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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Gregory Benford’s Eater is a “first contact” type of science fiction tale (subtype, threat to Earth; sub-subtype, inscrutable), and the alien visitor is a refreshing variation on the diabolical extraterrestrials of much science fiction. It is a small black hole wrapped in self-aware electromagnetic fields wherein are stored the remnants of civilizations that it has devoured in its seven-billion- year life. And it wants to upload Earth’s knowledge and best minds, even if humanity must be destroyed in the process, apparently because it is a connoisseur of cultures.

In 2022, the black hole (the Eater) is detected at the High Energy Astrophysics Center in Hawaii, directed by Benjamin Knowlton. He, his wife, ex-astronaut Channing Knowlton, and Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Kingsley Dart, lead a team of scientists that first identifies it and then tracks its approach to Earth. The team expands and is taken over by a mysterious multi-government agency when the Eater proves to be vastly intelligent and dangerous. That the trio succeed in foiling the Eater, at great cost to themselves and to Earth, using human science and spacecraft in astonishing ways, makes a thrilling techno-story, even if the vastly intelligent black hole seems a push-over in the end.

As fantastic as the premise sounds, Benford, an astrophysicist, delivers a good deal of genuine science in his science fiction—particularly black holes physics and the nature of intelligence. But the real story is not science; it concerns how science is done—a social phenomenon—and there is a strong current of satire. In depicting the interplay among rival brilliant scientists and the uneasy alliance between them and government agencies, Benford makes the scientists look obsessive but heroic, the government officials look power-hungry and dopey, and reporters look like frantic fools misleading the hapless public.