The novel “Eater” by Gregory Benford was published for the first time in 2000.
Some astronomers are trying to understand the nature of a strange cosmic phenomenon. Two gamma-ray bursts a few hours apart seem to suggest different origins but it turns out to have been generated by a tiny black hole that’s entering the solar system devouring everything it meets.
The attention of Benjamin Knowlton, one of the astronomers, is divided between this enigma and his wife Channing, gravely ill with cancer. Despite this, he and his colleague Kingsley Dart must try to predict the trajectory of that black hole devourer and studying it they discover that it’s even stranger than they thought.
Gregory Benford has a doctorate in physics and has worked actively in this field as a university professor and participating in various scientific research, particularly in the field of astrophysics. This means that his stories that contain topics related to physics and astrophysics are realistic because the author really knows them and he can also describe in an absolutely plausible way the work of his fictional scientists.
“Eater” is immediately introduced as a hard science fiction novel, with an astronomical mystery based on the detection of two gamma-ray bursts just 13 hours apart. Having some knowledge of astrophysics helps to better appreciate the story but Gregory Benford adds some explanations to help the readers who have little knowledge in this field.
The scientific element is crucial but Gregory Benford gives depth to the protagonists because he doesn’t just create scientists who do their work but makes them human with virtues and flaws. For example, the author shows us that there are rivalries among astronomers and at least at the beginning that’s presented as part of the relationship between Benjamin Knowlton and Kingsley Dart. The human side reaches its maximum intensity in Channing Knowlton’s story with her illness, which has its sense within the novel that becomes clear in the second half.
The first part of “Eater” remains above all an astronomical mystery which in my opinion is clever but is resolved relatively early, making the novel something different. That’s because the answers to the initial questions with data that apparently contradict each other lead to discover something truly alien that the whole world must face.
In this new phase, the scientific element with the specific studies of the black hole discovered by the astronomers becomes more interconnected than ever with the humanistic element. The conversations, which are a big part of the novel, no longer concern only individuals but also the whole of humanity. Some reflections are interesting but I think it’s clear that Gregory Benford is a physicist and not a philosopher. Another author would have given more depth to certain philosophical implications derived from the plot’s development but the story would have become much longer.
The protagonists of “Eater” are scientists but at a certain point political interventions begin. There’s a contrast between the scientists, who are far from perfect but still try to use the tools at their disposal to act rationally, and the politicians, who seem to panic and behave like idiots. This part of the novel contains more action but in my opinion is weaker because it sometimes distracts from really important events.
In the end, the parts most focused on scientific speculation seemed to me the best ones. They contain many conversations but they happen during a series of events with continuous developments and twists so there’s always a rather fast pace and Gregory Benford maintains a certain tension.
Overall, “Eater” seems to me a very good example of hard science fiction that offers scientific speculation with a sense-of-wonder that has its foundations in intriguing realistic hypotheses and at the same time has three-dimensional protagonists. For this reason, I recommend it to all fans of this kind of stories.