Top positive review
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An enjoyable hard science-fiction novel that is diminished by the weak characters
on 10 October 2012
"Bowl of Heaven" is a science fiction novel created collaboratively between Gregory Benford & Larry Niven. As both these authors are known as masters of the genre I was looking forward to reading it even though I have never actually read a novel by either of them before. What I found, was a hard science fiction novel, full of exposition and mystery that I found both interesting and intriguing.
The story itself follows the Sunseeker, a new starship that is aiming to traverse the cosmos to colonise a new world in a journey that will take centuries. All the crew except those needed to pilot the ship will be put into hibernation with these piloting teams being rotated every few years. However, during the journey two issues occur that force the on duty crew to wake up additional people from their hibernation chambers.
The first of these issues is related to the ship's speed which appeared to be slowing to the point that the food supply on board the ship may be unable to sustain the crew that are awake during the rest of the journey. However, the second issue is the most amazing; they have discovered a massive structure in the shape of a bowl that is heading in the same direction as them. It is therefore decided that the only hope for the crew is to land on this structure and try to find enough food and water to ensure they can complete their journey. Of course, when they finally manage to land on the bowl they soon discover other creatures living there, some of which don't appear to appreciate the intrusion.
The quality of the writing in novel is superb, with the reader feeling truly immersed in the strange new world that has been created. The descriptions were excellent considering the scale of what was being described and I had no issue visualizing the various structures, creatures and environments. This is all helped by some close and in depth attention to the science which ensured there was a realistic feel to the entire adventure. I really enjoyed how the authors used many aspects of science from Biology to Geology to help stretch out the mystery so that the reader was putting the puzzle together alongside the characters.
The biggest let down in the book was probably the characters though who really did play second fiddle to the environment itself and the various alien creatures. There was a severe lack of complicated personalities and the interactions themselves were all very soap operatic. This didn't really fit with me as the people were meant be highly trained scientists and professionals. I could have understood the authors making the characters into more simple caricatures had this been a pulp light science fiction novel but it is meant to be hard science fiction and therefore I had expected interesting and intelligent characters.
A final issue I had with the novel though was in regards to the ending which left nearly everything unresolved and unexplained. Personally, I was disappointed when I realised I wasn't going to get anything answered by the final pages as I didn't see anything in the synopsis or cover to highlight the fact that I would need to read two novels to get a complete story. It won't have been a major issue to some people, but it did spoil the final 50-60 pages of the book for me as I made a futile attempt to try and work out how the story could be neatly tied up.
Overall, this was a enjoyable hard science fiction novel that whilst not being that original, was well put together with some great elements of exposition and head scratching intrigue. The characters are the novel's weakest point, but the way in which Benford and Niven have created this wonderful and mysterious world more than makes up for it. On a personal level, whilst I am a little bit annoyed that I have to wait for a 2nd book I wasn't expecting, I will still be picking up the sequel so that I can receive some answers to the many mysteries that remain.