by Dave Truesdale
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Off On A Tangent: Novel Reviews columns.]
For fans of large-scale, interstellar SF chock full of advanced alien cultures, super-science technologies, the thrill of discovery linked with ever-present danger, and perhaps the greatest Mystery mankind has ever known -- all played out against the immense backdrop of the galaxy -- you are in for a treat with Bowl of Heaven.
Here's the setup: the human manned interstellar ramscoop-powered starship Sunseeker is on its way to the far-flung planet Glory, where deep space sensors have detected a viable biosphere, the best among the many planets so far scanned. On its decades-long voyage Sunseeker encounters something for which the crew cannot account, an anomaly that they decide to investigate for it is heading on the same trajectory towards Glory as are they.
What the crew of the Sunseeker discovers after carefully drawing close to the anomaly from behind to avoid possible detection, is something for which they have no conception. It is a "spaceship" of stellar proportions shaped like, simply put, a bowl. Picture a teacup without its handle. Tip it sideways so the open end is horizontal. Drill a hole in the bottom and then hang a sun so it appears to float in the center of the horizontal bowl. The curved interior of the "bowl" is large enough to hold the inhabitable area of millions of Earths. It's that big.
A landing team is sent to investigate. Some are captured by the large, intelligent avian-like species -- the presumed builders of the Bowl -- while the rest escape to wander the immensity of the magnificently engineered "ark," where they run into different species from other worlds that also appear to have been captured as the sun-powered Bowl hurtles through the galaxy. The Bowl consists of many varied ecospheres: desert, mountain, plain, and jungle -- each with its own dangers of both the flora and fauna variety -- and we travel through a number of these as the escaped crew members are being hunted from the air, making their continued escape and survival an hour to hour proposition. And all the while the separated crews attempt to regain contact with Sunseeker, their ship hovering just outside and behind the Bowl, hopefully undetected.
Thus is the stage set, with a trio of dovetailing storylines as we follow the travails of both human teams and the super-intelligent avian species piloting the Bowl. And it is the controlling avian species (are they merely in charge of the ship or are they the original builders?) that is perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the book, for their mental atrributes, their psychology is well worked out and totally alien to the way in which the human brain has evolved -- and is in some ways superior.
These main storylines, while page-turning and individually involving in and of themselves, full of surprises, danger, and mystery as they are, pale beside the larger questions of Who built the Bowl? Why? Exactly how does it work and what manner of advanced science gave rise to it? From what part of the galaxy did it originate? Why is it collecting species on its journey that appears to be to the planet Glory -- and why Glory, the same destination as Sunseeker? As the stranded crew of Sunseeker attempts to discover and by hit-and-miss happenstance and educated theorizing uncover some of the many secrets of the Avians and the Bowl, authors Gregory Benford and Larry Niven remind us from time to time just how awe-inspiring and vast the universe is, what unimaginable wonders it might hold on a scale difficult to imagine, and that there truly is a Sense of Wonder left at the heart of modern science fiction.
Bowl of Heaven poses many questions, giving the reader but a first glimpse at the majesty, the magnificent world-sculpting wonder that is the Bowl, a true starship in every sense of the word. The very concept is pregnant with possibilities for countless future adventures, and offers the promise of yet another landmark concept to rival (or perhaps surpass) Larry Niven's popular series of novels which began with 1970's Hugo and Nebula award-winning Ringworld. Gregory Benford is the creator here, and with collaborator Larry Niven (the first career collaboration between these two hard SF masters) one eagerly awaits the next volume, Shipstar, scheduled to appear later in 2013. Get in on the ground floor while you can with this initial volume or you'll most certainly regret having to catch up down the road.
Reading The Fractal Prince is like trying to play 3-dimensional chess -- blindfolded. Now pretend that your opponent -- in this scenario the author -- moves a piece (from any level) onto another 3-dimensional board floating in some invisible, virtual, quantum dimension. You must now -- remember you are blindfolded -- by touch and memory mentally juggle the shifting pieces on the first board and this second board (the continuing and unfolding characters, settings, and plotlines of this post-singularity, post-human story) in two separate realms of existence and try to understand how each of the author's chess moves (stories within stories -- some of which take us into myth and Scheherazade territory -- some taking place in your real world and some in the quantum world, some looping back on themselves in either or both dimensions, and some just bits and pieces tucked into various secondary stories -- quickie references -- hearkening to something that turns out to be a major clue to the macro plot) come together and add up. Good luck.
I found myself reading a few chapters, then placing what I believed to be important or relevant aspects on my mental clipboard, holding them there and hoping I could add more to the mental picture I was building as I read further. It didn't work. Trying to hold a mental picture of even a few of the disconnected pieces of this convoluted puzzle, then coming back out of the ether to focus on the printed page once more proved fruitless. Those floating plot threads and various characters, any of which might exist in the real world or the virtual world held precariously in my mind's eye, dissolved to nothingness as quickly as I tried to form and hold them. Hannu Rajaniemi destroyed each successive attempt by introducing another plot twist, or some ingenious aspect of his post-singularity far future world only he might conjure, or some beautiful passage of exposition drawing the reader into it and it only, thus loosening the tenuous hold on the already half forgotten overall map of where the reader thought he was heading. It became at once frustrating yet an utterly exhilirating experience in progress. I kept turning the pages, alert and excited at what marvelous wonders lay ahead -- even if I didn't understand the overall picture while in the very midst of it: this strange, exotic, fascinating, and at times frightening future world.
And I see from the generalities and vagaries above that I have yet adequately to explain precisely what this novel is really about. To do so would reduce it to a few stark lines of plot or story arc, which would leave the potential reader or purchaser of the book sadly and woefully uninformed as to what to expect. It would be a disservice to the author and those on the fence deciding whether or not to spend their hard-earned discretionary income on this book. I therefore decided to gently move my reviewer's ego to the side and read a handful of other reviews of the book. Maybe I was missing something, or perhaps could learn from wiser souls. Much to my relief I discovered that each and every reviewer -- to some degree or other -- was having the same problem I had encountered. I was immediately reminded of the story of several philosophers, blindfolded, each standing at different points around an elephant and tasked to identify what animal they were touching -- from their single perspective. One grasped the tail, another the hide, another a tusk -- and from their limited perspective each knew but a partial truth of what animal stood before them. Each was correct up to a point, but failed to name the animal correctly. The parable is used to teach the unknowability of God. We grasp only a partial truth from our limited perspective. Such was the case with the reviews of The Fractal Prince from which I sought knowledge.
Except one. One esteemed SF reviewer/critic/author almost touched the face of God with his eloquently written exposé on how to best unlock the secrets held within the pages of The Fractal Prince (and even he noted in passing more than once the understandable confusion readers might experience, postulating that even the author may have lost track in spots of what was transpiring in his own novel). Before revealing who this reviewer is, I would note that The Fractal Prince is the mid-book in a trilogy. The Quantum Thief, Rajaniemi's debut novel which created quite an enthusiastic splash in 2011, was the first. It has just become available in paperback and I recommend reading it before tackling The Fractal Prince -- though the brave among you who like challenges and who may not have read the first book need not overly despair, for early on in The Fractal Prince the author successfully provides touchstones to the events in the first novel.
The reviewer must remember that the potential reader/buyer is his audience. Not publishers (who legitimately parse reviews for the clever quote to use as cover blurbs, and which honest, seasoned reviewers readily supply), not authors (with whom the reviewer may be friends), not fellow reviewers with whom (misguidedly) he may feel in competition (egos are a strange lot, to be let out only rarely and then tightly leashed). The potential reader/buyer always comes first. That said, and with permission of the open-minded Powers That Be at SF Site, I point those curious, potential purchasers of The Fractal Prince to what I consider the gold standard of reviews when it comes to this far-ahead-of-its-time work of Art. Paul Di Filippo reviewed the book in the January 31, 2013 issue of the Barnes & Noble Review, in his The Speculator review column. Admitting my own fumbling attempts to shape a coherent review of the book -- to really nail it -- I humbly point you to someone able to do the job with insight and skill far beyond my own.
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
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