Volume Three of The Uplift Trilogy
|Bantam Spectra Books, 447 pages |
|A review by Mark Shainblum|
More importantly perhaps, Brin's writing usually finds that solid balance between the genre demands of hard SF and the more general literary demands of good writing. He is a writer who writes well, and a hard science fiction writer who writes good, solid, exciting science fiction. An all-too-rare combination in this day and age.
That being said, Heaven's Reach unfortunately fails to satisfy on some very deep levels. Third in the New Uplift Trilogy, this book cannot really be considered independent of its predecessor volumes, Brightness Reef and Infinity's Shore, and therein lies part of the problem.
Brin's previous books set in the common Uplift universe (Sundiver, Startide Rising and The Uplift War) are thematically linked stand-alone novels that tell complete stories in-and-of themselves. Though The Uplift War hinges on events which take place in Startide Rising, the books have completely different casts of characters and can be read independently. More, Startide Rising was easily on of the top ten science fiction novels of the 1980s, a real tour-de-force. In that book Brin proposed something so basic one wonders why he was the first to try it: What if space is full? What if humans are johnny-come-latelies to the galactic scene, poor backwater cousins without friends or relatives in a hostile universe organized along clan lines? The idea had such power and resonance, and his Civilization of the Five Galaxies was such a refreshing deviation from the usual "Galactic Federation" model that it sustained itself over three very good novels.
This second Uplift trilogy, culminating in Heaven's Reach, has unfortunately clogged itself on Brin's powerful imagination. He has spun such an elaborate tale, conceived so many characters -- including several different species of aliens, humans, dolphins and chimpanzees -- and cranked up the cosmic volume to such a level that the reader is just left spinning. You spend so much time trying to keep track of the characters and the minor plot twists that there's little energy left to actually enjoy the books. Moreover, the action is so drawn out and major events happen so slowly (all three novels take place less than three years after the events in Startide Rising, published in 1987!) that it becomes an effort just to keep going.
Brin admits, cheerfully, that he's writing down-and-dirty space opera. The Uplift books have always been full of mysterious Elder Races, unseen powers and galactic conspiracies billions of years old. There's nothing wrong with space opera when done well, and in the first three books of this series Brin did it very well indeed. However, he seems unable to move his basic plotline forward, while at the same time falling victim to that perennial disease of the distant-future epic: going "cosmic." By the end of this book the whole skein of the universe is coming unravelled, the laws of physics are changing, entire galaxies are being thrown into chaos and yet we still aren't told exactly what the crew of the starship Streaker found back in Startide Rising which started this entire plotline going. I think that's asking far too much of the patience of one's readers.
Heaven's Reach and its predecessor volumes are still extremely entertaining books because of the sheer richness of the background information. We learn far more about the workings of the Uplift universe than we did in Brin's previous novels, but unfortunately entirely at the expense of plot and structure. These three novels could easily have been boiled down to two, perhaps even one -- much more tightly plotted and conceived.
Mark Shainblum is the co-editor of Arrowdreams: An Anthology Of Alternate Canadas (Nuage Editions, 1997) the first anthology of Canadian alternate history. A veteran of the comic book field, Mark co-created the 1980's Canadian superhero Northguard and currently writes the Canadian political parody series Angloman both in the form of a paperback book series and as a weekly comic strip in the Montreal Gazette. He lives in Montreal with his computer, his slippers and a motley collection of books.
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