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Gregory Benford
Avon EOS Books, 352 pages

Amy Halperin
Gregory Benford
Gregory Benford is a physicist and astronomer at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of a series of hard SF novels, beginning with In the Ocean of Night (1978) and following quickly with works such as Timescape (1980) and the popular Galactic Centre series, including Across the Sea of Suns, Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989) and Furious Gulf (1994).

Gregory Benford Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Deep Time
SF Site Review: Against Infinity
SF Site Review: Artifact
SF Site Review: Cosm
SF Site Review: Foundation's Fear

Past Feature Reviews
A review by 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.

Copyright © 2000 by Chris Donner

Chris Donner is a freelance writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan and working in Connecticut. He will read almost anything once, as it makes the train ride go faster. He is currently writing a screenplay, a novel, several short stories, a collection of poems, and a letter to his mother. The letter will probably be done first.

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