About 100 pages into Bowl of Heaven, I realized it isn't a stand-alone book. There's no mention of more volumes on the book jacket, but the world imagined here in the 416 pages is too vast. Gregory Benford and Larry Niven serve up a sci-fi smorgasbord of deep space exploration to so-called fans of "hard science fiction."

The year is many centuries in the future. Earth is almost uninhabitable, and a brave band of intergalactic explorers is bound for Glory, a planet that tests show might provide a new start for humanity.

Partway to their destination, the crew encounters a gigantic floating structure among the stars and veers off course to check it out. What Earth's refugees find on the surface poses some of the questions that science fiction has long enjoyed pondering: Are we alone? What does it mean to be human? And does evolution ever end?

The human characters aren't very well developed by the end of book one. At times you find yourself cheering for the aliens to wipe out the hardy band of humans they call Late Invaders. But are they captives or free to continue on their way? You'll only know if you read book two, Shipstar, which the authors promise is "following soon."

BBC arts editor explains modern art

If you've ever stood before a painting or sculpture and said "Huh?" or "Excuse me?" or "My kid could do that!" -- then BBC arts editor Will Gompertz has written the perfect book for you.


Advertisement

In What Are You Looking At? Gompertz, a former director of London's Tate Gallery, starts from the premise that almost everybody has trouble immediately comprehending work that possesses what the late art critic Robert Hughes memorably called "the shock of the new."

His solution is to place the particular work of art or artist into the long narrative arc of art history -- in other words, through education comes enlightenment. And so he offers a lively, witty account of the major moments and movements of the past 150 years of that history.

In Gompertz's zeal for the anecdotal, he occasionally resorts to corny re-enactments of famous art history moments -- not surprising for a book that started out as a stand-up comedy show.

In the end, this user-friendly guide is aimed at the millions of participants in today's global modern art market who "suspect, in their heart of hearts, that it's a sham" -- but find that it's not cool to say so.

Conjuring up example after example of artworks that have baffled or enraged the public, Gompertz explains why they aren't a sham. And he's so good at his game that by the end, you may very well be persuaded.

-- THE ASSOCIATED PRESS