ne of the best things I did at my old, late job was to find a corner table in the break room and pile a bunch of books on it, a sharing library. Oh, not many got taken (as of two months ago, I could count them on one finger). But some readers also contributed, allowing me to get a couple of free books. The only cheaper way to get this is to throw a brick through a bookshop window. And bricks (like bookshops, alas) are getting harder and harder to find.
So Bowl of Heaven sees Larry Niven (from Ringworld fame) teaming up with Gregory Benford to come up with a space-explorers-find-something-big story for the new generation (can you believe it’s been almost fifty years since we read the true “Lord of the Rings” book (with its hula-hoop world)). Wow.
So this time, the explorers are literally bound for Glory, meaning they are a group on a hydrogen ram-scoop ship attempting to colonize the target planet of Glory (with, it seems, its own weird gravitational anomalies that are hinted at). In this, their experimental engine is not running quite so true and thus they will run out of supplies (cold sleep or no) before they get to their target system. And one of the reasons they might be performing below par is the huge structure they are overtaking, going (luckily) their way.
Imagine a gigantic bowl in space, one made with all the materials of a small system. In the middle of the bowl, a hole lined with mirrors and other repulsers. And hovering above the bowl (magnetically harnessed) is a small sun. The sun is agitated by stations around the hole so that it releases a burst of plasma that burns back through the hole, which produces thrust, and with this fiery cart before the horse the entire thing moves (slowly) through the cosmos.
So once again, we have strange inhabitants. And once again, we have a vast (overly vast) world to explore. It was an interesting enough concept. But I did have a couple of problems with it.
Firstly, the characters really were not unique. What made Ringworld really work were the interesting characters. I can still remember them to this day. But here we’ve got a bunch of people broken into two groups on the run on the surface of this endless world and other than the names of the two group leaders they really don’t stand out (and hence I felt nothing either way for them).
And the world – it’s so big and both groups are on the run that there doesn’t seem to be a goal. Nobody seems to be going anywhere special. It’s just scene after scene of generally weird stuff, like if you were playing an RPG and the ref was just rolling random encounters.
And that’s it in a nutshell – no goals and no characters. So yes, I’m glad it came for free and it gave me some interesting time on a long airplane flight, but I don’t think I’ll be throwing any bricks through any windows to get the sequel. My take, of course. Yours may vary.