Something's Hungry Out There
Dr. Benjamin Knowlton and his colleagues at the High Energy Astrophysics Center have discovered a bizarre "burster" signal that appears to be a wandering black hole. The black hole is propelling itself through the outer edges of our solar system by "digesting" asteroids and chunks of ice surrounding Jupiter, which fuel its magnetic "jets." Knowlton's wife, Channing, a former astronaut now dying of cancer, is one of the few who can understand these unique scientific circumstances and also assist him in deciphering the strange facts. Alongside them is longtime friend Kingsley Dart, now the Royal Astronomer of England, who arrives to aid Knowlton and to rekindle his strong emotions for Channing. Eventually, though, it becomes clear that the signals they're receiving aren't random at all, but proof that the black hole, which eventually comes to be called the Eater of All Things, is a sentient traveler from the most distant reaches of space.
The Eater is at first childlike and wishes only to converse. As data is downloaded to it, and the anomaly better learns our language, it seems to take a vile pleasure from speaking in a purposely vague manner, refusing to tell about its origins or its intentions. Eventually they learn that the Eater is hideously bored after its billions of years wandering and that in its travels it has destroyed many alien civilizations. Now, as the Eater changes course and heads toward Earth, it demands that thousands of "remnants" be sent to it: encoded memory banks of people whose brains are to be dissected and "copied," allowing the weary Eater to create a vast library of humanity in order to read a person's entire life like a book. When the Eater begins attacking the Earth, Channing permits herself to be the first to undergo the process. Her persona is left intact aboard a shuttle, which will be used as a weapon to hopefully destroy the deranged sentience.
As usual, Benford refuses to let the hard science completely overshadow all other questions and subplots arising in the course of the novel. Keen political observations are made prominently here, and the reader can't help but be pulled into such a complex series of poignant scenes. As the Eater makes out lists of the "remnants" it wants, the governments of the world must decide whether to give in or to try to stave off an attack by a creature that can literally bore through the entire planet. It's unnerving to see how easily dictatorial governments give in, allowing the Eater to take the encrypted personalities of "forced volunteers."
Benford also makes engaging use of the alien life form and its bizarre beliefs and motives. Despite its ambiguities, the Eater is a fully developed, superbly imagined creature with a compelling nature all its own. It's an entity that exists within our own scientific precepts, bordering on being our own worst nightmare. Even in the most alien being, Benford's emphasis remains on the human condition. Other characterizations are no less affecting or effective. Especially moving is the growing relationship between Channing and Dart, which is rich, intricate, and much more than mere window dressing in a story that towers in its imagery and implications. Benford's attention to dialogue, disposition, and the ramifications of our world's actions is always mentally stimulating and emotionally heartfelt. Eater is a fascinating blend of philosophical grandeur, enduring love, and high-concept SF that will undoubtedly leave its bite upon the reader.
Read an Excerpt
It began quietly.
Amy Major came into Benjamin's office and with studied care placed a sheet in front of his tired eyes. "Got a funny one for you."
Benjamin stared at the graph. In the middle of the page, a sharp peak poked up to a high level, then fell slowly to his right. He glanced at the bottom axis, showing time, and said, "So it died away in a few seconds. What's so odd?"
Amy gave him an angular grin that he knew she thought made her look tough-minded and skeptical. He had always read that expression as stubborn, but then, she so often disagreed with him. "Here's the second."
"Second?" Maybe her grin was deserved.
With a suppressed smile, she handed him another sheet. Same sort of peak, subsiding into the background noise in four seconds. "Ho hum." He raised his eyebrows in question, a look he had trained the staff to interpret as Why are you wasting my time?
"Could be any ordinary burster, right?"
"Yes." Amy liked to play the elephantine game out in full.
"Only it's a repeater."
"Ah. How close?"
"In space, dead on. The prelim position is right on top of the first one's." Dramatic pause. "In time, 13.45 hours."
"What?" Was this a joke? "Thirteen hours?""Yup."
Gamma-ray bursters were cosmological explosions, the biggest Creation had ever devised. They showed up in the highest energy spectrum of all, the fat, powerful light that emerged when atomic nuclei fell apart. The preferred model describing bursters invoked a big black hole swallowing something else quite substantial, like a massive star. Bursters were the dyspepticbelch of a spectacularly large astrophysical meal. Each one devastated a seared region of the host galaxy.
Eaten once, a star could not be ingested again, thirteen hours later.
On the off chance that this was still a joke, he said with measured deliberation, "Now, that is interesting." Always be positive at the beginning, or else staff would not come to you at all. He smiled wanly. "But the preliminary position is in a big box."
This was more than a judicious reservation. It was almost certainly the true explanation. The two would prove to come from different points in the sky.
They got from the discovering instrument a rough location of the burster a box drawn on the sky map, with the source within it somewhere. Sharpening that took other instruments specially designed for the job. Same for the second burster. Once they knew accurately where this second burst was, he was sure it would turn out to be far from the earlier burst, and the excitement would be over. Best to let her down slowly, though. "Still, let's hope it's something new."
"Uh, I thought it was worth mentioning, Dr. Knowlton." Her rawboned face retreated into defensive mode, mouth pursing up as if she had drawn a string through both lips. She had been the origin of the staffs private name for him, Dr. Know-It-All-ton. That had hurt more than he had ever let on.
"And it is, it is. You asked Space Array for a quick location?"
"Sure, and sent out an alert to everybody on Gamma Net."
She let her skeptic-hardnose mask slip a little. "It's a real repeater. I just know it."
"I hope you're right." He had been through dozens of cases of mistaken identity and Amy had not. She was a fine operations astronomer, skilled at sampling the steady stream of data that flowed through the High Energy Astrophysics Center, though a bit too earnest for his taste.
"I know, nobody's ever seen a repeater this delayed," she said.
"Minutes, yes. Hours, no."
"But the prelim spectra look similar."
"How many data points in the spectrum?"
"Not nearly enough to tell anything for sure."
"I've got a hunch."
"And I have a crowded schedule."
"I really think-"
"Hard for me to see what the rush is."
"We might want to alert some other 'scopes right away, if this is important."Patience, patience. "I see."
"I'm getting the first one's full spectrum any minute," she went on, beginning to pace. He realized that she had been holding herself in check until now. He reminded himself that enthusiasm was always good, though it needed guidance.
"I'll give Attilio a ring, see if I can hurry things along," he said, touching his desk and punching in a code.
"Oh, great, Dr. Knowlton." A sudden smile.
He saw that this was the real point of her telling him so soon, before confirming evidence was in. He could help. Despite himself, he felt pleased.Not at this implied acknowledgment of his power, but at being included.
Every once in a while he got to analyze raw data.Perhaps even to invent an explanation, try it out, see his work as a whole thing.Every once in a while.
As he punched his finder-phone keypad, Amy started to leave.He waved her back."No, stay."
He got straight through and jollied Attilio with a moment of banter, speaking into the four-mike set in his desk.Attilio's replies came through, clear and rich, though his lanky, always elegantly attired body was sitting in the shadow of the Alps."You knew I would be in here this very morning,"Attilio said."We are both working too hard."
"Science addicts, yes, an obscure vice..."