by Gregory Benford
UK Edition: Paperback - 386 pages ( 4 January, 2001) Orbit; ISBN: 1841490172
US Edition: Hardcover - 352 pages (May 2, 2000)
Avon Books (Trd); ISBN: 0380974363
Review by John Berlyne
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK
If you are one of those readers (like me) who enjoys the "fiction" part of the genre but has nothing more than a layman's knowledge of the "science" bit, novels like Gregory Benford's Eater can be quite daunting. I gave up any hope of fathoming the mysteries of physics and chemistry whilst still in high school and so I tend to feel rather inadequate when it comes to works that are rooted in these subjects. Benford on the other hand is a practicing professor of physics - a subject he teaches at the University of California, Irvine. He also teaches literature and as if his expertise in these two particular areas were not enough, he is an award winning novelist to boot.
These talents mixed together allow Benford to produce fiction that is heavily entrenched in the cutting-edge science of today but that remains accessible, exciting and entertaining for those of us who lack his expert knowledge. His grasp of character as well as concept makes the hard science seem incidental to the story, though it is, of course, the very foundation stone on which his novels are built.
Eater (a wonderfully simple and evocative title) is mainly set in the High Energy Astrophysics Centre in Hawaii. There an anomalous signal is brought to the attention of Dr Benjamin Knowlton. This signal alerts the staff to the presence of a wondering and rather ominous black hole on an approach into our solar system. At first there is excitement at this discovery but this turns to amazement when a message from the Eater reveals it to be a sentient and intelligent life form intent on adding humanity to the vast store of knowledge it has accumulated through several billion years of wondering the universe.
The Eater is truly alien - frightening and unfathomable and the small team of scientists that are studying it (Knowlton, his wife Channing who is terminally ill with cancer, Kingsley Dart, the British Astronomer Royal whose clipped accent and deft turn of phrase are Benford's only lapse into stereotype, and Amy Major, an attractive young up-and-coming scientist) soon find themselves becoming overwhelmed by the intervention of the U Agency - a branch of the US government sent in to deal with this threat not just to America, to to the whole of the humanity.
I really liked this book. Benford keeps the excitement and suspense going up right to the end and has many surprises to hand out. I particularly like the fact that where other authors might have focused this story on global panic and the breakdown of society under such circumstances (something I suspect would indeed happen in this eventuality) Benford keeps things tightly pinpointed on finding a solution through science and thus shows us how impotent politicians are when faced with something that transcends national borders and conventional diplomacy. Highly recommended.