The fact that these life forms live much longer than humans makes for an effective plot mechanic because it turns into an easy way for the humans to learn more about the aliens as well as their history. Armed with more knowledge, the humans are better equipped to escape the Bowl. This give-and-take was an aspect of the book I found to be quite intriguing.
Shipstar spends more time on deck with the crew of the SunSeeker, as well, which is another way the authors have continued to developed the story. The reader gets to see into the minds of Captain Redwing and his mates as they assess the situation and formulate their own plan to help their captive colleagues. This is, again, another opportunity to explore the physics of the situation as the group further investigates the bowl and attempts to disrupt its stability. In my opinion, the commitment to making this book smart and full of explanations of the physics that makes everything work is one of the best aspects of the story.
While reading the first two books of this series, I have gotten the Star Trek feels. It is as if the Enterprise has docked on a foreign land on its way to exploring another planet and is attempting to rescue captured members of the crew. And because this part of the story encompasses two books, reading both books back-to-back was like watching a two-part episode with a “to be continued…” at the end of the first. I mentioned in my review of Bowl of Heaven (Book 1) that it felt more like classic fantasy than contemporary fantasy, and that continued with this book. I like that this series brings me back to that Star Trek state of mind. That is a big plus to me, because it feels like a bit of a throwback.
Shipstar is an excellent follow-up to Bowl of Heaven; not only does it expand on the universe of the first book properly, but the classic sci-fi writing style and episodic nature of the story split between the two books gives me the Star Trek feels, And I absolutely loved it. I continue to recommend this series for sci-fi fans. I have high expectations for Book 3, Glorious.