The Science of Wonder
Title: Bowl of Heaven
Author: Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
Big Dumb Objects have drifted through science fiction novels and stories for the last four
decades. BDOs, as they are abbreviated, made their biggest debuts in the 1970s with two novels:
Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970) and Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1972). BDOs
have also permeated shorter works, most notably those by Robert Reed in stories like "Marrow"
which make up his ongoing Great Ships series.
Now Niven is back, and in collaboration with Gregory Benford, has produced a BDO novel of
magnificent scope. That novel is Bowl of Heaven and in it, two masters of hard science fiction
take sense of wonder to a new level.
Earth is sending out a starship, the Sunseeker, to a distant star to create a colony on an earth-like
planet called Glory. The ship itself is a ram-scoop that uses artificial intelligence to gather
hydrogen for fuel as it picks up speed. It travels at only a fraction of the speed of light, but the
crew are put into a kind of suspended animation in order to survive the centuries-long trip to
However, partway through the voyage, the ship's lead biologist, Cliff Kammash, is prematurely
awakened by some of the other crew because of two anomalies that have appeared. First, the ship
itself isn't performing to specifications and it is possible that it will take significantly longer to
reach Glory than planned. This is a problem because of limited life support supplies. The second
anomaly turns out to be an unusual object that seems to be eclipsing a star. It was to investigate
this object that Cliff was revived. And upon further investigation, it is discovered that this
massive object is a bowl-shaped structure that half surrounds a star, and is almost certainly not a
natural phenomenon but instead a feat of unbelievably remarkably engineering.
With input from the captain, it is decided that the Sunseeker should investigate the "cupworld" as
it may contain the additional resources necessary to allow them to reach Glory despite the
underperforming ram-scoop engines. And so several teams land on the cupworld, encounter bird-like aliens, and are soon separated from each other and their ship.
Bowl of Heaven is very much the kind of sense-of-wonder hard science fiction novel that
emerged in the 1970s, but with 2010s' science and technology to make that "wonder" somewhat
more plausible. There is the staggering sacrifice made by the crew just in leaving Earth behind -
they will never see their home again, nor anyone they left behind. Relativity and distance will
see to that. Then there is the "cupworld" itself, a kind of half-Dyson-sphere, far bigger, it seems,
than both Niven's original Ringworld and Clarke's Rama. What kind of intelligence could have
constructed such an astronomically large ship? And for what purposes? There is the mystery of
the gravity waves that seem to emanate from nearby Glory, something that Earth and the crew of
the Sunseeker were aware of, but something that the inhabitants of the cupworld are also aware
If you enjoy BDO stories with a hefty helping of sense of wonder, then you are certain to enjoy
Bowl of Heaven. And if you've never encountered Big Dumb Objects in your reading, well, then
Bowl of Heaven is as good a place to start as any.
Read more by Jamie Todd Rubin