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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.