Bowl of Heaven

Bowl of Heaven

3.3 26
by Gregory Benford, Larry Niven

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In Bowl of Heaven, the first collaboration by science fiction masters Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Gregory Benford (Timescape), the limits of wonder are redrawn once again as a human expedition to another star system is jeopardized by an encounter with an astonishingly immense artifact in interstellar space: a bowlshaped structure

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In Bowl of Heaven, the first collaboration by science fiction masters Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Gregory Benford (Timescape), the limits of wonder are redrawn once again as a human expedition to another star system is jeopardized by an encounter with an astonishingly immense artifact in interstellar space: a bowlshaped structure half-englobing a star, with a habitable area equivalent to many millions of Earths…and it's on a direct path heading for the same system as the human ship.

A landing party is sent to investigate the Bowl, but when the explorers are separated—one group captured by the gigantic structure's alien inhabitants, the other pursued across its strange and dangerous landscape—the mystery of the Bowl's origins and purpose propel the human voyagers toward discoveries that will transform their understanding of their place in the universe.

Editorial Reviews

Gregory Benford and Larry Niven are two of the biggest names in the demanding discipline of Hard Science Fiction, with an astonishing total of ninety-five years of professionalism between them. It's hard to imagine that their first co-authored novel could fail to gain wide attention. But in a marketplace where fantasy now predominates, such a book is automatically running with a handicap. And Benford hasn't had a new novel out since 2005, while Niven — who has stayed busy with other collaborators, to somewhat secondary effect — has not had a solo venture since 2004. For the youngest generation of readers, both men might very well be susceptible to invisibility.

The first thing to mention when dealing with two such well-established authors yoked together is to affirm that their contributions blend well, into a seamless hybrid. Readers familiar with the simpatico work of each man will instantly detect grace notes from both. From Niven comes a knockabout, can-do pragmatism; from Benford comes a more philosophical, poetic bent. So the voice for Bowl of Heaven — first in a series, by the way — is a blended newness, a synthesis that at times reminds one of vintage Poul Anderson.

We start a couple of centuries hence with utmost verisimilitude, as one might anticipate. A slower-than- light starship is about to be launched from a much- changed Earth (re-wilded, with only two billion humans), aimed for a likely exoplanet. Its crew will sleep the trip away, arriving long after everyone they left behind on Earth is dead. We are introduced neatly to a large cast, with an emphasis on one bonded couple, Cliff Kammash and Beth Marble.

Cut quickly to a point some forty years onward. Cliff is brought out of suspension way early: the SunSeeker has encountered a titanic artifact, a manufactured hemisphere surrounding a sun and using that orb for propulsion purposes. Some of the inside of the bowl is living surface, an artificial ecosystem(s) equivalent in area to million of Earths. Cupworld, the humans dub it. Eager to learn more and needing new supplies for unforeseen reasons, they land an expedition, including Cliff and Beth. Then the resident aliens take a hand.

The authors juggle their tripartite narratives nicely, toggling back and forth mainly between the two human parties on Bowl, with an intermittent look at the worried folks back on SunSeeker. There's plenty of Ringworld-style engineering to jaw-dropping effect, and lot of "humans as clever but hunted animals in the face of inscrutable alien prejudice." All in all, the book delivers in spades a cheerfully sublime, Jack Williamson-style, 1930s sense of wonder, overlaid with twenty-first century attitudes towards character, civilization, and cosmology.

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo

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Read an Excerpt

Life persists.
He recalled those words, his nervous mantra recited as the soft sleep came closing its grip with chilly fingers—
—and so he knew he was alive. Awake again. Up from the chill-sleep of many decades.
He was cold. His memory was blurred, but it told him he was on an odyssey no biologist had ever ventured on before, a grand epic. He was going to the stars, yes, and they had given him the stinky sulfur gas, yes, the first creeping chill … and that was … it.
But beyond that flash of memory, all he could think of was the incredible, muscle-shaking chill that spread like a sharp ache through him. He was too numb to shiver. Somewhere a loud rumble rolled up through his body, not heard but felt. The cold … He thought hard and with effort opened his sticky eyes.
Trouble. His gummy eyelids slammed closed against a crisp actinic glare. He must be in the revival clinic. Slowly he pried them open, still numb with cold. He focused with effort, looking for the joyous faces of his fellow colonists.
Not there. Nor was Beth.
Instead, the worried frowns of Mayra and Abduss Wickramsingh made him groggily anxious as they worked over him. Their faces swam away, came back, drifting above like clouds as the cold began to recede. He was tired. His bones ached with it. After decades of sleep 
Hands massaged his rubbery legs. Lungs wheezed. His heart labored, thumping in his ears. His throat rasped with a sour wind. He was finally starting to shiver. Sluggish sleep fell away like a mummy’s moldy shroud.
Think. The Wickramsinghs were paired by ability, he recalled in a gray fog, self-sufficient and solely responsible for the three years of their watch. Mayra piloted, and Abduss was the engineer. They were fairly far down the queue, maybe twenty-seven watches.… How far along were they? It hurt to figure.
They turned him on his side to work on his stiff muscles. The massaging sent lancing pain, and he let out a muffled scream. They ignored that. At least he could see better. Against the hard ceramic glare, he could see that no others of SunSeeker’s 436 passengers in cold sleep were being revived. A capsule was running its program, though, so someone was coming out behind him. The bay was empty. Carboceramic tiles were clean, looking like new.
As a scientist, he was not slated to come out until the infrastructure staff was up and running at Scorpii 3, the balmy world that everybody called Glory, that no eye had ever seen.
So they were maybe eighty years into the voyage. Not enough to be near Glory. Something was wrong.
Mayra’s lips moved, glistening in the hard light, but he heard nothing. They worked on his neural connections and—pop!—he could hear. The dull rumble hammered at him. Interstellar surf.
“Okay? Okay?” Mayra said anxiously, mouth tight, her eyes intent. “What’s your name?”
He coughed, hacked. Once his throat was clear of milky fluid, his first words were, “Cliff … Kammash. But … Why me? I’m bio. Is Beth still cold?”
They didn’t answer at once, but each looked at the other.
“Don’t talk,” Mayra said softly, a smile flickering.
Definitely trouble. He had known the Wickramsinghs slightly in training, remembered them as reserved and disciplined, just what a cryo passenger would wish in a caretaker watch team.
And they were good. They got his creaky body up off the slab, kind hands helping, his muscles screaming. Then into a gown, detaching the IVs. Up, creaking onto his feet. He swayed, the room reeled, he sat down. Try again. Better … a step. First in eighty years, feet like bricks. They helped him shuffle to a table. He sat. Minutes crawled by as he felt air swoosh in and out of his lungs. He studied this phenomenon carefully, as though it were a miracle. As perhaps it was.
Food appeared. Coffee: caffeine, yes, lovely caffeine. Nobody spoke. Next course, soup. It tasted like nectar, the essence of life. Then they told him, as he eagerly slurped down a big bowl of fragrant veggie mix grown aboard. Halfway through his third bowl, he became vaguely aware that they were talking about an astrophysical observation that required his interpretation.
“What? Mayra, Astro is you,” he shot back. “Every pilot has to be.”
“We need a different viewpoint,” Mayra said, her dark eyes wary. “We do not want to bias your views by explaining more now.”
“We are reviving the captain, too,” Abduss said.
He blinked, startled. “Redwing?”
“It’s that important.” Abduss was unreadable. “He will awaken in another day, his capsule says.”
Cliff felt a chill that was not thermal. Stores of food, water, oxygen couldn’t be recycled forever. That was the point in riding semi-frozen: They would reach Glory with enough stores to survive until they could replace what was lost.
“Four of us. Waking too many people would run us short,” he said. “What’s up?”
Again, the Wickramsinghs looked at each other and did not answer.
*   *   *
As soon as he could walk steadily, they showed him the viewing screens, and for a long moment he could not speak.
The spectacle was striking, both for what was familiar and what was not. SunSeeker was forty light-years from Earth, and yet he could identify many of the constellations he had known as a child in Brazil. Their familiar faces swam among a bright swarm of lesser lights, twisted here and there. On the scale of the galaxy, light-years did not count for much.
He immediately looked for their destination. A star not much different from Sol, Glory’s primary should be a white point dead ahead. It was there, reassuringly bright, though still five light-years away. Perhaps its brilliance was enhanced by SunSeeker’s velocity? No, that was a small effect. More probably, brightened by his own longing to see, to breathe, to touch an Earthlike world, named Glory out of pure hope before any human eye had seen it. Pixels and spectra didn’t do the job.
Other stars brimmed in the rosy night lit by SunSeeker’s bow shock. The ramscoop’s plowing through the interstellar gas and ionized hydrogen was an unending rainbow light show, filmy incandescent streamers curving around them as they plunged into the infinite night. Beyond that prow wash lay the spectrally shifted universe. Some of the glimmering stars were intriguing, constellations rearranged—but nothing compared to the nearby red sun.
“That’s the problem?” Cliff asked.
Abduss nodded. “It is a problem, but there is another, larger. We have been wrestling with this more difficult issue, but that can wait for the captain.”
Can’t these people ever say anything straight? He made himself say deliberately, “Okay, tell me what’s the big deal about this star?”
“We are overtaking it. When we came on watch, the star was not visible. There was a mild recombination source nearby, rather odd.” Switching to another channel, Abduss pointed out a diffuse ivory plume behind the dark patch.
Cliff frowned. “How long is it?”
Abduss said, “About three astronomical units. This is a signature of hydrogen recombining, after it has been ionized. This linear feature seems to be a jet, cooling off and then turning back into atoms. That’s the emission I made this map from, you see?”
“Um.” Cliff wrinkled his nose, trying to think like an Astro type. “A jet from a star. It didn’t jump out at you?”
Abduss tightened his mouth but otherwise did not move. “At first we did not even see the star.”
Uh-oh…, Cliff thought. Best to shut up, yes.
“We had much to measure. The jet did not attract much attention, as it seemed unimportant. Yet now we can see it to be related to the star—which suddenly appeared.”
Cliff nodded, smiled, tried to defuse the man’s irritation. “Perfectly understandable. Our problems are inside the ship, not outside. So … the star popped into view because it came around the rim of this … thing.”
Mayra murmured, “We became alarmed.”
“Nobody noticed the star before? Earlier watches?”
Abduss blinked slowly. “We could not see it.”
Cliff shrugged. In moderate close-up, the dwarf showed as a disk: it must be close. It was perched at the lip of a much larger arc of light. An ordinary star, little and reddish. He raised an eyebrow at Mayra.
“The spectral class is F9,” Mayra added helpfully. “Most likely the plasma plume means that this star must have been recently active. Early stars often display this.” Under magnification, the expelled matter looked to Cliff like a thin nebula, dim and old.
“But we don’t know it’s a young star,” he said.
“No, stars of this class have very long lifetimes.”
Cliff had never been much concerned with the fate of failed stars as they erupted and faltered. Spectacular, sure, easy to sell to contract monitors—but biology demands a stable abode. Still, he immediately guessed that this veil was a remnant of an earlier era in the star’s life, when it was blowing off shells of hot gas. A good guess, anyway—but of course, not his field. These details of stellar evolution had never interested him very much, since they had little to do with his specialty, the evolution of higher life-forms on worlds similar to Earth. A largely abstract pursuit until the Alpha Centauri discoveries of a simple but strange ecology there. That was what drew him to Glory; Beth was an accidental benefit.
So he shrugged. “Gas from a small star. Why wake me up?”
“You are the highest-ranked Scientific,” Abduss said.
Marya added, “And your specialty may be quite relevant.”
That remark just perplexed him. He felt hungry and tired and disappointed. And miffed, yes, with a raspy sore throat. He sucked in a deep breath. “I’m supposed to assess Glory’s biology, not be awakened to answer questions from the watch crew!”
They blinked, startled. He wondered if he was betraying more than the typical awakened-sleeper irritation they all had been warned about. Chill-sleep was reasonably safe, but coming out of it was not. Every crew member under its enforced hibernation cycle ran a 2 percent risk of subtle neurological damage from a revival, an irreducible price of seeking the stars. By waking him, they had forced him to double that risk. He’d be going back into the chill when he’d done what they wanted. He had rather blithely accepted the risk of several revivals when he became a senior science officer, he recalled, when it was entirely theoretical.
As well, no sleeper could be immediately returned to the vaults after revival. The medical risks were too great. So he was stuck for at least a month in the narrow rumbling quarters of the starship, eating the pallid food generated from ponics tanks. There was no way to avoid the perpetual growl of the fusion ramscoop. Filters could not erase the ever-shifting tones of turbulence as the ship surged through clumps of denser gas, riding waves of ionization—a moving electrical discharge, lighting up its neighborhood.
He had not been slated for revival on the passage at all, so his sensitivity to noise had not been an issue. And indeed, the shifting, grating clangor already irked him a bit. There was no way to damp it, so he would have to use noise-suppressing headphones. Certainly he would not have made the cut for active, awake crew.
The Wickramsinghs glanced at each other yet again, as if to say, Humor him—he’s a senior officer. Both inhaled deeply. Abduss said, “Please tolerate our unveiling this anomaly so that you may experience it as we did.”
“Um, yes.” He still felt irked, but ordered himself to behave as an officer should.
Mayra said, “Notice that the luminous gas, as you put it, is very straight.”
Cliff zoomed the image—and blinked. He had expected a ragged cloud of expelled debris, the star’s outer layers blown off. The plume seemed to point at the star ahead. “Pretty, at least. Why so sharp?”
Abduss said carefully, “We wondered, too. None of the astronomical analysis systems had an explanation. But it did alert us to the infrared spectrum.”
“Of this plume? Why—?”
Mayra switched to the middle infrared bands, and his mouth fell open. An orange circle stretched across the sky. The plume was an arrow stuck in the exact center of some target.
“The plasma apparently comes from the center of that massive infrared region. It is mostly of hydrogen, and its ions eventually find electrons and they unite,” Abduss said, as if he were talking to a student. “That is the hydrogen line we see, the plume cooling off.”
Mayra added, “But it did lead our attention to the huge region of soft infrared emission.”
“Hey, I’m a biologist—”
“We awoke you because the infrared signature is clear. The circle we see is solid, not a gas.”
His irritation vanished. Even a biologist knew enough to be startled by the implication. All he could manage to say was, “That’s impossible.”
Mayra said mildly, “When I first saw it, I, too, assumed it to be gas. The spectral lines prove otherwise.”
He studied it, trying to allow for perspective. “A disk?… It’s huge.
“Indeed,” Mayra said.
“But it can’t be a planet. It would be bigger than any star.”
Abduss nodded. “We are approaching from behind it, and at present speed will come directly alongside within weeks. The … thing … is about three hundred AU away from us.” He smiled quickly, as if embarrassed. “Allowing for that, look closer.”
“This is why we awakened you,” Mayra said.
He blinked. “It’s … artificial?”
“Apparently,” Mayra said.
“What? How—?”
“We have just come into view of this object, by coming alongside. It drew our attention because its star suddenly appeared—presto! We could not see it before because the … the cap, whatever it is … blocked the starlight as we overtook it.”
Abduss added helpfully, “Infrared study shows that it is not a disk. It’s rounded. We witness it from behind, with the plasma plume coming through a hole at the exact rear center. The cap radiates at the temperature of lukewarm water.”
“A … sphere?” He saw it then, the image snapping into perspective. He was looking at a ball with a hole in its bottom. Through that hole, the star glowed. His imagination scrambled after an old idea. “Maybe it’s a, what was the name—?”
“A Dyson sphere,” Mayra provided. “We thought so at first, too.”
“So this is a shell?”
She nodded. “A hemisphere, perhaps—a sphere halfway under construction. Perhaps. Only—the old texts reveal quite clearly that Dyson did not dream of a rigid sphere at all. Rather, he imagined a spherical zone filled with orbiting habitats, enough of them to capture all of the radiant energy of a star.”
Abduss thumbed up a reference to these ideas on a side screen. Good—they had done the homework before awakening him. But if not a Dyson sphere, what—?
Mayra said, “We have watched and run the Doppler programs carefully. The hemispherical cap is spinning about the same axis formed by the plume.”
Abduss said helpfully, “Only by rotating such a shell could one support it against the star’s gravity.”
“Like this ship.” He nodded, trying to guess Abduss’s point. “Centrifugal gravity. But a complete, rigid sphere … spinning … that would be impossible, right? Gravity would pull it in at the poles.”
They both nodded. Abduss said, “Still, the configuration is not stable.”
They both looked at him, so he went on, thinking aloud. “The shell should fall into the star—it’s not orbiting. There’s some sort of force balance at play here. Odd construction, indeed. Just spinning isn’t enough, either—the stresses would vary with curvature. You’d need internal supports.”
Mayra said, “Quite right, I believe. My first degree was in astrophysics and I have some ideas about this object, but—” She bowed her head and shrugged.
As matters developed, there was a great deal behind Mayra’s modesty. In the next day, eating five meals to build himself up, he learned as much about the Wickramsinghs’ subtleties as he did of the strange object they had discovered. They were deferential toward him, unveiling their ideas slowly, allowing him to come to his own conclusions. This helped greatly as the magnitude of implication grew.
He didn’t even ask about Scorpii 3 until hours later, when Abduss and Mayra were using the control room facilities to lecture him. The planet, their destined home, was a long way off still, and deserved the nickname Glory. Scorpii 3 was the second nearest habitable-seeming world ever found, after the Alpha Centauri base. A fast-burn probe had verified the bio-signatures found by deep space telescopes two generations before SunSeeker’s launch. A wonder, with strong ozone lines, a lot of water, and tantalizing hints of green chlorophyll in the spectrum. A dream world. No sign of any artificial electromagnetic emissions, after big dishes had cupped their ears toward it for decades. Plus the mysterious grav waves that made no sense, considering that there were no big masses in the system to send out such quadrupole emissions.
He looked at it in the high amplification forward scope, but it was just a flickering blur through their bow shock. Scorpii 3 was barely visible because it hung near the edge of the structure ahead, though it was many light-years away. He looked at the screens, trying to get his head around what that vast bulk could mean. But emotion overwhelmed him. Pure wonder.
Unimaginable, yes. Bigger than the orbit of Mercury, huge beyond comprehension, the hemisphere was an artifact, a built thing, the first evidence of another intelligence in the galaxy. Not a trickle of radio waves, but a giant … riddle.
He took a long breath, relaxed into the observer’s chair and headpiece, and let the slow, long wavelength rumble of the starship run through his bones. And thought.
The Wickramsinghs felt it was a matter of biology. Wake the biologist!
Cliff wrinkled his nose. He had been irked, sure, but the Wickramsinghs were right: You see trouble, you call for help. But he wasn’t prepared for this. But as well he saw that none of that now mattered.
Science had speculated about intelligence for centuries, as probes spread out through a desert of dead worlds. The Big Eye telescopes in the twenty-first century had found warm, rocky worlds resembling Earth, and some had the ozone spectral lines that promised oxygen atmospheres. There the promise had ended. Here and there flourished slime molds in deep caverns, or simple ocean life, maybe—cellular colonies still unable to shape themselves into complex forms, as Earth’s life had more than a billion years ago. Sure, there was life, the consensus said … boring life.
To find an artifact of such immensity … it made his mind reel.
Then Abduss said, almost casually, “There is something more. Why we realized the protocols demanded that you be awakened. We have detected narrow-band microwave traffic from near the star.”
Cliff realized that he should have seen this coming. “Coded?”
“Yes. It may be broadcasting from near the hole in the center—the angle is right—and we’re getting some scattered, reflected signals.”
“Are they hailing us?”
“There’s nothing obvious that we can figure out, no,” Mayra said. “There are many transmissions, not a long string. It looks like a conversation, perhaps.”
“So they don’t know we’re here, maybe.”
“We could hear the traffic once we were within view of the hole, I believe. Perhaps it comes from within the hemisphere, and leaks through. It is not broadcast for others to pick up—or so we think. And unintelligible, at least to us.”
Cliff eyed them both and said carefully, “I agree that the protocols call for my revival. But this is more than anybody ever visualized, when those protocols were invented.…” He was still dazed after a day awake. And cold; he rubbed his arms to get blood moving. “I wonder if you didn’t wake me too early, though. We’re not looking at plants and animals yet. If we wake too many of us…”
“Yes,” Abduss said.
“We’d run short.”
“We’re short now,” Mayra said. “That is the other problem. It is high time someone woke the captain, we felt.”
“So you did, right after me? Me, because my secondary specialty is in rations and ship biology. Mostly, though, I’m a field biologist. But sure, call me up. Then the cap’n, to take over all the other implications. Right.”
“And now we are happy to turn both problems over to you.” Abduss gave him a broad smile without any trace of irony. Mayra beamed, too. They had faced all this together, and the weight of it showed in their evident relief.
*   *   *
It didn’t take long to see why they were handing off to him and the captain.
The opportunity: an artifact bigger than planets.
The problem: SunSeeker was not performing to specs. The ramscoop drive was running at 0.081 of light speed, instead of the 0.095 engineering had promised.
Not a big difference, but in starflight it was crucial. At 0.081, their trip would take 550 years. They had stocks for a bit over 500 years.
Early space travel had been like this, with tiny margins of safety. Reaching the Moon six out of seven tries had been a miracle. They’d run aging X-planes for a quarter of a century, losing two shuttles before they built something better. Interplanetary travel still cut close to the bone, and interstellar was a crapshoot. And still there were always those who would take the gamble.
Of course, SunSeeker recycled everything—and, of course, the accounting never quite came out even. The flight plan had them arriving at Glory with time to find what they needed. Glory had a world with oceans and free oxygen, all carefully checked in the ozone spectral line seen from Earth orbit. And in the infrared, they had seen a broad disk of asteroids, too, comfortably farther out and with traces of iceteroids among them. The world or the rocks would give them the elements they needed: water, oxygen, dust to be turned to soil.
But this slower speed was eating their safety window.
He checked the log. Five watch cycles had worked on the problem in their ramscoop drive without really spotting a cause. None of them had wakened the captain. It was an engineering problem, not a command structure one. And they were on a centuries-long voyage.
The big magnetic fields at SunSeeker’s bow drove shock waves into the hydrogen ahead, ionizing it to prickly energies, then scooping it up and mixing it with fusion catalysis, burning as hot as suns—but somehow, the nuclear brew didn’t give quite the thrust it had during field trials out in the Oort cloud. Considering how new relativistic engineering was, maybe this was not truly surprising.
Still, it had huge consequences. “We won’t get to Glory in time,” Cliff said.
The Wickramsinghs nodded together. Mayra said, “So…” She did not want to draw the conclusion.
“We have cut our rations to a minimum, all five watches, yes,” Abduss rushed in, eyes large. “It was a major decision we made, you see—to revive you and the captain.”
Cliff slurped down more coffee. It tasted incredibly good—another symptom of revival. “You’ve done the calculation. Can we make it?”
“Marginal at best,” Mayra said precisely. “The last five watches have run at the minimum crew number: two. Plus we are pushing the hydroponics to the maximum. We fear it is not enough.”
“Damn!” Cliff grimaced. Starve to death between the stars. “That’s also why nobody woke the captain. One more gut, one more pair of lungs. Until … yeah.” Until they saw the strange thing up ahead.
*   *   *
He knew the deeper reason, too. What could the captain do, after all? If the engineers could not find a solution, mere managerial ability would not help. So the engineers had followed the protocols that had been drilled into them: Follow mandates and hope for the best. Especially since an error could kill them all with relativistic speed.
They gazed at him, calm and orderly and patient, the perfect types for a watch crew. Which he was not. Too restless and a touch excitable, the psych guys had said. That was fine with Cliff; he wanted to see Glory, not black interstellar space. All crew were calm, steady types, or they wouldn’t have made the first cut in the long selection filters.
The Wickramsinghs were waiting. He was in charge until the captain woke up. That he did not understand the situation did not matter; he was a superior officer, so he had to make the decisions.
First, he had to rest. About that, the revival procedures were as hard-nosed as the mission protocols. At least that would give him a little time to think.
*   *   *
They found him twelve hours later, in the kitchen.
The first thing he ordered was a thorough study of the star they were approaching. The Wickramsinghs called up screens of data and vibrant images. This gave him a jumpy image of a star massing about nine-tenths of Sol’s mass. There were plenty of those in the galaxy, but this one was not behaving like a serene, longer-lived orange dwarf. Fiery tendrils forked and seethed at the center of the apparent disk. “There is blurring in the image,” Abduss remarked, “by the plasma plume.”
Squinting, at first he did not understand the implication of the roiling spikes that leaped from a single hot spot, a blue white furnace. “Ah—that spot is directly under the center of the artificial bowl, the cap.”
Abduss nodded. “Something is disturbing the star, making it throw out great flaming tongues. Very dangerous, I would think.”
They were coming up on this system pretty fast. Cliff thumbed in the whole data field. The obviously artificial disk—okay, call it the cap, because he could sense from the image that it was curved away from their point of view—the cap was not at all far away, maybe a few hundred astronomical units, where an A.U. was the distance from Earth to Sol. You got used to such enormous distance measures, in the relentless training all crew had to undergo.
He tried to remember when that was … centuries ago. Yet it seemed like just a few weeks.
He looked at the image and let his eyes see it as a curved hemisphere cupped around this side of the star.
They zoomed the optics in on the disk’s flares, having to go through several settings that blanked out the blue white hot spot on the star’s surface. The glare of the hot spot was fierce, actinic, bristling with angry storms, a tiny white sun attached to the bigger pink star like an angry leech.
Above the white spot raged the filigree spikes of streaming plasma. They whirled around one another like fighting snakes, burning as they rushed up from the hot spot. It looked like they should bathe the hemispheric bowl in licking flames. But before they reached the curve of the bowl, they dovetailed into a slender jet. Among the streamers, Cliff could see little blobs and bright flecks moving out from the star, swarming up along the jet, toward the neatly circular hole in the bowl and out into the sky.
Cliff wrestled with the images. “Let’s see the earlier pictures, from the last watch.”
Automatically, the ship kept records of the local sky. Its software was spectrally sophisticated and framed its own, limited hypotheses about the class and type of every luminous object it saw. They checked the records. The muted minds that murmured among themselves, struggling to understand the bowl, had spun endlessly in parameter-space confusions.
In the infrared, there was a glow where the “bottom” of the bowl would be. None of the instruments showed any image of the bowl during the years while the ship was approaching from behind. He thumbed through uninteresting pictures. The bowl blotted out a small dot on the sky, but nobody had noticed such a minor thing from light-years away.
The bowl’s infrared radiation showed a temperature around 20 degrees centigrade. Room temperature.
“Ah, balmy,” Abduss said. Across that vast curve, tropical conditions prevailed. The back face was cool and appeared stony. But the warmed side was at 20 degrees C. The star was less luminous than Sol—but, of course, the bowl was in continuous sunlight, so it would get pretty warm. No night.
Cliff had a mind’s eye picture of the bowl as a colossal construction, even though his common sense was screaming. When something appeared impossible, it seemed best to simply study it until understanding emerged. And wait for the captain to wake up, yes.
The first shock came from simple geometry. Mayra gave him distances and angles and he quickly found that the area of the inward-facing cap was two hundred million times that of Earth. Hovering over its star, the rim of the bowl would provide a vast, livable surface. (The biologist would wait for the captain’s take, but … Air. Water. Stores to replenish a failing ship. The Wickramsinghs nodded and smiled when he spoke of this.…)
On that area, peering through the small hole they could see, Abduss picked up reflecting optical emission … and found the spectral signatures of water. Then, with a bit more effort to see through the rippling plasma that shrouded SunSeeker, he found oxygen.
So it was an immense area designed for living … by what?
Cliff checked their distance from the bowl: 320 AU—about a hundredth of a light-year. So close! And coming up fast.
But they were still looking at the back of the cap, in the dark. He looked at the waiting faces of the Wickramsinghs and thought. They were left with some brute astronomical facts—velocities, times, food supplies.…
At their review meeting, the Wickramsinghs eyed him expectantly.
“It’s beyond me,” he said—and watched their faces, despite their best efforts, show disappointment.
“Surely we can learn more?” Mayra suggested hesitantly.
“Not at this distance,” Abduss said. “And I doubt the captain will authorize a trajectory change to get closer.”
Cliff looked at them and thought unkind thoughts. Five crews didn’t wake the captain, because there wasn’t an answer. They had been trained to keep the ship running. Schooled to stay steady. But here was something the Earthside planners had never imagined.
“I think we have two problems,” Cliff said with what he hoped was a diplomatic tone. “Supplies, yes. And this strange … object. Too much here for us to deal with.”
Abduss said carefully, “We had thought somewhat the same.”
“Look,” Mayra said directly, “it’s nearly time to take the captain up to his conscious stage—”
“I want Beth Marble brought up, too.”
Both of them blinked. “But she is—”
“Capable, right.” He could see a lot of trouble coming, and he didn’t want to be alone. Who did?
“But there is no protocol requiring—”
Cliff held up his hand and looked across the table steadily, letting them think about it. “Let’s just do it.”
“She is … not your wife.”
“No, but she has ship skills and can pilot.”
“Not until we can ask the captain,” Abduss said. His face was firm.

Copyright © 2012 by Gregory Benford

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Bowl of Heaven 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent read. Kept my attention throughout, and didn't suffer from too much made-up alien thinking. However, I wish somebody else had written a review before me that said "WARNING: JUST ABOUT THE TIME YOU GET EXCITED ABOUT THE PLOT! IT SOPS DEAD -- TO BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT BOOK! Unlike most serial stories, this is not a free-standing installment that comes to some logical end. It just stops in the middle of the plot. It should not have been released without the second installment on the shelves beside it! I do recommend you buy it, but I strongly recommend you wait until the next installment is on the shelves as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This refers to the hardcover version of the novel. Every once in a while I read a book where I can barely restrain the urge to whip out a red pen, mark-up all the mistakes I find in the text, and mail it back to the publisher, requesting a job as an editor and a refund. This is one of those books. There are basic errors in the text that were not caught ranging from misspelling of characters' names, inexplicable changes in descriptions of known people or objects (think of someone being repeatedly described as blue-eyed suddenly described as brown-eyed), incorrect characters being referenced (e.g. a character stated as speaking when that character is not physically present). Then there were bigger errors, such one paragraph that was supposed to have been deleted but wasn't, as the character described as doing something wasn't physically there, and then the same action was repeated in the following paragraph by a character who was actually there. There was another section where I think 4-5 paragraphs were printed out of order; at least it made more sense when I read them in an order other than how they were printed. The humans in the story are separated into 3 groups physically separated by huge distances. There is a cast of characters in the beginning of the book that identifies which humans are in which group. Unfortunately, neither the authors nor the editors looked at it, as characters in one group would be referenced as being with another group, an intermittent error that persisted through the novel. There are more examples but they are difficult to describe without being spoilery. And while some of the errors could be construed as nit-picking, all of the mistakes taken as a whole give the impression that Tor just pushed this out the door figuring it would sell on name recognition and any mistakes would be overlooked because of the authors. For me, anyway, it also serves to repeatedly throw me out of the narrative, which definitely decreases my enjoyment of any story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a Niven fan from way back. Can’t believe this is from his pen (so to speak). There is a story hiding in there somewhere, but it is lost with the ponderous pace of the narrative. Also quite disappointing to suffer through that many pages only to find this is only the first of who knows how many parts. I getting tired of authors and publishers that split one book into 2 or 3 pieces so they can sell more of them. At least forewarn us. Part two isn’t even out yet. Not that I would buy it. After 900 or so pages, I still don’t care what happens to the characters in this poorly told tale. What happened to the author of Ringworld, Lucifer’s Hammer, The Mote in God's Eye and so many other good (and self contained) books. Has his identity been stolen?
Warder More than 1 year ago
Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford is a Sci-Fi book that puts a twist on the Dyson Sphere theory. The twist being that instead of a sphere surrounding a star, there is a half-sphere shaped as a bowl. The interesting part of this bowl is that instead of being a permanent structure around a star, the star was modified into a form of propulsion. This book is the first in a series by Gregory and I think it’s a well thought out plot, if a bit lengthy of a book. There is a lot of detail provided but I don’t feel it hinders the read at all. This is more of a slow story with action packed sequences scattered throughout the pages. There is a bit of mystery in the plot as the team is trapped on an alien world with little contact to the outside, forcing them to fall back on their training to survive. The character development is not as great as some books I have read, but their quirks and traits are slowly revealed over the course of the 515 page novel. The characters are set into a cryostasis for a few century journey to a distant star hoping to colonize and form a new Earth. During the trip they encounter this strange bowl, and due to circumstances beyond their control, their best option is to land and seek resources. The timeline is easy enough to follow, no gaps in the sequences or scenes that would confuse the reader. There are a few unanswered plot lines at the end of the first book, but not in the sense of a cliffhanger ending. The writing has an intellectual feel to it, basically due to the details given on the alien world, inhabitants and local geology. I would say it is one of the more traditional science fiction book styles using an original concept based on an old theory. With that all being said, I did enjoy the book and look forward to the release of Shipstar, the next volume of the series.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A bit ponderous and wordy, but the worst offense is that it actually feels like two authors working on two books and then throwing it in a blender with no editing. I was not overly bothered by the numerous typos mentioned by others, but the editing problems often affect the plot. At one point an alien tells another alien "those pesky humans have done A, B, and C!". Only problem - the pesky humans won't actually do C for another 200 pages and\or a month or so in chronology. A big climactic conflict will be told from one side and resolved, but the next chapter tells the same story from the other side (which is sheer drudgery since you know how it is resolved). Fundamentally, I get the feeling that the authors were going through the motions and nobody at the publishing house cared enough to do a critical copyedit. If I ever get around to reading the sequel, it's coming from the library - I'm not rewarding them for this drivel.
Maurice65 More than 1 year ago
I had high hopes for this book as I've been a Larry Niven fan for years, but my hopes were dashed by page 12,365 of 25,234 when I realized that nothing was happening. Seriously, it is 800 pages long with no discernable story. Just a bunch of humans walking around causing trouble on an alien bowl in the sky. I'll wait for the free library version of the sequel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the E-book version of this novel on my original nook. You'll see a lot of comments on the poor editing of the book -- I agree with them all.  I had read about 75 pages when I felt the disjointedness of the prose.  This is a real danger when authors collaborate, even good authors. The other shocker was the fact this turned out to be only part 1.  I wish I had known that up front, as it was an unwelcome revelation at the end of the book. The plot is very reminiscent of Niven's Ringworld novel.  The exception being this world is teaming with lots of different species.  The novel has at least 5 independent story threads. Only two of them are given much attention by the authors; this would have to be a much larger book to accommodate this many story lines.  It's ambitious and since I have not been able to read part 2, I cannot tell if they were successful. Over all, this is not a poor book.  I was entertained where the story dealt with technology and got pretty bored with the sermons on responsible ecology stewardship.  I'd like to know more about the master species of the bowl but there are scant details.  I do hope the authors divulge more in the second book -- except I am not sure I like this first one enough to buy the second.  I'll have to wait for those reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Epic scale, can't wait to read next book.
loftismk More than 1 year ago
Excellent science book and typical LArry Niven. You are never disappointed. I like some of his views on the different approaches to the science of alien discovery and ideas of the different forms of life and how as a civilization we would interact. "Bowl of Heaven", a good bottle of wine, curled up on the recliner with fire place roaring meant an excellent evening of thought and wonderment! Well Done.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Slow ramp up for me but once up to speed I began enjoying this strange book. Need more. Need book two.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a disappointment. There might be a great story in here. Unfortunately, it's hidden behind terrible editing. The flow of the story is constantly disrupted by what I can only assume is draft content that never got cleaned up. Here's a concrete example. To set the stage, the character Tananareve has just been grabbed and placed out of the action for the time being. She should not be in any of the following text. "Given his ripped suit, Howard was breathing local air already. Tananareve got his suit peeled down, extracted the metal shard--Howard refused even to wince--and stopped the bleeding. She had him patched within minutes with a 'walking anesthetic' that would not impair his ability to move. Howard stayed silent through it all, looking at the many odd details of the flora and fauna, still doing his job." Three paragraphs later, "He took time to pull the metal spar out of Howard's arm. It stuck in the bone, then jerked loose. Irma had her medkit open; she handed him antibiotic gel, then superskin spray. They all pooled their medkits and made a selection. Howard asked, 'Painkiller?' Irma asked, 'Could you still run? Wait, here's a local anaesthetic.' She rubbed white cream generously over the bleeding wound." Two different versions of the same scene, almost like the author forgot to remove an early rough version. Stuff like this is ALL over the place. It reads like a corrupt file with a combination of multiple drafts badly mixed together. One paragraph even has, "Just like that, Beth disappeared. Just like that." I can't imagine Benford and Niven collaborated so poorly that this was the result they intended to publish. I have to assume that the publisher either rushed this out or made some fundamental mistake converting to ebook form.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the premise, but I felt the editing was poor and the authors could have ended the book with another 100 pages or less rather than stretch it out to a second volume. I had no clue there was a second one coming, otherwise I might not have bought the book. I'll check Shipstar to make sure it the end, otherwise I'll skip it and move on.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A large scale idea which both authors are famous for, but I never connected with the characters in this one or got into the story. Both authors are great favorites separately though : )
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished this amazing novel. It is the best hard core science fiction I have read in many years. It reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's and Isaac Asimov's best works. My only disappointment is that part two is not out yet, The ShipStar. I will purchase it as soon as it is out.
ebbourg More than 1 year ago
I like what I have read so far. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reminiscent of good sci-fi from the 70's and 80's it's predictable but comfortably fun. For those of you complaining that you have wait for the next installment....hey, that's sci-fi.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best Sci_Fi novel I have read; I could not put it down! I would call this a classic. The story is to be continued and I look forward to its publication .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kenns_Reivews More than 1 year ago
Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford is a Sci-Fi book that puts a twist on the Dyson Sphere theory. The twist being that instead of a sphere surrounding a star, there is a half-sphere shaped as a bowl. The interesting part of this bowl is that instead of being a permanent structure around a star, the star was modified into a form of propulsion. This book is the first in a series by Gregory and I think it’s a well thought out plot, if a bit lengthy of a book. There is a lot of detail provided but I don’t feel it hinders the read at all. This is more of a slow story with action packed sequences scattered throughout the pages. There is a bit of mystery in the plot as the team is trapped on an alien world with little contact to the outside, forcing them to fall back on their training to survive. The character development is not as great as some books I have read, but their quirks and traits are slowly revealed over the course of the 515 page novel. The characters are set into a cryostasis for a few century journey to a distant star hoping to colonize and form a new Earth. During the trip they encounter this strange bowl, and due to circumstances beyond their control, their best option is to land and seek resources. The timeline is easy enough to follow, no gaps in the sequences or scenes that would confuse the reader. There are a few unanswered plot lines at the end of the first book, but not in the sense of a cliffhanger ending. The writing has an intellectual feel to it, basically due to the details given on the alien world, inhabitants and local geology. I would say it is one of the more traditional science fiction book styles using an original concept based on an old theory. With that all being said, I did enjoy the book and look forward to the release of Shipstar, the next volume of the series.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It has been a while since I have read a story this imaginitive. I can't wait for the next part.