Published by Gregory Benford on October 15th, 2012

far bowlBOWL OF HEAVEN is out

My collaboration with Larry Niven hits the stores TUESDAY, OCT 16. It’s picked up great reviews by Locus, Analog, Library Journal, and we’ll be signing copies starting Tuesday, Oct 16:

San Diego, CA
Mysterious Galaxy–7051 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard 92111
Santa Monica, CA
Barnes & Noble store 2575–1201 3rd Street Promenade 90401
Redondo Beach, CA
Mysterious Galaxy–2810 Artesia Blvd. 90278
Long Beach, CA
SCIBA Trade Show Author Feast
Half Moon Bay, CA
Bay Book Company–80-F N. Cabrillo Hwy 94019
San Francisco, CA
Borderlands–866 Valencia St. 94110
Seattle, WA
University Bookstore–4326 University Way 98105
Beaverton, OR
Powell’s–3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd. 97225
Here are some thoughts on the general subgenre:

Big Smart Objects

Gregory Benford’s take—

In science fiction, a Big Dumb Object is any immense mysterious object that generates an intense sense of wonder just by being there. They don’t have to be inert constructs, and perhaps the dumb aspect also expresses the sensation of being struck dumb by the scale of them. My favorite is the one I’m working on in a two-volume novel I’m writing with Larry Niven.
Larry said to me at a party, “Big dumb objects are so much easier. Collapsed civilizations are so much easier. Yeah, bring them up to speed.”
So we wrote Bowl of Heaven, first of two novels about a Big Smart Object. The Bowl has to be controlled, because it’s not neutrally stable. His Ringworld is a Big Dumb Object since it’s passively stable, as we are when we stand still. (Or the ringworld would be except for nudges that can make it fall into the sun. Those are fairly easy to catch in time. Larry put the stabilizers into the second Ringworld novel.)
A Smart Object is dynamically stable, as we are when we walk. We fall forward on one leg, then catch ourselves with the other. That takes a lot of fast signal processing and coordination. (We’re the only large animal without a tail that’s mastered this. Two legs are dangerous without a big brain.) There’ve been several Big Dumb Objects in sf, but as far as I know, no smart ones. Our Big Smart Object is larger than Ringworld and is going somewhere, using an entire star as its engine.
Our Bowl is a shell several hundred millions of miles across, held to a star by gravity and some electrodynamic forces. The star produces a long jet of hot gas, which is magnetically confined so well it spears through a hole at the crown of the cup-shaped shell. This jet propels the entire system forward – literally, a star turned into the engine of a “ship” that is the shell, the Bowl. On the shell’s inner face, a sprawling civilization dwells. The novel’s structure resembles Larry’s Ringworld, based on the physics I worked out.
The virtue of any Big Object, whether Dumb or Smart, is energy and space. The collected solar energy is immense, and the living space lies beyond comprehension except in numerical terms. But…. this smart Bowl craft is also going somewhere, not just sitting around, waiting for visitors–and its builders live aboard. Where are they going, and why? That’s the fun of smart objects – they don’t just awe, they intrigue.
My grandfather used to say, as we headed out into the Gulf of Mexico on a shrimping run, A boat is just looking for a place to sink.
So heading out to design a new, shiny Big Smart Object, I say, An artificial world is just looking for a seam to pop.
You’re living meters or maybe just a kilometer away from a high vacuum that’s moving fast, because of the spin. That makes it easy to launch ships, since they have the rotational velocity with respect to the Bowl or Ringworld… but that also means high seam-popping stresses have to be compensated. Living creatures on the sunny side will want to tinker, try new things…
“Y’know Fred, I think I can fix this plumbing problem with just a drill-through right here. Uh—oops!”
The vacuum can suck you right through…and you’re moving off on a tangent at tens of kilometers a second. To live on a Big Smart Object, you’d better be pretty smart yourself.

Larry Niven’s take—
“The Enormous Big Thing” was my friend David Gerrold’s description of a plot line that flowered after the publication of Ringworld. Stories like Orbitsville and Rendezvous with Rama depend on the sense of wonder espoused by huge, ambitious endeavors. Ringworld wasn’t the first; there had been stories that built, and destroyed, whole universes. They had fallen out of favor.
And I wasn’t the first to notice that a fallen civilization is easier to describe than a working one. Your characters can sort through the artifacts without hindrance until they’ve built a picture of the whole vast structure. Conan the Barbarian, and countless barbarians to follow, found fallen civilizations everywhere. I took this route quite deliberately with Ringworld. I was young and untrained and I knew it.
A fully working civilization, doomed if they ever lose their grasp on their tools, is quite another thing. I wouldn’t have tried it alone. Jerry Pournelle and I have described working civilizations several times, in Footfall and Lucifer’s Hammer and The Burning City.
With Greg Benford I was willing to take a whack at a Dyson-level civilization.
Greg shaped the Bowl in its first design. It had a gaudy simplicity that grabbed me from the start. It was easy to work with: essentially a Ringworld with a lid, and a star for a motor. We got Don Davis involved in working some dynamite paintings.
Greg kept seeing implications. The Bowl’s history grew more and more elaborate. Ultimately I knew we’d need at least two volumes to cover everything we’d need to show.
Here’s the first, Bowl of Heaven.
We’re hard at work wrapping up story lines on the sequel, Shipstar.

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26 Responses

  1. [...] a solid work that will appeal to fans of classic hard SF.” • Benford’s blog has this post with a signing tour schedule and a discussion of Big Dumb Objects and Big Smart Objects, plus [...]

  2. David K. M. Klaus says:

    I feel like The Doctor on Doctor Who when he cried, “Dinosaurs on a spaceship!” This idea is just ultra-cool. May you have a best-seller!

  3. Lars says:

    What is casting the shadow apparent on the inside of the bowl in your figure?

    • Gregory Benford says:

      A nearby star. We wanted to show some perspective, and so imposed this (or Don Davis did) though of course the luminosity levels are quite different, ie the shadow is dim.

      • Don Davis says:

        What you see is a reflection of the surroundings and the interior upon the mirror arrays lining the concave section of the Bowl. The darker center is not a shadow. It is a reflection of the blackness of space, surrounded by the reflection of the ocean and land bearing cylindrical section. This sharp edged brighter reflection is partly hidden by the dark outer surface of the land and sea bearing cylindrical section.
        The creation of this art happened first as 3D models including rendered reflections, which were then extensively hand painted. Some surrounding illumination was used to assist in clarifying the object’s exterior, and the mirrors were assumed to have modest uniform imperfections allowing their surfaces to be distinguished in brightness etc, from what they were reflecting.


        • Gregory Benford says:

          Thanks for explaining this, Don. I’m just back from a 10 day book tour, where Larry & I used a slide show, dominated by your paintings. This one is always the wowser!
          Someone asked if you planned any further views of the Bowl, too.

  4. Steve Gaalema says:

    Just finished reading Bowl of Heaven. Very interesting physics.

    “The star produces a long jet of hot gas…”

    I’m curious how this jet is produced. The description in the book seems to imply the bottom of the jet is super heated by mirror concentrated sunlight, but that should not be able to produce much temperature increase. Net heat cannot flow from a cooler object (the surface of the star away from the jet) to a warmer object. I see how the mirror might cause an entire hemisphere of the star to increase temperature some, but not a significant hot spot to produce the jet. Am I missing something?

    • Gregory Benford says:

      About 30% of the star’s sunlight returns in a small spot. The star rotates fast & has strong fields, ~ 1 Gauss. Due to a combination of differential rotation, Coriolis forces and induction, a multitwisted field gets wrapped around the ionized outflow, forming a confining field — just as in the many hundreds of astrophysical jets we see coming from accretion disks around stars and black holes.

      • Steve Gaalema says:


        I think I understand how the magnetic field confines the jet, to exit from one of the poles, I assume (seems to make changing direction of thrust very difficult!).

        However, when you write “About 30% of the star’s sunlight returns in a small spot”, are you saying you can use the mirror to heat this spot to a higher temperature than that 30% of the star’s surface? If yes, I don’t see how that is possible. How can net heat radiate from a cooler surface to a warmer surface?

        • Gregory Benford says:

          There’s nothing thermodynamically wrong about focusing sunlight to get high temperatures. Many solar power units do this, and the mirrors don’t melt, because the reflected sunlight is re-emitted, not turned into heat.

          • Steve Gaalema says:

            “There’s nothing thermodynamically wrong about focusing sunlight to get high temperatures.” I agree as long as the temperature you are getting does not exceed the temperature of the sun.

            I also agree about solar power units; the mirrors just reflect, their temperature does not matter at all if they are perfect mirrors.

            But if you could use just a mirror to create a higher temperature than a source of radiant energy, you could concentrate the LWIR emitted by, say a room temperature baseball, onto a very small piece of tungsten to produce an incandescent light!

          • Gregory Benford says:

            Something wrong: you can concentrate sunlight to get enormous temperatures, because you’re focusing more photons in a smaller area. It’s just energy conservation.

          • Steve Gaalema says:

            Energy is certainly conserved. But as the spot receives energy and starts to warm, it emits more (and higher energy) photons that the mirror directs back to the star surface that was the original source. The spot and the rest of the surface must approach thermal equilibrium.

            This will warm the larger area of the star covered by the mirror as I wrote in my first message. Sort of like greenhouse gases on the earth in place of the mirror.

          • Gregory Benford says:

            Right, equilibrium doesn;t mean equal temperature; it’s a driven system dominated by the mirror feedback. Quite deliciously unstable, too! You might see the talk at Google at top of this blog.

          • Steve Gaalema says:

            Sorry, I can’t agree that it is thermodynamically possible to use a mirror to move energy from the cooler portion of the star to this warmer spot. Entropy cannot be reduced. You could use a system of solar cells powering lasers to accomplish the same task (at lower efficiency) and that would increase entropy as the second thermodynamic law requires.

            I have been thinking of the practical reason the mirror cannot focus light as you describe. I think it is because no real mirror can produce a demagnified image with the same distance from object to mirror as from mirror to image.

      • This was a major scientific error in the book. It simply is not entropically possible for any configuration of lenses or mirrors in vacuum to focus sunlight to obtain a higher temperature than the sun’s surface, nor to focus it onto an artificial “hot spot” on the sun that is smaller than the sun itself. If we could, then I would suggest focusing the IR radiation from the planet earth’s nightside onto a small hot spot on the earth then connecting a steam boiler to that place thus constructing a perpetual motion machine…

        Another major error in many Larry Niven books is the whole idea of a fusion “ramjet.” Actually this is a stupid idea since it would be simpler and cheaper and would achieve higher speeds & performance, just to have your spaceship have a big deuterium fuel tank. A jet cannot
        ever exceed its exhaust velocity. A rocket can easily do so, and will if its fuel tank exceeds e times the nonfuel mass.

        I actually think Benford & Niven come closer to real science than most/all other SF authors, but that is a disappointing testament to the general lack of scientific
        ability/common sense that SF authors have.

        • Gregory Benford says:

          Actually we do know of the focus problem. But detailing the real function of the “mirror zone” would’ve overloaded the book with tech detail, we thought. The mirrors are actually phased arrays, ie coherent radiators of the sunlight power that falls on them. They can focus to a finer point than the geometric optical limit–ie, no focus narrower than the angle subtended by the star in the sky.
          Fusion ramjets: point is, the exhaust velocity can be very high, and the fuel is free. The ramjet’s problems lie in the braking of the magnetic scoop, which is indeed hard to overcome. But ramjets might work if the tricky engineering can be done.
          Rockets for interstellar? Try the Daedelus etc designs–they’re very hard to believe anyone would try. Interstellar is a huge challenge, and may be the real solution to the Fermi paradox–just too hard!
          Maybe you’re right about “the general lack of scientific ability/common sense that SF authors have” for some, but Benford, Brin, Baxter, Reynolds, Cramer, etc have plenty of PhDs and hundreds of published papers.

  5. William Gordon says:

    I love this book very much. To me it is a rambling artistic adventure very well written with wonderful descriptions of the bowl and the inhabitants actions and thoughts. I can visualize the landscape from the writing.
    Any attempt with current knowledge to imagine
    life in the Cosmos is very difficult. I think
    both author’s experience and knowledge of science and art help create a very beautiful and successful work of art.
    I hope it continues.

  6. David Seltzer says:

    OK, I’m just about finished reading “Bowl of Heaven” and am ready for “Shipstar” but can’t find it on the bookshelves. Can you please hurry!

    Thank you both for a GREAT book. When can we expexct the sequel?
    David Seltzer

    • Gregory Benford says:

      Glad you like it. SHIPSTAR should appear about this time in 2014.

      We’re preparing some surprises, too!

  7. Neal says:

    I have finished The Bowl of Heaven and ready for the next one. Any ideas when it will be available?

  8. Mike Brewer says:

    could I see the slide show used in the book tour.

  9. Brian White says:


    I love the idea that our Sun’s apparent missing binary twin has been accounted for and that the Earth produced two intelligent spacefaring species during different epochs.

    • Gregory Benford says:

      Yes, Larry Niven & I liked using that. Much more emerges in SHIPSTAR, out in April (can get on Amazon preorder now)