Shipstar (volume 2) by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven (book review).

February 22, 2016 | By | Reply More

‘Shipstar’ continues the adventure started in ‘Bowl Of Heaven’ where the crew of SunSeeker encountered a solar system-sized bowl-shaped construct powered and propelled by its own sun. SunSeeker was a ramscoop spaceship en route from Earth to colonise a planet called Glory with the crew were mostly in cold sleep. The Bowl has been voyaging for millennia and seems to be run by a elephant-sized bird-like creatures called the Folk. They have captured other species which they call the Adopted, who inhabit and maintain the Bowl.


The Folk control the Adopted by indoctrination and, when necessary, pain or death inflicted by microwave bombardment. What works on the aliens doesn’t work on the humans but they re-tune to the correct frequency and it does. Folk Memor inflicts pain on Tananareve, her prisoner, to test the new wavelengths and when she has finished writhing in agony tells her it will help negotiations. She asked him if he would die for a cause. He says no, dying is pointless as if you die you cannot make use of the outcome of the act. She asks him if he would die for his beliefs and he says no, they might be wrong. A refreshing point of view in the age of the martyr.

As in ‘Bowl Of Heaven’, there is plenty of intelligent conversation between intelligent characters. This crew of scientists encountering a cosmic construct full of astonishing aliens gets involved in discussions about ecology, biology, engineering, palaeontology, sociology and much else. It’s certainly much more stimulating than listening to the conversation of real life celebrity dingbats on television. The writers can pull off this tour de force because they are themselves both smart scientists. Why they even feature those gravitational waves which are making the news this past week! However, it’s by no means all chat and there is plenty of ripping adventure, too, as our heroes, in fear of their lives, are pursued by the Folk and aided by some of the Adopted. As the novel develops, the big picture just keeps getting bigger and ends up in the closing fast paced chapters on a truly galactic scale.

The characters are a varied bunch. I particularly liked Captain Redwing, whose point of view we get to see now and again. In general, Beth and Cliff still dominate the storytelling though there is substantial input from others, most notably the alien Memor. Despite the fact that she inflicts pain on humans and kills some, too, the story manages to make her almost a sympathetic character. She is doing what she has to do within the constraints of her job and her extremely hierarchical society.

It’s generally nicely written and this volume seems to have more lush description than ‘Bowl Of Heaven’. Oddly, there are clumsy word repetitions here and there. I didn’t make note of them but, now and then, the same word comes up consecutively in a fashion not usual in polished English. Writers usually find a synonym for the next sentence. It’s not really a flaw, just a stylistic anomaly. One of the dangers with quest stories – characters journeying through strange lands – is that they can turn into an endless parade of wonders. There are a few slow spots in the middle where the story flags a bit but not for long.

Reviewing loads of short stories, one forgets the pleasures of the big Science Fiction novel. The large frame leaves room for big ideas and big thinking. You simply cannot do this in the limited wordage of a short. ‘Bowl Of Heaven’ and ‘Shipstar’ are packed with science, philosophy, sociology and deep thought, all rendered through the medium of convincing human characters. The aliens are pretty convincing, too. All in all, it’s a nice piece of work.

Eamonn Murphy

February 2016

(pub: TOR/Forge, 2014. 415 page hardback. Price: $27.99 (US), $31.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2870-0

pub: Titan Books, 2015. 405 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78329-434-3)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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