Sunday, May 25, 2014

Gregory Benford & Larry Niven's Bowl of Heaven


An hour ago, I finished reading Bowl of Heaven, a 2013 science-fiction collaboration between Larry Niven and Gregory Benford. I am left feeling refreshed — it has been a very long time since I read a hard-science, deep-space SF novel — and stunned. Stunned because the book reads at times as if it went right from the writers' computers to the printer, without going through an editor. I'm sure that isn't true, but how else to explain mistakes that had me wondering if I had missed a couple pages or was losing my mind?

It started early in the book where one character is injured; a metal shard had been embedded in his leg during an accident. He is tended to by a teammate, who removes the shard and applies medication. A few paragraphs later, however, a different teammate is removing the shard and medicating him.

It continued throughout the book. People who are described as being in a room are suddenly in a different room. An alien who is on the bridge of an airship descends a stairway and goes to ... the bridge. People who left a room are suddenly back in the room. The amount of time that has passed since the launch of the humans' spaceship is stated, but then it's given as a different amount of time later.

On and on.

I have read Benford's books before, but I'm surprised to say that I don't believe I have ever read anything by Niven, which is an admission not to my credit. Niven is a science-fiction legend with numerous big books to his credit. But, for whatever reason, I had never read his work. That was part of what made me select this book to read next after I finished reading a couple history books (Anne Applebaum's post-World War II history book Iron Curtain — a book that was stunning in a good way, though telling a very sad tale — and Robert Graves' historical novel Count Belisarius). This was my chance to read Larry Niven.

I actually enjoyed the grand-premise tale of Bowl of Heaven. The characterizations and relationships are a bit out of date (sorry guys, but having interpersonal relationships be key to the characters and their organization but not even mentioning a gay character — and then in the most oblique way — until the book is nearly finished suggests being a bit out of touch), but I'm willing to overlook that. However, I was astounded at the poor editing. It's old news that even big publishers don't do proper editing any more, but these mistakes (repeated incidences, actions described twice — just a few paragraphs apart — but differently, and more) are incredibly unprofessional. If it was a mind-bending game of fluid reality with the readers, that would be something, but of course the story would make use of that. No, that just was not the case. Bowl of Heaven was a normal hard-science SF novel, and publishers Tor did themselves, their authors, and their readers a major disservice — publishing malpractice, really — by releasing a hardcover book with this many major, obvious errors in it.

The writers should have caught some of this in the various drafts they would have proofed. But writers are often focused on making sure other aspects are correct; that is compounded by working with a collaborator. We'll give Niven and Benford a small slice of the blame, but the majority of the blame cake has to be served up to Tor.

The sequel to what apparently is the first of a series has been published. Called Shipstar, it was published by Tor in April 2014. Think they had an editor do a good line-by-line on this one?
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