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‘Eater’: small cast, vast imagination

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Gamma-ray bursters are “the dyspeptic belch of a spectacularly large astrophysical meal”. When a black hole swallows something like a giant star, it’s not an event astronomers would expect to see twice in the same part of the sky.

Especially within a few hours.

So when Amy Major drops some unusual observations on to her boss’s desk at the High Energy Astrophysics Center in Hawaii, a sceptical Dr Benjamin Knowlton sees a chance to break with routine.

Within days Amy, Knowlton, his astrophysicist wife Channing and his old friend and rival Kingsley Dart have formed a core working group to investigate a phenomenon which draws the attention of professional sky-probing scientists worldwide.

From the opening chapters of ‘Eater’ (Eos/HarperCollins, paperback 2001), Gregory Benford had me totally engrossed in the painstaking process of scientific investigation, writing about it as only an insider can.

While I occasionally had a hard time keeping abreast of the astrophysics, he has a way of getting the ideas across that filled me with a rare sentiment: genuine wonder.

A theoretical and experimental physicist with his own corner of the Web, Benford is an acute observer of human nature. He makes rounded and interesting people of all the main characters in a novel bringing many a new twist to the well-worn theme of “first contact”.

Much of the book’s originality lies in the very strangeness of the object first taken for that distant “dyspeptic belch”. It’s Channing, a woman only too glad to plunge back into science instead of staying home to fight a losing battle against cancer, who comes up with the name for it: “The Eater of All Things.”

Hooked by the gradual unveiling of the nature of the beast, I found myself wondering how well Benford would cope with the politics once it was clear that the Eater could pose a deadly threat to humankind, with the United States determined to take the lead in tackling it.

When Washington opts for nukes, the political establishment thinks it would be clever to pin the blame on China. The response is as swift as the wrath of Jehovah.

The effect of such unfortunate decisions apart, Benford astutely leaves most of the dealings in the corridors of power to Kingsley Dart, Britain’s Astronomer Royal.

Kingsley has what it takes to move the narrative on while allowing Benford to concentrate on the confrontation between his scientists and the alien intelligence, rather than writing yet another disaster novel.

The sense of astronomical scale and the fascination of the Eater itself are such that to clog up the story with too much politics — or a large cast — would detract from the depth of the writing and the demands Benford’s remarkable imagination makes on our own.

Glancing at other reviews, I find that ‘Eater’ met with a mixed reception. Some got bored, while many of the warmest comments came from fellow scientists who praise Benford for presenting their work as they live, breathe and think it.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with this prolific and often witty writer.
In an interview for SciFi.com, Benford describes humankind as “mean, stupid, ugly, and the terror of all other species.” Maybe so. But he comes across as an unrepentant humanist with sharp insight.

‘Eater’ is the most elegant and thoughtful novel by a practising scientist to have kept me reading into the early hours since the late Carl Sagan’s ‘Contact’.

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