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Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven

Preface: I have not read either of these authors’ independent work, so I cannot make any comparisons in that regard.

I liked this book well enough to probably be suckered into waiting for the next in the series. However, I didn’t buy this one (Go SPL!) and I won’t buy the next one either because while I enjoyed Bowl of Heaven well enough to want to read the sequel, the books weren’t that great. The main issue I had was the book’s repetitiveness, its hollow characters, and some obvious plot holes/mistakes.

The basic premise is that Earth sends out a spaceship that will take the best and brightest scientific minds to the nearest (millions of light years away) habitable planet, Glory, so that they can terraform it and make it human-friendly. Everybody gets frozen for the journey except rotating teams of pilots. Cliff, senior officer and biologist supreme gets woken up early. There’s a big thing in the sky and the pilots don’t know what to do about it. You’ll get plenty of description of this thing, so I won’t go there except to saw that it’s a bowl with a hole in the middle, and it seems to be the size of our solar system. Running short on supplies, of course, the newly awoken captain and a few others brought out of stasis decide to make contact. Chaos ensues, the humans are on the run, the place is kind of like Earth but way more weird and not really like Earth at all, etc. Let me repeat that last bit a few hundred times: the place is kinda like Earth, but not. It’s weirder, really weirder. Did you get that? It’s weird. And it’s HUGE. Let me repeat that a few more hundred times. It’s beyond human comprehension how HUGE it is! And the aliens, yeah, they’re weird too. Like Big Bird. No really. And let me repeat a few hundred times that according to the Big Birds, humans are sooooo primitive and stupid and helpless and ridiculous. And yet so elusive and tricky and hard to catch!

Look, I’m geting pretty tired of this Ascendency of the Human Race thing, where no matter how advanced or more capable the aliens humanity encounters, humans still prevail due to their scrappiness, their smarts, their humanity, or even worse, their capability to love (here’s looking at you The Host). The Bird Folk created in this series could be genuinely interesting, and they clearly have a complex hierarchy and political system that would be really fun to explore, especially considering how the book ends, but they are stunted by the authors’ need to show that human beings are always better than anything else that’s out there. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to really give a shit about any of the human characters because there are no real characters. There are more like character types, and maybe because they’re all scientist-types, almost none of them show any sort of emotion (I’m qualifying that statement in case there was some incredible subtlety that a mere casual reader like myself might have missed or not been smart enough to *get*). Due in large part to this, the entire book has the same narrative tone, even though there are at least 5 different character viewpoints. The only one that is distinctive is Memor’s, and that’s because she’s the alien dripping with scorn for the humans.

Remember that scene in Jurassic Park (out in 3D soon?) where they’re in the car and the T-rex breaks through the wires? Well, it comes out on level ground on the right-hand side, if you’re looking at the cars. In a scene shortly after, there is a huge drop on that same side that some of the characters face. It was a small thing, but fairly easy to have corrected. Similar things happen in this book, most noticeably with Beth’s group at the beginning. This seems to happen in part due to the multiple-view-points narrative construct. So we first see the main action of landing on the Bowl through Cliff’s eyes, the other main character. Then, after the split, we see some of that same action through Beth’s and there are discrepancies, but not the kind that come from post-modern-fractured-narrative style. Straight up discrepancies. One of the reviews on Amazon claimed that this book read more like an unfinished draft because of such basic mistakes, and while I wouldn’t go that far, there could have been more done to make sure the narrative views aligned and were consistent with one another.

And yet. I give this book three stars because it was fun to read. I liked it and sped through it pretty fast. The basic on-the-run-narrative trope works well enough here, though it ends with no resolution whatsoever. I personally didn’t mind that much, probably because I wasn’t horribly invested in it enough to shake my fist in rage at the authors and damn them for not publishing the sequel until June 2013. Whatever. If I remember that then, I’ll put in on hold at the library. If not, well, this won’t leave me sleepless and wondering. A mediocre sentiment for what promises to be a fairly mediocre series.

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