Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven

(8.0/10) Shipstar is beautifully paced.

Shipstar is the sequel to Benford and Niven’s book Bowl of Heaven, where, in the far distant future, Earth sent a ship SunSeeker and her crew on their way to a planet named Glory - deemed suitable for a new colony. If you have not yet read Bowl of Heaven, please go and see my review here, as there will be spoilers for Bowl of Heaven in the following paragraphs. The review also gives a clearer idea of the world of Shipstar.

At the end of Bowl of Heaven we were left with a number of characters in precarious positions; Beth’s team is on the run from Memor and the Folk, who are the main alien race that the Sunseeker’s crew run into, they seem to be birdlike in nature and have both an upper and lower mind which are separate from each other. Cliff’s team is with the Sil (an alien race who are one of the adopted races of the Bowl. The Sil’s city had recently been attacked by the Folk and we get to see the aftermath and differences between humanity and the Sil. Captain Redwing is still on SunSeeker trying to work out with his (small group of) awakened crew how to retrieve both Beth and Cliff’s teams, as well as how to get to Glory on limited supplies.

In Shipstar we continue to learn more about the history of the Bowl and who inhabits it. This is told in ingenious ways that never makes you feel like you are sitting through a boring lecture. All of the different protagonists are learning things at different times, so that they and we whilst reading are piecing strands of plot together before the truth is revealed. Throughout the story we are also introduced to many new alien species, some are more evolved than previously imagined whilst some seem to be engineered to help with the maintenance of the Bowl. There are many aliens that by their very nature, humanity wouldn’t recognise as alive. With all these varieties the characters are able to see how odd this universe is.

The surviving members of Beth’s team are able to evade capture and return to SunSeeker, this allows for a more nuanced approach to the character of Redwing, who now feels like a well-rounded character, it is interesting to see how he thinks as the sole leader of this mission. It is also good to see how these characters interact as they have had such different experiences. Due to this shift in perspective there it is interesting to see how the group dynamics shift and grow.

Cliff’s team on the other hand are still very much on the run. They are being hidden by the Sil, who have their own agenda, but even that may not be able to keep Cliff and his team alive and undiscovered. Their journey is long and hard, but allows them to understand the way the bowl works as they discover mysteries that the Folk would prefer them not to discover.

The third perspective is Memor’s who was the lead Astronomer (the Folk) dealing with the crew of SunSeeker or “late invaders” as the Folk call them, but she is slowly being sidelined by more aggressive Astronomers and plots that are beyond her understanding. Memor believes that she has the best understanding of humanity, but is still unable to see beyond her own prejudices of having a superior intellect, which makes for a compelling yet frustrating character.

Shipstar is beautifully paced; this allows the authors to include a lot of scientific speculation without stinting on action sequences and character development. There are a lot of characters to follow in this continuing saga, but at the same time many of these characters are nothing more than extras in a much larger drama. Again the scale of this world can be overwhelming, yet the authors try to never leave the reader behind and each set piece is structured to blow your mind. I really enjoyed the changing nature of Shipstar to Bowl of Heaven, although a continuation the ending was very satisfying. If there isn’t another book continuing this epic mission through the stars, I would not be disappointed as this book neatly wraps the character arcs and answers the majority of questions posed in Bowl of Heaven. Of course if there was another book, I would love to know how the authors will push humanities horizons further into the unknown.

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