Bantam Spectra, 1995-1998, ??? pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN Various
Brightness Reef: 1995, 659 pages
Infinity’s Shore: 1996, 644 pages
Heaven’s Reach: 1998, 557 pages
It’s easy to see why David Brin’s Uplift series has been met with such enthusiasm by science-fiction readers.
For one thing, it springs from a remarkably original premise. What if all sentient life in the universe (all hundreds, if not thousands of races) had to be deliberately engineered, “uplifted” from pre-sentient species? What if such sentient races had to serve their master race as clients to pay off the debt of sentience? What if this chain of uplift resulted in large clans and families of associated races? What if, in the middle of all this, humanity arrived on the scene with claims of self-evolved sentience and two client races -chimps and dolphins- of its own? The beauty of the Uplift series is in the framework suggested by these questions and their answers. The assumptions raised by Brin’s premise both pay homage to the traditional space opera clichés while bringing something new to them. In short, there’s been nothing else quite like it before, and that has a value of its own in SF.
The second selling strength of the Uplift series is Brin’s own writing style. He writes briskly, mixes decent science with great characters and rewards the reader by injecting a lot of fun in the proceedings. Brin’s own philosophy is enthusiastically optimistic. The Uplift series, like most of Brin’s stories, reflects this. His novels are fun, but certainly not mindless fun.
Many readers certainly like the result: All three first Uplift novels are still in print. The second book of the series, Startide Rising, won the 1984 Hugo and Nebula awards. The third volume, The Uplift War, “merely” brought home a Hugo.
To call these first three books a trilogy would be exact only in the most technical sense. The first novel, Sundiver, is more of a perfunctory prologue than a full part of the series. The Uplift War is considered by most to be merely a side-show to the events of the second volume. When you get down to it, when people talked about the Uplift universe, most were in fact referring to the events in that one book, Startide Rising.
But what grandiose events they were! In Startide Rising, the action took place on and around Kithrup, a forsaken toxic planet avoided by most Galactic Races. That is, until a human spaceship (The Streaker) crashlanded there after broadcasting the news of a stunning discovery. Before long, every galactic clans is fighting over the rights to take possession of the “wolfling” humans, and -most importantly-, the artifacts they discovered. Artifacts with the potential to unleash a religious war of multi-galactic proportions. In Startide Rising, we got to see the human members of Streaker struggle to get off-planet, avoiding the massive enemy fleets battling each other for the prize. But even though the novel ended on a triumphant note, many loose ends still dangled from Brin’s narrative, as well as tremendous potential for adventure. The Streaker was obviously still a long way from home.
And there matters remained for eleven years of “real time”, the delay between 1984’s Startide Rising and 1995’s Brightness Reef, the first volume of a “new Uplift Trilogy” slated to tie the loose ends raised in Startide Rising.
The publication of Brightness Reef was, at the time, hailed as a major event by publishing house Bantam Spectra (who was simultaneously pushing sequels to BLADE RUNNER and Hyperion) but resulted in a general feeling of disappointment by the general readership.
It’s not hard to see why. Brightness Reef begins on Jijo, one of the places farthest removed from the galactic mainstream affected by the events in Startide Rising. Jijo is, officially, a forbidden planet. Declared off-limits thousands of years ago by galactic authorities, it became a civilization-free zone where potentially-sentient species can evolve in form more suitable for uplift.
Unofficially, Jijo has a few extra features. A sudden astronomical event has made it so that no automated probe from the galactic authorities can survey the system, effectively leaving it unattended. As a result, six races have, at different times, illegally settled down on the planet to build colonies. As Brightness Reef begins, the five races still living together (including humans) have built a multi-racial community based on mutual exchanges.
But! Suddenly, at least three ships crash down on Jijo: A capsule carrying an amnesiac human, a ship containing a mysterious race that might or might not want to exterminate Jijoan society and yet another spaceship somewhere in the ocean…
Interesting setup, but it takes a heck of a long time for Brin to make anything with it. Almost five hundred pages, actually. Which practically means that most of the first volume is wasted in setup: All five alien races are introduced at once, with various degrees of success (Asx is fascinating, but Alvin is decidedly less so). There are no glossary, no dramatis personae to help out readers in Brightness Reef. (This presumably intentional flaw is corrected in the two latter volumes.) Things move at a snail’s place. Every characters seems to wait for something to happen.
This something happens at the end of Brightness Reef, as Jijoan society is attacked by its newest visitors, and the beginning of volume two, as the Streaker crew finally makes an apparition. Volume One can be discarded, because Infinity’s Shore neatly resumes the previous six hundred pages in its first forty.
Fortunately, Infinity’s Shore is more like the brisk Brin we’re used to. Things finally start moving, and before the ending is through, we’re once more where the Uplift series belongs: in space.
The third volume, Heaven’s Reach, is the Big One: Not only does it deliver everything we’ve been promised for the trilogy, but it also ties up the loose ends of Startide Rising in a very satisfying fashion. While the first two volumes are a bit skimpy on the gee-whizzness factor, Heaven’s Reach delivers in spades, carrying us through new places, new life-forms and, heck, new levels of understanding of the Uplift universe. Heaven’s Reach is the high-powered space opera that fans of the subgenre have been dreaming of, filled with exotic pan-galactic issues, fantastic space battles, superb nyah-nyah-nyah scenes and outrageous triumphs despite formidable odds.
It’s just a shame that we
have to be so patient and invest so much time in the first two volumes in order to get to this late embarrassment of riches. Even though one can appreciate what Brin was trying to do, structurally, with the series, it in no way excuses the bloated first volume and frustrating account of Streaker‘s path from Kithrup to Jijo. (Readers are justified in howling when they’ll find out that oodles of big-scale adventures are quickly flashbacked after practically a thousand pages of inconsequential Jijoan matters.)
But a great ending redeems almost anything, and that’s what happens with this new Uplift trilogy. Sure, the first tome’s a bore, but then again the third one’s a blast.
Almost unexpectedly, this trilogy delivers the goods and then some. Fans of Brin’s Uplift series, and of space opera in general, owe it to themselves to read at least the last two books of the trio.