the Little Red Reviewer

The Bowl of Heaven, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven

Posted on: February 14, 2014

bowl of heavenThe Bowl of Heaven, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven

published in 2012

where I got it: purchased new











Science fiction adventure? A strange bowl shaped structure in space? Bird-like aliens that “adopt” species they come across? An alien planet that sends out confusing information? Shut up and take my money!  Right?  Not so much, as it turns out.

The Bowl of Heaven starts out as you’d expect a science fiction adventure story to start: we’ve found a planet that could be another Earth, a new home for a humanity that’s quickly outgrowing Earth. Nicknamed Glory, a large expedition is put together to sleep most of the way, and assess the situation when they reach Glory.  And they wouldn’t have awoken biologist Cliff Kammesh if it wasn’t an emergency.  The ship’s computers have found something, something they can’t explain: a star that just winked into existence.  They couldn’t see the star before, because it was hidden behind a structure nearly the size of our solar system.

Captain Redwing is awakened as well, along with biologist Beth Marble (she and Cliff have a relationship), and a handful of other crewmembers. They need to understand this giant structure, but they also need to reserve the dwindling food and air stores they have on the ship.

The structure is a gigantic bowl like structure, the “bottom” is mirrors aimed at a star, and the “sides” are all biome. There’s a magnetized hole in the bottom, and the mirrors cause ripples and disturbances in the star’s surface, and the magnetized hole pulls a jet of agitated plasma away from the star, propelling the huge machine forward through the cosmos. The scene where Beth pilots the ramscoop ship through the plasma jet absolutely blew me away, and I will forever remember it as one of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever come from across in a hard science fiction novel. Once through, and into the inside of the bowl, it would be a crime not to explore further.

A shuttle is taken down, and the humans are quickly approached by the denizens of the Bowl. Giant bird like creatures, with chromatophoric feathers and a culture built around the Bowl, built around a life where the sun quite literally, never sets.  They call themselves The Folk, and a scientist/linguist, Memor, is assigned to these strange invading creatures. She (when we first meet Memor, she’s a he, but is at the point in his life where he changes into a she. Memor is a she for the majority of the novel) captures half of them, and the other half manages to escape. Beth is the captured group, and Cliff is in the group that escapes. From this point on, the narration jumps between Beth’s group, Cliff’s group, and Memor’s point of view.   And all of this happens within the first 100 pages of the book. And then??

The super quick summary of The Bowl of Heaven boils down to: really cool aliens, boring humans.  It wasn’t a terrible book, it’s just that I expected more from it, and I expected a LOT more from these authors, in particular.  They’re gonna need more than that brilliant scene of piloting the ramscoop ship through the plasma jet to save this book.

Because once we meet Memor and the humans are split into two groups? All of that interestingness and potential for more? it came screeching to a halt for me. The story became “we’re walking, we’re walking, we’re walking. . . oh shit, aliens! we’re running! we’re running!”. Beth’s group works on escaping and contacting their ship, and Cliff’s group works on exploring, avoiding capture, and contacting their ship, all while trying to find what they can safely eat. There’s a good 300 pages of that, and not much else.

Yes, yes, I know that since this is hard scifi it’s more about the science and less about the characters, but I wish our main characters, Cliff and Beth, had been developed a little more. Cliff mostly fights with the temptation to cheat on Beth with another woman who is in his survival group. I felt like I got to know Captain Redwing, who isn’t even a main character, the most. The true main character of the book? The Bowl itself.  The Bowl of Heaven reminded me a little bit of Rendevous with Rama, with its unknowable and unfathomable aliens, and a big dumb object that becomes a character unto itself.

I wish Memor had more time on screen. I want to learn more about her culture, especially their practice of domesticating intelligent beings they come across in their dash across the universe. And speaking of their traveling bowl, where are they headed, and how and why did this journey begin? An even more pressing question is how do plants and animals evolve when the sun is always up? There are shadows in the Bowl, but there is never any nighttime. You’d like Beth and Cliff would be in biologist heaven, but no, there’s very little focus on that. Had I not looked at the list of characters at the beginning for reference, I’d have quickly forgotten that they were both biologists.

The big plotlines come to a conclusion, making The Bowl of Heaven work just fine as a stand alone. Yet this is the beginning of series, so much is left open ended. Not a spoiler, but there is some talk between characters at the end, that why should they go onto Glory, when there’s plenty of terraformed land right here with water and breatheable air? My prediction is that as this series continues, we’ll learn more about this alien culture, and either live peacefully with them in the Bowl, or fight them for it.  Or someone else will learn, because I probably won’t continue reading it.


13 Responses to "The Bowl of Heaven, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven"

I was actually thinking about the sequels to Rama from the description. And it appears if follows the same path, better idea than characterization.


Yup, follows the same path – we find some awesome alien artifact, and the story telling and characterization goes downhill as we explore the artifact. 😦

speaking of, I really need to reread Rama. it’s not awesome, but I do remember enjoying it.


I always thought the first Rama was pretty awesome. Been a few years though. My first, and favorite, Clark.


I couldn’t get thru it. I tried it because Benford has written some great books(Timescape for one) but the cardboard characters killed it for me.But that is typical Niven. Reminds me of Mote in Gods Eye-great aliens, terrible characters.


Had this been a random library book, I wouldn’t have finished it. But . . it was my local SF group’s January book, and now I can talk with them about it too, so there’s that.

I swear i have a copy of Timescape around here somewhere, and I’ve never read it. need to fix that.

it’s funny, I’ve read Mote in God’s Eye a few times, and a few other Niven books, and the weak characterization didn’t bother me anywhere as much in those books as it did in this one.


One thing that’s always irked me about Mote is that Niven/Pournelle only have one major female character and as soon as she meets the captain she spends the rest of the book thinking about marriage and having his babies. Shes a character who starts out strong than becomes subservient.


I read another review of this, similar conclusion.

I could argue that hard SF can and often does have a lot of strong character, but every book & author has an angle on that balance of character, plot and science, so why waste breath?


I’ve read a ton of hard SF that has excellent characterization. I bitched about a Greg Egan book that was way too hard SF for my tastes, but I thought this characterization was brilliant.


Oh, and RINGWORLD had a good deal of that walk, walk (well, travel, travel) in it too, and dulled it down pretty hard at times.


so, so true. It’s a Niven thing, I suppose?


As you might imagine, I was much more forgiving of this one. You’re completely right about characters, etc. of course. Niven hasn’t thrown down quality stuff in a long time, but people were never the strong point. I can’t be as authoritative about Benford, since I bounce off of him some times.
Anyway, I’ll definitely read the second half of this, so come to me for the Cliff’s Notes if you want!


“come to me for the Cliff’s Notes if you want!”

I’m THERE! We be talking ’bout the Folk. and those spidow things? *shudder*


I almost bought this the other day. Now I won’t. Great review Andrea.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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