Letter From The Editor - Issue 41 - September 2014

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Writing Fantasy

  
The Science of Wonder
  Book Reviews by Jamie Todd Rubin
January 2013

Title: Bowl of Heaven
Author: Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
Publisher: TOR

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 Glory.

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 of.

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


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