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Eater by Gregory Benford
(May 2000, Eos, US$24, 340 pages, ISBN: 0380974363)

Rating: "B+" (me), 3.7/5 (Amazon) -- an uneven reworking of a classic SF theme, featuring some of Benford's best writing yet. But....

The Eater is a small black hole that enters the Solar system in 2023, and opens a conversation with the astronomers who discover it. Hijinks ensue.

The book opens with some of the strongest writing in Benford's career -- the three major characters come to life in prose that's as good as any I've read anywhere. Channing Knowlton, an astronaut-turned-astronomer who is dying of breast cancer, is particularly well-drawn. And her husband Benjamin, a senior astronomer at Mauna Kea, and Kingsley Dart, Britain's Astronomer Royal, once Channing's lover and a master scientist-politician, are very fine indeed. Benford's portrait of scientists at work is wonderful, unmatched by any other novelist I know. Reading the first 100 pages, I got that primo creamy rush from great writing, neat ideas and wonderful characters....

But -- when the politicians enter the story, greatness trails off to competence (though still with flashes of the Pure Quill) -- and when the shoot-em-up starts -- well, hell, it's still pretty good, but not magic, y'know? Drama turns to melodrama, and a bold remake of 'Mankind meets a Cosmic Being' becomes just another thriller. Sigh.

But those first 115 pages -- wow. Worth the price of admission.

Eater is an improvement over Cosm (1998), which featured a great physics idea married to a silly thriller plot. I find Benford a frustrating novelist -- his ideas are great, his science is diamond-hard, his writing is always competent and sometimes inspired -- so why don't his novels click? This is his 26th novel, of which I've read maybe twenty. A couple of the Galactic Center series were amazing -- but, sigh, the last couple were awful. He writes great pop-science articles, excellent short fiction, and has been a trufan forever.... Maybe it's just me?

Or maybe not -- a scan of Amazon shows his recent books have reader ratings ranging from 0 to 5. So, YBBAMV (your Benford book-appreciation may vary) -- I'm sure I'll keep reading them, hoping he gets the mix right, grumbling when he doesn't, and enjoying the good parts regardless....

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Review by Peter D Tillman; more of Peter D Tillman's reviews can be found at: SF Site and Amazon.com. Google "Peter D. Tillman" +review for many more! .

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© Peter D Tillman 29 July 2000