The first full-length collaboration from Niven (Fate of Worlds, 2012, etc.) and Benford (The Sunborn, 2005, etc.), featuring a science-fiction trope, the Big Dumb Object—or, as the authors distinguish it, a Big Smart Object since it’s dynamically stable, as opposed to passively stable like Niven’s BDO, Ringworld.
A sublight-speed starship heading for a habitable planet encounters an astonishingly vast structure: a bowl-shaped construct like a Dyson hemisphere, with a habitable interior surface larger in area than millions of Earths. Even more amazing, this Bowl is being steered towards the same destination as the starship, using an entire star as its engine! The starship needs supplies, so a landing party goes down to investigate. While attempting to gain ingress, the explorers become separated. One group, led by biologist Beth Marble, is captured by the structure’s alien controllers, taught to communicate and interrogated. The other group, under Beth’s partner, biologist Cliff Kammash, escapes into the Bowl’s habitable interior, only to be pursued relentlessly by birdlike aliens. We learn from Memor, the chief alien investigator, that the Bowl has been wandering the galaxy for millions of years, capturing and enslaving other intelligent species and incorporating them into the Bowl’s complex ecology—and their debate soon narrows into whether to domesticate the humans or simply exterminate them. There’s plenty of gosh-wow value in the exploration of the object itself, while the plot develops along conventional lines. Unfortunately, the humans lack personalities, their interactions remain soap-operatic, and the quality of the writing reflects this. The aliens come across as too dimwitted and sluggish for the sophisticated technology they evidently control, although this may be intentional: A sequel, Shipstar, is promised.
BDO or BSO, there’s nothing wrong with the hardware; it’s the wetware that’s disappointingly deficient.