3.8 7
by Gregory Benford

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Impending personal tragedy is dimming the brilliant light of Dr. Benjamin Knowlton's world. On the threshold of their greatest achievement, the renowned astrophysicist's beloved wife and partner -- ex-astronaut-turned astronomer -- is dying.

But something looms alarningly on the far edge of the solar system: at once a scientific find of unparalleled

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Impending personal tragedy is dimming the brilliant light of Dr. Benjamin Knowlton's world. On the threshold of their greatest achievement, the renowned astrophysicist's beloved wife and partner -- ex-astronaut-turned astronomer -- is dying.

But something looms alarningly on the far edge of the solar system: at once a scientific find of unparalleled importance that could ensure the Knowltons' immortality, and a potential earth-shattering cataclysm that dwarfs their private one. For Benjamin and Channing have discovered "Eater," an eons-old black hole anomaly that devours stars and worlds. Yet its most awesome and devasting secrets are still to be revealed...and feared.

Editorial Reviews

Denver Post
Benford...presents the world of a real scientist in a way that is surprisingly rare in science fiction.
Houston Post
Gregory Benford is a distinguished physicist, astronomer and professor, but first and foremost he is a superb storyteller.
...thought provoking and ingenious.
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
This "great" thriller pits Dr. Benjamin Knowlton, head of a prestigious research facility devoted to the interpretation of astronomical data, against an intelligent "black hole" that wants a closer look at Earth - and its inhabitants. Despite the daunting physics and astronomical data, our booksellers "enjoyed this book immensely." Though some qualified, "for hardcore sci-fi readers only."
Science Fiction Weekly
Benford creates a fresh, convincing and entertaining first contact story that raises some interesting philosophical questions and remains true to the scientific process as well as to the science.
NY Times Book Review
Benford is a rarity: a scientist who writes with verve and insight not only about black holes and cosmic strings but about human desires and fears.
Chris Donner
There are two sides to any story, and by this I don't mean two differing point of view on events. Rather, there are two components: the narrative, and the characters who live out that narrative. In general, it seems fair to say that science fiction is a narrative-driven genre, and while the characters are important, they often play second or third fiddle to the storyline. Sometimes this focus on narrative is essentially unavoidable -- take Asimov's Foundation Series. The work spans thousands of years, and no one character could remain alive long enough to resolve its conflicts.

Gregory Benford, then, might be considered an exception to the rule. He tries, and many would say succeeds, to give his characters a certain equality with the narrative. Eater does this adroitly, with as much of the conflict resulting from the tension between Benjamin and Channing Knowlton and Kingsley Dart as from the events surrounding them.

This love-triangle-that-was reawakens when these three co-workers and competitors are forced to deal with an enigmatic singularity that is rapidly approaching our solar system, and which suddenly decides it's time to talk to us. Faced with this unfathomable intelligence and its uncertain plans regarding Earth, the three members of this triangle are forced to combine their intellects and experience in a time of unique crisis.

When they first discover this wandering black hole and see it "eating" asteroids and other space debris, the competition, especially between Benjamin and Kingsley, is damaging and counter-productive to the interests of research. But when it becomes clear that this Eater is in some way sentient, and that it perhaps would like a taste of our solar system, it is these three individuals who help formulate Earth's response and seek to ensure that, however Eater satisfies its hunger, there will be some of us left to remember it and carry on.

And their story doesn't take place in a vacuum either. In fact, Benford does a masterful job of depicting the academic versus political worlds and how they both react to a potential cataclysm. The inertia and manipulation that takes place in the political realm is especially worth remembering for Americans in this election year 2000, and it is contrasted with the almost childlike awe felt by academics, who can be equally ineffective in dealing with real-life situations if they are not prodded.

All of this focus on characters does not in any way take away from the narrative itself, and Benford's newest novel is very much a story of forces greater than ourselves and how we might respond to their indifference to ensure our own survival.

In this sense, Eater is standard science fiction fare. And you certainly can partake of this meal simply to satisfy your appetite for the big and the dangerous. But if you hunger for more, there are flavours here that will challenge your palate, and which will be left for you to savour long after the actual eating is over.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Benford (The Martian Race), a physics professor at UC-Irvine and a Nebula winner for his novel Timescape, is one of the leading exponents of hard SF--which, no matter how fantastic it might seem, never violates established scientific laws. His newest novel takes one of the oldest SF plots--first contact--and spruces it up with great success using the latest developments in astronomy and, in particular, new information on black holes. In the early 21st century, astronomers observe what appears to be a distant gamma-ray burster, a black hole swallowing another star many light years away. The data is troubling because a second burster occurs only 13 h ours later, which, given the immense distance between stars, should be impossible. Eventually, the astronomers realize that the black hole, rather than being incredibly distant, is on the edge of our solar system, and moving our way at considerable speed. Stranger still, it appears to be under intelligent guidance, or, perhaps, to be intelligent itself. One of Benford's specialties is presenting science the way it's really done, and this is clearly the case here. His three astronomer-protagonists--Benjamin Knowlton; his cancer-stricken wife, Channing; and the British Astronomer Royal, Kingsley Dart, whom Benford has partly based on Freeman Dyson--are nicely drawn and highly believable. His alien is, well, incredibly alien and endlessly fascinating. Less successful are Benford's government officials, who can come across as caricatures--but this is a minor fault. Full of astronomical pyrotechnics and the kind of intellectual verbal fencing that seems to go along with creative scientific thinking, Benford's latest should delight any serious reader of SF. Agent, Ralph Vicinanza. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
The appearance of a moving object approaching Earth sparks a flurry of activity among the scientists at the High-Energy Astrophysics Center as they realize that the entity dubbed the Eater possesses the ability to destroy anything in its path. As the situation worsens, a dying woman--a former astronaut--realizes that she possesses the unique ability to save the world by making one final voyage into space. The author of Timescape presents a tale of disaster narrowly averted while exploring the relationship between love and sacrifice in an elegant novel that blends hard science and sf thriller. For most sf collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/99.] Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
YA-Long before there was time, a black hole became a wandering entity, feeding on asteroids, planets, and remnants of the Big Bang. Eventually, it began engulfing ancient civilizations in its never-ending roaming across the expanse of time and space. When it reaches the edge of Earth's solar system, three scientists, Benjamin Knowlton, his wife Channing, and their friend and colleague Kingsley Dart, take on the fight to prevent the black hole, named Eater, from annihilating the Earth. Basing the foundation of the story on scientific knowledge in the fields of physics and astronomy, Benford gives enough background in both areas to elucidate concepts without overstating the obvious. He develops the main characters as the story unfolds, paralleling their personal changes, their shared history, and their heroic interactions with the increasing malevolence of the Eater. Deftly weaving scientific procedure around an exciting plot of adventure and destruction, and inserting the interpersonal relationships of three intense personalities, Benford creates scientific fiction that sounds very real.-Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
A strange worldeating sentient alien is heading towards Earth. It's perfecting it's method of communication with mankind. It brings strange messages of destruction and hope. And it must be stopped though higher civilizations have failed. Eater provides a gripping story of a select group of individuals who take on a worldeating monster. Hard to put down.

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Chapter One



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?"


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?"

"Uh, four."

"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."

"We're addicts."

"Science addicts, yes, an obscure vice..."

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What People are saying about this

Poul Anderson
COSM is full of concepts from the cutting edge of science, strange but almost disturbingly plausible. It's also full of people we can believe in and care about. Add to all this an exciting story, and you've got a mighty good read in your hands.
Freeman Dyson
I grabbed hold of COSM and read it right though. Just what I needed...a splendid job of describing the way people work and talk when they are deeply engaged in science.

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