Bowl of Heaven — Larry Niven and Gregory Benford

Bowl_of_heavenIt’s almost always a mistake to represent alien consciousness in science fiction. Aliens, if we ever encounter them, are likely to be so alien that we can’t or won’t understand them—not at first, and conceivably not ever. The bigger problem with representing alien consciousness in science fiction comes from the language that is doing the representing.

Language, as pretty much everyone who has ever learned a foreign one knows, shapes what and how you think, as does the culture that carried by that language. Languages, though translatable, have different flavors. And the aliens in Bowl of Heaven sound like the humans, who sound like each other, and all of whom sound like Americans. They can’t do much better than call the human-built spacecraft “boldly simple.” These are aliens who, even more than most aliens in fiction, feel like humans dressed in exotic garb and wielding exotic technology.

Arthur C. Clarke wisely avoided this problem in Rendezvous with Rama, which is one reason the first one is so good and the latter ones less so.

It’s very hard to create fully differentiated human characters, each with a style all their own. Few accomplish this, which is why most writers choose a single first-person narrator, or a limited third-person narrator. One accomplishment in a novel like Anita Shreve’s Testimony is that the characters don’t sound alike, as they do in, say, Tom Perrotta’s Election, or many of Elmore Leonard’s novels. Hell, the style of, say, Remains of the Day, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Atonement are as different as they are because each of their authors is trying to achieve (and achieving) a very specific effect and way of thinking. Niven and Benford aren’t.

I got into Bowl of Heaven because Peter Watts blurbed it and wrote about it in Circling the Bowl. I should’ve paid more heed to the way he described it: “Bowl of Heaven resonates with me, not so much as a work of fiction but as an artefact of the publishing industry.” I can see why it wouldn’t resonate with him “much as a work of fiction,” because by that standard it doesn’t succeed well. I should’ve read his post more carefully and noticed that sentence, though he also notes that “Bowl of Heaven seems to have done just fine with the advance reviewers.”

_MG_9690-1Watts looked at Amazon reviews for the book and noticed that “27% of the reviews complain about sloppy editing and continuity errors.” I’m going to complain about sloppy editing too: a lot of my pages looked like the one on the right, in which extraneous words and sentences are crossed out. This is the sort of thing nearly all authors do on their own (many pages of my own work are filled with cross-outs), and that line and copy editors do too. Generally I ignore extraneous sentences in novels, because everyone commits a couple. But when page after page looks like the one depicted to the right, I get annoyed.

Anyway, Watts’s recommendation kept me reading despite editing problems, but I quit reading when the English-speaking aliens appeared, with all of their Capitalized Proper Nouns (“For Memor was not amid the fevered straits of the Change;” there are also mentions of “the Dancing,” “the Watchers,” and capital-A “Astronomers”). There’s better work out there: before Bowl of Heaven, make sure you’ve read Blindsight and Starfish first: those are Watts novels, and I don’t remember where I first learned about them, and both are hard to read at their beginnings but dazzling by their ends as pieces click into place.

To return to the language issue, novels like Bowl of Heaven tend to give SF a bad rep among lit-fic types, who are obsessively attentive to language and how people use language in very particular way. As I noted above, these authors aren’t attentive to those issues, and they also seem to have a confused point of view—and not one that’s intentionally confused for artistic effect, like Virginia Woolf. The effect feels like a mess: it seems like the novel is following Cliff from a first-person limited view, but then it slips into a paragraph or two with only things that Redwing, or other characters, could know. It’s the sort of thing that undergrads learn about in creative writing classes.

Maybe there’s an artistic purpose here, but if so I’m not seeing it. If not, it’s just a mistake, and seeing novels with many simple mistakes praised by many eminent science fiction writers will tend to subtly and unfairly devalue the genre as a whole.

4 responses

  1. What kind of book holder do you use?? I’ve been think of buying one and wonder how you like yours?

    Thanks, Jake!!!

    -A former Student

    Like

  2. Your post reminds me of a speech I attended by S.J. Rozan on genre fiction.
    She said that well written genre fiction is oftentimes praised for transcending the genre. Literary fiction aficionados smuggle the best of genre fiction out of the genre, leaving the poorly written examples as evidence that genre fiction is substandard.

    Thanks for the post and references!

    Like

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