by Gregory Benford

In the final analysis, this is another hard sf disaster novel a la Lucifer’s Hammer. The difference is that Eater doesn’t depict a Big Dumb Space Object Headed for Earth, but rather a Big Smart Space Object Headed for Earth. And it quite literally wants to eat our brains.

If this sounds a little silly, well then all the more credit to Greg Benford for pulling it off. There aren’t many sf writers who could spin out a novel about an intelligent black hole invading the Solar System and make it stick. Benford writes with the authority of a scientist who knows what he’s talking about, and the skill of a storyteller who knows exactly what he’s doing. Once again, the key is to portray the Big Change by showing us what happens to people, and in Eater Benford offers a very affecting tale of human loss, envy, courage and sacrifice.

Dr. Benjamin Knowlton is an astrophysicist who’s trying to figure out how to interpret anomalous data showing an object swinging into the solar system from interstellar space. The data suggest an object of extremely high density and overall mass—in fact, it can only be a black hole. But Knowlton has a more immediate problem. His wife, Channing, a former astronaut, is dying of cancer. Benford deftly portrays two people very much in love trying to pretend that life goes on while being brave and hardheaded at the same time. We watch Benjamin and Channing cling to their life together, striving to maintain the pattern of their lives and the warmth of their romance. As they make their grudging, incremental compromises with the inevitable we feel their growing sense of dread and loss.

Channing decides to go to work with Benjamin at the High Energy Astrophysics Center in Hawaii, to assist in the analysis of the black hole. It’s a good decision for her, and everybody else. She makes significant contributions to the effort, her spirit slowly coming back to life while her body slips away. It soon becomes clear that the "Eater" is intelligent, that it is maneuvering toward earth, and that it intends to devour the human race, encoding our minds into its swirling magnetic fields. As if that weren’t conflict enough, a new character appears on the scene: Kingsley Dart, world-class scientist, Royal Astronomer, and Benjamin’s ancient rival – intellectual and romantic. The stage is set for a most excellent hard sf whopper.

Now, Sullydog has to make a confession. One of the first sf novels I ever read was The Andromeda Strain, and it remains one of my favorites to this day. I know this is something of a heresy in the sf community, and in truth I don’t have much use for the stuff put out by Crichton, Inc. since then. But I loved The Andromeda Strain because it slammed the reader with the real flavor of science in action: graphs, charts, illustrations--references for God’s sake. The resolution of the entire story came down to that unforgettable graph of growth rate vs. media pH. While the characters in that novel (and just about everything else by Crichton) were flat, the intensely technical and graphic depictions in The Andromeda Strain made the science come alive. Few hard sf novels before or since have taken that tack, and it’s a shame. Eater would have been perfect for that approach. Benford unapologetically assumes that his audience is intelligent. He does a superb job of depicting the anatomy and physiology of a sentient black hole and its detection and analysis by human scientists. As Crichton did in The Andromeda Strain, Benford presents a vivid picture of science performing under the gun. He even gives us a couple of simple figures. Sullydog thinks he should have gone all the way, with more extensive illustrations, graphs, charts and, yes, references.

I recognize that this might be more of a publishing issue than one of authorial discretion, and I’m just wishing out loud here. But consider: in the very near future, hard sf novels (like any other document) will be interactive, replete with Flash and Shockwave and links to relevant scientific abstracts, and you’ll be able to dig as deep into the technical aspects of a story as you want. Eater is the kind of novel that makes me wish I could do that right now. And I guess that’s as good a way as any of saying that it’s excellent science fiction.

Sullydog Approves.

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