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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Read witha couple of niggles
I feel like a rebel - Although the other reviews here point out some flaws I found this book to be an excellent read. The writing's crisp and the pace rather than bogging down quickens throughout the second half of the novel.

There are some editorial issues and they've been ponted out. Here's my take.

I have been a long-time fan of Niven and have...
Published on October 29, 2012 by RobR

versus
228 of 253 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars This is a draft, not a finished story.
Not only is it a draft, which I discuss in detail below, but it's only the first volume of an indeterminately long series. Nothing about the book description, nothing in the dust jacket flaps, nothing on other book selling sites (b&n, sfbc) suggests that this is anything but a complete story except the last page which proudly announces that volume two will appear soon...
Published on October 20, 2012 by Scott R Crittenden


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228 of 253 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars This is a draft, not a finished story., October 20, 2012
By 
Scott R Crittenden (Silver Spring, MD United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Bowl of Heaven (Hardcover)
Not only is it a draft, which I discuss in detail below, but it's only the first volume of an indeterminately long series. Nothing about the book description, nothing in the dust jacket flaps, nothing on other book selling sites (b&n, sfbc) suggests that this is anything but a complete story except the last page which proudly announces that volume two will appear soon. How is this not a blatant attempt to trick people into paying (let me guess how many volumes) three times?

Rant, part one, complete. On to the content.

BEWARE SPOILERS

This is not a finished product:

(1) On one page Tananareve is roughly picked up and thrown into a holding tank. One the very next page, she's with the other group on the other side of a diamond wall. Two drafts of the 'landing party is broken in two' event, perhaps?
(2) There are two different descriptions of the treatment of one person's serious injury which immediately follow each other. Said treatment describes *the* injury in two different ways and it is treated by two different people. Either the first person shoved the metal rod back into the guy for the next person to take out again, or this is two different drafts of the same event.
(3) At one point the captain leaves the bridge and a page or less latter leaves the bridge again. Did he get lost? Or is this two different drafts?
(4) Near the end of one chapter an offhand comment is made that communications from Earth stopped 100 years ago for no apparent reason. Yet a few chapters later we are treated to a page of discussion of the latest communication from Earth as if it were a routine event. So this *published version* hasen't even decided if the Earth has gone missing or not?
(5) It was previously established that ship has been in motion for approximately 80 years. How then can they have lost contact 100 years ago? Is one supposed to take the time since last contact to be *Earth* time?! For what possible reason? Have the authors even decided, at this early stage of story development, how far Glory is from Earth and how long it would take to get there?

Did anyone at any point along the line of production actually *read* this book before they pushed the industrial 'print' button? Did they send the wrong file to the printer?

Oh, that's right, I forgot, the entire point of the process was to sucker people out of cash (three times I suppose), not tell an entertaining and mind expanding story. Silly me.
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67 of 72 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Volume One: Uninspired, October 16, 2012
By 
This review is from: Bowl of Heaven (Hardcover)
Larry Niven has often worked in collaboration, and it's good to see him working at all, given his age. Not many writers born in 1938 are still kicking out science fiction. Gregory Benford might have manned the laboring oar but, having been born in 1941, he's not much younger. Ignoring the trendiness of modern sf, Benford and Niven have crafted an old-fashioned story of space exploration and first contact. Unfortunately, while I have enjoyed much of Niven's writing and at least some of Benford's over the years, Bowl of Heaven does not match the best work of either author.

Bowl of Heaven begins as a promising (albeit conventional) "scientists journey to a new world" story. In the prolog, they are preparing to leave on their newly tested starship. As the novel begins, Cliff Kammash is awakened from an eight decade sleep, well before the ship is scheduled to reach the planet they have named Glory. Cliff, a biologist, thinks it odd that he has been awakened to opine about an unusual star the duty crew have observed -- odd until he realizes that the star is partially surrounded by a hemisphere, an object that was clearly manufactured. For reasons they can't explain, their ship has been losing velocity, and the knowledge that they aren't going to make it to Glory alive prompts them to investigate the bowl-covered star. The bowl is actually a vast (and literal) starship, using the star as its source of propulsion. Once they are inside the bowl, Cliff and his buddies discover an ecosystem the size of the inner solar system.

The plot then follows two branches as half the landing crew is captured by feathered aliens while the other half escapes. Both branches morph into wilderness survival tales as the two groups investigate the planet. For the most part, the story is bland and uninspired. Slightly more interesting are the underlying questions that the humans must confront: what is the origin of the bowl, where did it find its star, where is it going and why? One of the groups improbably stumbles upon a museum that provides helpful clues, furthering my impression that life inside the bowl is just a little too easy for our friends from Earth, a flaw that hurts the story's credibility. Eventually the humans discover what the reader learns much earlier: other aliens from other worlds are trapped in the bowl, in much the same predicament. The question then becomes: Why are the Big Birds who seem to be in charge rounding up and "assimilating" intelligent life forms from other planets? It is rather frustrating that all of those questions remain unanswered.

The human characters lack distinctive personalities -- or any personalities. They are as bland as the story. They engage in random quarrels about points of science that have precious little to do with their survival, and a couple of them engage in hanky-panky, but for the most part the characters are interchangeably dull.

Bowl of Heaven works best when the focus shifts from the humans to the aliens. The not-very-alien Big Bird we encounter most often is Memor, who is charged first with understanding the humans and then with destroying them. The most interesting Bird chapters concern the aliens' attempt to understand the humans -- their speculation, for instance, about the evolutionary significance of facial gestures and human anatomy -- and the political consequences of Memor's repeated failures to bring them under control. A modest payoff comes when the reader meets a not-so-assimilated species that actually seems alien -- the politics of revolution comes into play -- but that doesn't happen until the novel's final chapters: too little and too late to redeem an uninspired plot.

The story hearkens back to an earlier, simpler era of science fiction in its conviction that humans, while not as technologically advanced as aliens, are clever and scrappy and so have the capacity to outwit their superior foes. Of course, it helps that the Big Birds are shockingly inept in their confrontations with humans.

Most disappointing is that the story ends abruptly -- not really a cliffhanger but leaving everything unresolved -- as the reader is encouraged to pick up volume two (Shipstar) to see what happens next. I'm sufficiently indifferent that I might not, but mildly curious about the unanswered questions noted above so maybe I will.
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108 of 125 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Better title: Bowl of Purgatory, October 18, 2012
This review is from: Bowl of Heaven (Hardcover)
I enjoyed the Ringworld books so I foolishly ignored the tepid reviews and read Bowl of Heaven. Might be better titled "Bowl of Purgatory" because the poor reader, after being drawn in by a fairly interesting beginning, finds himself wading through a swamp of meaningless action performed by unlikable characters. We are supposed to believe that these people are highly trained space travelers? A troupe of Webelos would do a better job of establishing contact with an alien civilization. These people spend pages and PAGES doing nothing but squabbling, running away, hunting and eating. After a few chapters you are rooting for Big Bird to just finish them off and put us out of our misery. Bowl World sounded promising but it is no where near as interesting as Ringworld. The aliens are derivative and bird races have been done much better elsewhere. And despite long monotonous descriptions the reader has a hard time visualizing the so-called wonders of Bowl World. The authors bend over backwards to get a dinosaur in there but the place is still as exciting as Sesame Place.

This book is a vivid example of how writers with formerly good reputations can become lazy, churn out utter dreck and yet be published. If an unknown author had written this any publisher would have thrown the manuscript in the trashcan and not even bothered with a form letter because he/she knew that such an unimaginative, untalented author had no chance of ever being published. It is mind boggling that a publisher is actually paying for a sequel. Benford and Niven are probably laughing their behinds off.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars In Search of the Fabled "Plot", December 14, 2012
By 
Jonathan A. Turner (Nashua, NH United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Bowl of Heaven (Hardcover)
[Pages recovered from the journals of the Smythe-Blitherington Expidition.]

Page 1. We are off! Our trusty native guides, Niv'n and Benf'rd, know this territory very well. I know them of old. True, there is a younger generation who have been perhaps more active, more daring, in recent years. And yet, I cannot find it in my heart to abandon these faithful scouts who in my youth helped guide me into the SFNal Jungles.

Page 10. We are steadily working our way up the Backstory River. Along the way we see a number of infodumps--the spoor of Authoris inelegans. This portion of the trek is happily short, but in my impatience I could wish it shorter.

Page 42. We have reached our jumping-off point, where a well-traveled path awaits us.

Page 90. As anticipated, we draw near the Big Dumb Object. Thus far we have had good maps, derived from the cover blurb, and have made steady if unspectacular progress. The thorny underbrush of technospeak has perhaps slowed us down. With what eagerness do we espy the looming foothills of the Plot Range ahead of us, with the lofty peaks behind them!

Page 130. A bitter disappointment--the high mountains have proven to be a mirage! The hills we beheld with such joy were but an isolated, outlying cordillera. Behind them lies, not the Plot Range, but a wide expanse of descriptive text. Still, we shall press on, and not be disheartened, for our guides Niv'n and Benf'rd promise us that the Plots lie not far ahead.

Page 188. The Descriptive Veldt unrolls before us. The characters are uncooperative, refusing to take action or indeed to adopt any goals. We come across various trails that look like they may lead somewhere, yet each one peters out before long. The going is not unpleasant, nor even difficult, but I long to see the fabled Adventure Falls.

Page 227. The Veldt continues. Only some outcroppings of incident, and the occasional butte of an action scene, relieve the monotony. There are grumbles among the readers. I must display firmness. There are occasional Wells of Ideas, but they are not enough to sustain us, not for long. Should we turn back? Nay--never! Niv'n and Benf'rd remain determined to plow onward. Can I do less?

Page 255. The action scenes rise up more frequently. Is this--could it be--the Plots? I dare not get my hopes up.

Page 342. "What is our goal?" the characters ask each other. "Then--where do we go?" I fear I cannot answer them.

Page ??. Lost. Supplies running low. Many desertions. Too late to turn back. Must [unintelligible] more pages. Is this all there is? Surely there is more!

[End of Volume 1.]
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27 of 34 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars would have been a waste of time even if it was a free chapbook, November 5, 2012
By 
Elisa Baker (Los Alamos, NM United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Bowl of Heaven (Hardcover)
But, as a paid product? Simply inexcusable. I find it hard to believe that this book had an editor -- if it did, that person should be fired. It reads as though the publisher thought "oh these guys are a Known Entity, I'm sure whatever they come up with will be just fine!" and meanwhile the authors just sort of .. dialed it in. They had some cool ideas about space travel and thought the world needed more dyson sphere speculation and then sort of as an afterthought threw in some people for "narrative." The characters are 100% interchangeable - don't even bother trying to keep them straight, because it doesn't matter! They just rotate saying lines of dialoge. Meanwhile, the whole lack of a capable editor thing - it's like no one read this story before sending it off to print. It is FULL of inconsistencies and contradictions - often times only a paragraph apart! Person A is over here, oh nope just kidding they're over there now. A group is facing one way, then they're pointedly facing a different way (and oblivious to danger) and then they're suddenly actually in a different location all together! They've been traveling for 80 years? No wait, it's been centuries! The aliens analyze the communication chatter with earth. Wait, no contact from earth for over a hundred years? J/K message from earth incoming! It's really horrible once you start noticing, and then add in the bland characters .. through a sense of masochistic completionism (and also a bit of "whatever, it's short") I pressed onward only to find that it just sort of randomly stops after a while. It's not even like you'd expect - most of the major plotlines resolved, some sort of cliffhanger to bring you back for more - nope, it's pretty much right in the middle of some action, everyone is running around either trying to kill / not die, the spaceship is just idling for "months" like no big deal even though their supply margin is measured in a scale of days, the main alien is in some political hot water and kind of a screwup, a whole new subplot of revolutionaries were just introduced ... ok, good stopping point! Literally nothing is resolved. They don't even tell you what's wrong with the damn drive. There is no reason to read this book, at all. It's poorly written, poorly edited and doesn't even have the dignity to just end, already.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Old School SF, for better or worse, October 18, 2012
By 
Timothy C Allison (Louisville, KY United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Bowl of Heaven (Kindle Edition)
In the midst of their voyage, a troubled colony ship encounters a strange object, a bowl shaped structure half-enclosing a star, with a surface area many times that of the Earth. The ship's crew decides to investigate, both out of curiosity & in hope of restocking their dwindling supplies. Of course the landing party encounters problems, with half being captured while the other half are hunted across the Bowl.

Early in their adventures, a group encounters a large animal emerging from water. Amazed, they realize they are viewing a dinosaur. In a nutshell, that's my reaction to Bowl of Heaven. For better or worse, it reads much the same as a hard SF novel from 30 or 40 years ago.

The strength of the book is the artifact itself. An immense, self-propelled shipstar (yes, that is the phrase that is used) created from repurposing the mass of a solar system. Extensively modified, it is home of seemingly hundreds of species and ecosystems. Benford & Niven develop the Bowl in great detail and apparent scientific rigor. Fans of SF built around BDOs are sure to enjoy the descriptions.

Benford & Niven provide insight into the people and culture of the Bowl via the use of Memor, an Astronomer of the Folk, as a POV. Memor is tasked with observation and interaction with the captured colonists. We learn about the Folk as she contrasts the colonists with herself and her people.
Given the chase/escape plot of most of this book, the story zips right along. The colonists race from one danger to another, with their explorations providing an opportunity for the reader to discover and explore the strange world of the Bowl along with them. It's a simple devise, but in this sort of novel, where the location itself is the primary interest, it works wonderfully.

Unfortunately, while the object is so loving developed and described, the same cannot be said for our human protagonists. Their side of the story is told primarily through the POVs of 3 crewmembers, Captain Redwing, Cliff Kammash, & Beth Marble, both biologists. All three are little more than thinly constructed pieces of cardboard that function more as plot devices or as opportunities for exposition. Who are they? What are their motivations? By the end of the book they were just as enigmatic as they were at the beginning.

In fact, by the end of the book, I seemed to have as many questions as I did upon the start. Why were there no military or security personnel on the ship? Were all the colonists primarily technicians of one sort or another? Did they really expect to force their way into an alien artifact and not encounter any aliens? Shouldn't someone have mentioned that at the staff meeting so that they could plan for it?

Your enjoyment of Bowl of Heaven is going to be directly related to how much you enjoy certain types of hard SF as written 30 years ago. Be forewarned, this is only the first half of a duology, with the second portion expected next year.
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29 of 37 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars do not buy - worst book by either author, October 21, 2012
This review is from: Bowl of Heaven (Hardcover)
As others have pointed out, this book is unfinished and unfit for publication. Evidently each author wrote a book and then someone mashed together passages with no regard for consistency. Strangely, the tone of the book IS consistent.

I have read over 3000 sf books and this is the worst one.
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25 of 32 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Caveat Emptor, October 21, 2012
By 
Heinz Zwack (Muenchen, Germany) - See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Bowl of Heaven (Hardcover)
Bowl of Heaven
Caveat Emptor - Buyer Beware! Don't buy this book unless you are satisfied with reading about fifty pages inf which the launch of a cold-sleep starship is described to my heart's delightor if you want to read about some world building.
Forget the characters - they are two dimensional (if they are human) or incredibly prone to psychobabble about things like the Undermind if they are aliens.
Niven wrote the greatest SF I ever read (THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE and Benford wrote many goodies - but this one is just not worth the money.

I starteed stumbling over discrepancies and made a list of them, but one of the reviewers did this in a perfect manner, calling the book a "draft" that there is no need for me to repeat them...

Sorry, I wish I could get my money back - and I have read probably more than a thousand SF books between 1950 and now and this - to me - is one of the worst. And coming from two giants of the field really hurts..
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Ringworld Variation but stupid actions, January 3, 2013
This review is from: Bowl of Heaven (Hardcover)
Okay, the Bowl of Heaven is an interesting variation on Niven's Ringworld design and that was compelling enough to read the book. But... the main characters do really stupid stuff. My expectation was the humans mission would be to make contact with the Bowl's inhabitants but, instead, they run away from these beings. Why? It seems to be a plot device allowing the humans (and us) to explore the Bowl whilst developing "conflict". It felt contrived.

Towards the end, I started to understand the truly psychological differences between humans and the Bowl's prime inhabitants. That's an interesting aspect... interesting enough that I intend to read the next volume "Shipstar"

BTW, there's a bizarre Editorial OOPS at the end of chapter 9. Howard had a "3-inch sliver of metal" stuck in his arm; Tananareve "extracted the metal shard" and patched him up. Four paragraphs later, Cliff pulls it out of Howard's arm AGAIN. It's like both authors wrote the same scene and the editor forgot to remove the duplicate version.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars First time I've ever not liked a Niven story, December 23, 2013
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This review is from: Bowl of Heaven (Kindle Edition)
I gave up on this book. All I could think was "this is just ringworld again". Not only has Niven told this story, but he did it better in the Ringworld series. I may go back and try it again later, but I was not impressed.
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Bowl of Heaven
Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford (Hardcover - October 16, 2012)
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