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Glorious

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Gregory Benford and Larry Niven immerses the reader in hard science fiction multiple species exploration of another solar system with distinctly different beings.  Excellent look at species encounters.  Needs open mind.
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This was quite a treat for me to experience this team effort on an old-fashioned, hard sci-fi space opera from authors I have been reading since my teens.  Niven, now 82, marshalls his skills in storytelling and world building, and Benford, 79, contributes through his talents in physics and inventiveness on alien mindsets.  The story, set a few hundred years from now, brings a human colony ship into the realm of a very advanced intelligent species and takes us through the dance of each getting to know and trust each other.  The story fruitfully revisits the old trope of humans being judged on dangerousness by a galactic community of wise species in the face of our violent war-making history and rapid rise to a nuclear-powered spacefaring species in a few thousand year.  The additional “crime” our species is being judged by is that of causing mass extinctions on Earth.  

As with Niven’s “Ringworld” and many sequels, the alien setting of the story is an awe-inspiring system of technological mastery, in this case a pair of worlds, called Glory and Honor,  linked by a massive artificial cylinder (the “Cobweb”) with myriads of diverse low-gravity ecologies within or on plates with surface areas comprising many times that of Earth’s surface.  The small number of crew awake from cryo-sleep have already been humbled on the way in by the nearby collection of black-holes in an oscillator configuration, inferred to be a gravity wave communication system among similarly advanced, far-distant species in an exclusive intergalactic “Grav Wave Club.”  The authors get to let their imaginations run rampant with their fictional creation of life forms and intelligent aliens, which were plausible enough for my happy engagement and wonderment.  For drama, our leader, Captain Redwing, and handful of engineering and biology officers are put through the paces of many dangerous interludes on an exciting Magical Mystery Tour of encounters with these strange life forms and constructed wonders.  

I found it refreshing in this era where dystopian and apocalyptic themes dominate science fiction to have some hero representatives of the human race who are humble about our historical mistakes and potential inferiority but still resilient, resolute, and bold in defense and diplomacy on behalf of a fair shake at a role in the community of intelligent species.  The hoops they have to jump through just to get into a meaningful dialog the species which built and are in charge of the rules of this system make for some harrowing situations.  It all starts with a long delay in the appearance of any host individual to welcome their arrival, leading to fatal encounters with local wildlife.  Their eventual host, a mantis-like, three-armed creature they call Twisty, is surprisingly articulate but cagey, skills learned from long study of human history and culture in vast records transmitted during the long approach.  We soon learn it is a mediator/observer connected to a hidden species and for its mission will be bringing them into contact and communication with various wise collaborator species of amazing diversity.  Twisty’s condescending attitudes and complicity in allowing deaths among the human crew in association with or at the hands of these various aliens eventually makes the humans so mad they have a hard time restraining a murderous response, which might only confirm a negative judgment on human worthiness.

Between action events, our struggling human engage in a lot of philosophical and anthropological discussion with resident species, which I loved.  The authors effectively explore the concept that humans might stand out among other smart species in their limited access to their own motivations, i.e. the unconscious, and thereby be dangerously deluded in their perceptions of their rationality.  These aspects align with the human obsession with storytelling and creations of roles in constructed narratives or myths, including religious ones to justify selfish actions.  In defense, our characters argue that the human talents in art and fast tech advancement are attributable to the same traits.  Such a line of debate on our worthiness feels a bit weak when one intelligent species is able to create a full scale replica of the Chartre Cathredral before their eyes.  More impressive to me is the human capacity for humor, here naturally leaning toward the dark kind.  The big irony is that their being a last hope of humanity to do things right after mistakes that doomed Earth is being undermined by fears of the very  capabilities and chutzpah to get as far as they have. 

The book is the third in a series that includes “The Bowl of Heaven” and “Shipstar”, which I have not read.  Yet I felt okay in taking this one on as a freestanding novel, given its inclusion of significant revelations on the backstory of the colony ship’s long interlude with another constructed world in the shape of a bowl and traveling by plasma jets fed from a captured star.  Part of the carryover is the participation of a representative of a member of that world’s key steward species, the “Bird Folk”, oddly by means of a secret personality transplant into a spider-like animal.  The hidden masters of the Cobweb system consider the Bowl world heading their way as very dangerous, so the humans at their door are suspected as being their agents.  As more revelations are gleaned by our human avatars in their explorations and intersections with residents of the Cobweb and two worlds they link, they come to realize that their survival may lie in somehow mediating a bad history between the masters of two systems about a million years ago, one some kind of sessile, solid-state entities called the Ice Minds and the other some kind of fungal super-network.  A tough job to pull off for sure.  But maybe they can find some way of assuming a valuable role as advisor on how to stop a far-distant species with a similar aggressive primate-like ancestry in the Grav Wav Club from experiments could potentially undermine the quantum space-time  fabric of the universe.

In sum, the tale is a great adventure, full of thought provoking perspectives on human nature and capabilities and projected wonders and modes of being that vastly superior minds might achieve. 

This book was provided by the publisher for review through the Netgalley program.
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I appreciate having had an opportunity to read and review this book. The appeal of this particular book was not evident to me, and if I cannot file a generally positive review I prefer simply to advise the publisher to that effect and file no review at all.
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I love hard scifi, and this is pretty good. Since I missed the previous books in the series, I'm sure I didn't enjoy it as much as I might have otherwise. But the story is well constructed, and of course the science is realistic. There are aspects of the plot and dialog that seemed tricky to execute but these highly talented authors did a great job. Recommended for scifi fans, particularly if one is seeking a story with a bit of an old school feel.

Thanks very much for the review copy!!
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Glorious by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven is a highly recommended third installment of the hard science fiction Bowl of Heaven series.

"Audacious astronauts encounter bizarre, sometimes deadly life forms, and strange, exotic, cosmic phenomena, including miniature black holes, dense fields of interstellar plasma, powerful gravity-emitters, and spectacularly massive space-based, alien-built labyrinths. Tasked with exploring this brave, new, highly dangerous world, they must also deal with their own personal triumphs and conflicts."

This is the final installment of a hard science fiction space opera series by science fiction masters Benford and Niven. The crew of the Sunseeker was tasked with spreading humanity throughout the galaxy, but they have encountered many extraterrestrial beings along the way and added to their crew. Included in the crew is the husband-and-wife biologist team Cliff Kammash and Beth Marble. The starship is now headed toward their original destination, Glory, a planetary system with a complex artificially engineered orbital system. Benford excels at the real scientific specifics in the narrative while Niven enjoys giving the various aliens a personality. And there are many technical details and many unique aliens. 

Once you start this densely pack story, you will realize that it would behoove you to have read the first two novels in the series first so you know the background and can follow along with the action with a bit more ease.  The first novel is Bowl of Heaven and the second is Shipstar. Catching up with the background I missed slowed my reading down as did the technical details. This is an exciting addition to hard science fiction, but it will take time and concentration to read. 4.5

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Macmillian.
After publication the review will be posted on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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Not having read the first two books in this series I was pretty much lost most of the time. However, I found the book fascinating. I very much like hard science fiction and this is it! 

A group of humans has made contact with a gigantic Bowl built around a star. (Think half of a Dyson Sphere, but more solid). They encounter a civilization vastly different and far older than ours. 

Even confused as i was, I loved this book. I will be hunting down the first two books! Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for allowing me to read this arc.
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Story about group of astronauts traveling to distant planet.  It's part of a series, so you need to read the other books first to appreciate this one.
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Glorious is the third book in the “hard” science fiction Bowl of Heaven series. As a new reader of this type of science fiction, I’ve enjoyed the construction and direction of the three books where the ultimate book ‘Glorious’ brings to a conclusion many of the challenges that humans and other life forms encounter while traveling through space. The books provide a level of personal interaction and character development while challenging the reader with very interesting mind-bending concepts. The notions of sleeping through hundreds of years of earth history while traveling to another star, bio-engineering new intelligent species to accomplish needed support functions, using interstellar plasma for fusion propulsion, manipulation of gravity sources, massive unimaginable alien-built planetary systems, construction and use of miniature black holes, and physics-defying concepts like manipulating the energy level of the higgs-boson to achieve travel greater than the speed of light, are all fascinating and alien to me. The book stretches the imagination and is fascinating reading, but many of the long and detailed descriptions are repeated too often (especially where the alien personas are concerned) and detract from the overall focus of the book.
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In their Afterword Benford and Niven refer, rather tongue-in-cheek, to a centuries-long dialogue that began with Dante’s Divine Comedy, continued with Stapledon’s Star Maker, and has since been refined by the likes of Niven’s own Ringworld and Shaw’s Orbitsville.

This dialogue is the “calculated limits on a structure’s size in outer space”, which resulted in the SF trope of the Big Dumb Object, as referred to by Peter Nicholls in 1993. He was joking at the time … but little did he know how such a rich sub-genre this would become.

Benford and Niven’s take is the Big Smart Object, as both the Bowl and the Glorian double planet “must be continuously managed to be stable”. Interestingly, or perhaps ironically, it is often the inhabitants (human and alien) of these great artifacts whose behaviour can best be summed up as being ‘dumb’. So perhaps the original term should stand.

One tends to forget that Benford himself is not only a respected SF writer, but Professor Emeritus at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California in Irvine, and also contributing editor of Reason magazine. Which is in great short supply in the world at present.

Hence what a delight to read this concluding volume of the Bowl of Heaven trilogy, in which it is abundantly clear how much fun the two authors had to come up with one of the wildest rides in contemporary SF.

They comment succinctly as to how uniquely matched their different perspectives and interests are: ‘Larry likes doing aliens and their odd thoughts, as in his Known Space stories. Gregory likes the designer aspects – how does the Bowl work?’

Furthermore, on the dual process itself: “Writing is a solitary craft, but! – uniquely, science fiction encourages collaboration, echoing its core culture: science itself …” Of course, this is only one view of SF, and one that it could be argued has been superseded with its focus on hard science by a more speculative bent. Hence the current cornucopia of socio-political SF, especially in terms of climate change and gender politics.

Yet Benford and Niven are savvy enough to realise that the priorities of the genre have indeed changed as the world continues to fracture around us. They enthuse their decidedly old-fashioned Big Smart Object yarn with a great deal of cutting-edge speculative thought.

A lot of this has to be uttered by the characters, both human and alien, and here one runs the danger of having mouthpieces as opposed to fully rounded protagonists. While this was a big problem in the preceding two volumes – moreso in Shipstar for me – Benford and Niven hit a perfect balance in Glorious.

All of the characters are fully rounded, including the mind-boggling panoply of aliens. In particular, it is great to see some of the human characters like Redwing fully embrace their destiny and legacy. This is hugely satisfying for the reader, and a massive accomplishment on the part of the writers, who clearly hit their stride in this concluding volume (or is it?)

Benford and Niven also note that “A great problem with world creation is when it becomes an end in itself.” The main function of Glorious is to outdo Bowl of Heaven with an even more grandiose spectacle – in which the titular Bowl is reduced to a mere backdrop – but at the same time the human and alien stakes are that much higher, so every single action and decision has an inevitable consequence.

I suppose the problem with a book like Glorious is that a reader not steeped in the history and transformation of the genre could regard it as an anachronism. In this respect, Benford and Niven do the genre a great service by underlining by how important the SF canon is.

We need to automatically recall Ringworld and Star Maker and Rama when reading it, and the modern takes on the BDO sub-genre by writers as diverse as Iain Banks and Greg Bear. And when a trilogy like this comes along, it is an opportunity to both celebrate the past, and to mark it as a herald of an even more glorious future.
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This book turned out to be part of a series. It is very difficult to follow if you have not read the entire series as the authors assume you have done. My recommendation is that you start at the beginning and you will enjoy this book much better. It is not a stand alone novel.

I received a free Kindle copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon and my nonfiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook  page.
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Glorious by Gregory Benford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Remember reading adventures where a full team goes in to explore a strange new world and only a handful come out alive? Where very strange creatures with even stranger motives tease and tempt you into situations you know you shouldn't be in, but you're just TOO CURIOUS to resist?

Yeah, I love those adventures, too. A believed that they were becoming a lost art form. And maybe they are... at least in SF where they used to be so abundant. New Worlds, New Aliens! (as opposed to the much more common: New worlds, New Aliens to kill!)

Well, I'm happy to say that the old art form is back, at least for these three Bowl of Heaven novels by Gregory Binford and Larry Niven. More, I think this third book does it even better than the first two.

In the afterward, I should point out that they are not adapting the old Big Dumb Objects clause to their immense technological marvels, but Big Smart Objects. This is an adventure where we newcomer humans encounter vastly long-lived civilizations who maintain their enormous structures intelligently.

In Glorious, the system where both the Bowl and the Humans had been traveling to when they got entangled in each other's stories is now in sight. Humans make first contact (for various reasons I won't spoil) and are embroiled in both a physically awesome structure and a wildly complicated social structure featuring TONS of intelligent aliens. If I thought the amount of livable surface area in Bowl was amazing, the one in Glorious is even more amazing (and MORE interesting).

And these aliens don't deign to talk to anyone else in the universe unless they use gravimetric waves. As in, communication through a series of herded black holes, manipulated in such a way as to transmit vast distances without ever breaking the current laws of physics. This is the old-style SF, after all, where real science rules. :) :)

No spoilers, but I was glued to my page. I was just as curious as the characters on the page and I might have made all the same mistakes, too. It's always a free lunch for SOMEBODY there. Of course, that usually means that you're the meal. :)

Good stuff! Big ideas all over the place and fun all the way through!
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