David Brin

The Postman (1997)

The Postman (1997)

(On DVD, November 2016) Though largely forgotten nearly twenty years later, The Postman does have a few things going for it. It’s a Kevin Costner-directed movie featuring Costner in his classic stoic persona. It tackles not just the post-apocalypse, but the reconstruction of civilization. It (very loosely) adapts a novel by David Brin, an author I quite like. It is, by nature, fundamentally optimistic about humanity, which is not necessarily something that is expressed all that often in the post-apocalyptic genre. It features some good landscapes from the American northwest, further highlighting similarities with Costner’s western oeuvre such as Dances with Wolves and Open Range. The script isn’t too bad, wrestling a complex subject matter (and often wild source novel) into a relatively enjoyable film. Still, it’s not without its own problems. The most obvious would be the lack of concision in the result, and the overdone sentimentality. The Postman would have been perceptibly better had it been shorter and a bit less overbearing in its mawkishness. Removing some of the slow motion and toning down the insistent score would have helped in making the result palatable to a wider, perhaps more jaded audience. Streamlining the script would also have helped—the final result doesn’t benefit from a lot of repetitiveness and overly-explained context. I’m not overly bothered by the Americano-centrism of the symbolism in what is after all an American movie, but some of the imagery can feel a bit fetishistic to non-Americans. (Woo, post office!) Still, there are a few good moments in The Postman, and the result still feels fresh among other post-apocalyptic Science Fiction films. Even if imperfect, it’s quite a bit better than the crucial consensus seemed to be at the time.

Foundation’s Triumph, David Brin

Harper Torch, 1999, 392 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105639-1

Necrophilia is a terrible thing, but some people can do anything as long as enough dollars are dangled in front of their eyes. As I write this, the “latest-last-conclusion-we-promise!” of “Frank Herbert”’s Dune series is in stores, where it takes up valuable shelf space alongside a wholly-unneeded sequel to A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan and Spider Robinson’s “collaboration” with Robert A. Heinlein. If there’s any comfort in this sad state of affairs, it’s that these cash-in experiments thankfully fade away in time and there is little better proof of this transience than the “Second Foundation trilogy” that briefly blipped in bookstores at the end of the nineties.

This time, it’s Isaac Asimov’s corpse that is up for ritual desecration. Oh, hired writers may ward off critical sarcasm with such noble incantations as “authorized by the Estate”, “I, at first, declined the contract” and “We’re the ‘Killer Bs’ of hard SF and none of us are named Kevin J. Anderson”, but the fact remains that nobody wanted another Foundation trilogy more badly than Asimov’s estate. Self-serving rationalizations about “exploring issues left open by Isaac” conveniently leave out the fact that the entire Foundation concept was invented in the 1940s and then patched up (to growing critical dismay) by Asimov himself until his death in the early nineties. If Isaac couldn’t fix it himself, what makes you think that you’d do a better job?

I lack the patience and innate cruelty to fully review all three books in the series. Oh, I could go on and on about Gregory Benford’s Foundation’s Fear and how it was twice as long as it needed to be, with a dumb subplot about artificial intelligences that seemed cut-and-pasted from another novel. (And that’s saying nothing about another useless monkey-sex subplot. Yeah, you read me right.). I could be even meaner about Greg Bear’s Foundation and Chaos and how it was 100% too long and represented yet another of Bear’s “Bad Bear!” books. But why drive the knife even further when it’s enough to state that David Brin’s Foundation’s Triumph is the least disposable tome of a wholly unnecessary trilogy?

Sometimes, it’s not enough to say that the story is dull, that the characters are not sympathetic, that the “plot” is not interesting. Sometimes, you have to go all the way up and question the very assumptions that underly a project.

Yes, there are problems with the Foundation series. Logical problems, moral problems, political problems. As a piece of pulp magazine SF in the forties, it was exceptional. As a historical marker in the history of the genre, it remains essential. But SF has moved on since Asimov’s teenage years, and what should have been left alone wasn’t. First Asimov got the supremely ill-conceived notion of tying together all of his fiction, patching up the holes between his Imperial, Robots and Foundation series with a series of rationalization that became shakier with time. Alas, the buyer’s appeal of the “Foundation” franchise did little to dissuade Asimov from adding to the mess with later novels that became less and less worthwhile.

But death is no obstacle once scruples can be papered over with lovely green banknotes. Benford, Bear and Brin thought they could continue the story, patch over even more holes and make a few points about the human condition within an increasingly artificial Foundation universe. So they bring in another layer of conspiracies, fancy new socio-technical concepts, a nonsensical plague, artificial personalities, more robots and even alien creatures in an effort to fill in the tiny holes in Hari Seldon’s life left unspecified by Asimov’s work.

But even if some of the rationalizations are very clever (even Trantor’s population density is explained), trying to patch Foundation’s badly broken model is like putting spoilers and nitro boosters on a Model T Ford: It may look modern at first glance, but the framework isn’t built to accept the add-ons and tears itself apart during the first serious test drive. If the chief appeal of “The Second Foundation Trilogy” is conceptual, so is its biggest failing.

Alas, the trilogy isn’t really better as genre entertainment. Faithful to their respective reputations, Benford’s book is overlong, Bear’s book is dull and only Brin’s book comes closest to entertainment (although even his amiable writing style is no match for the other writers’ leaden concepts). This is easily some of the weakest work all three authors have ever produced: Little wonder if the trilogy has been practically forgotten less than ten years after publication. Simply put, reading this series is a waste of time, unless you’re fresh off the entire Asimov oeuvre and wouldn’t mind nearly fifteen hundred pages of further aggravation.

That, in a more rational publishing universe, would be a warning against literary necrophilia. But as the current state of the SF shelves in bookstores indicate, there’s still more than enough money in the SF industry to make hungry authors writer whatever desecrations are authorized by the estates…

Tomorrow Happens, David Brin

NESFA, 2003, 219 pages, US$25.00 hc, ISBN 1-886778-43-4

Most people tend to roll their eyes and make little “crazy!” hand/head signals when you tell them that much of your philosophy comes from reading science-fiction. That’s all right; they themselves don’t realize how poorer their lives are without a healthy dose of Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. I myself would be tempted to add David Brin to my list of intellectual influences, regardless of the nasty glares this may earn me.

There’s a reason why “philosophy” is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing Tomorrow Happens. Brin’s work proudly promotes a number of ideas that, taken together, could be branded as “techno-optimism”. Loosely summarized, Brin’s message is that things are getting better, humans learn from their mistakes and the future is likely to be even more wonderful than the present, even as the present is far more wonderful than the past. (Anyone who wishes to dispute this last assertion is welcome to go spend some time in a century without anaesthesia and proper dental care.)

Given that Tomorrow Happens is a collection of Brin’s fiction and essays, it naturally takes the form of a book-length discussion of Brin’s natural areas of interest. Much like his previous collection Otherness, Tomorrow Happens contains both provocative essays (such as “Do we really want immortality?”) and short stories on roughly the same themes. It’s a bit exhausting if read in rapid succession, but it’s a darn good immersion in Brin’s thought-space.

The Jim Burns cover, reminiscent of his own classic illustration for Brin’s Startide Rising, suggests a strong similarity to the “Uplift” novels, and so few will be surprised to find out that the opening piece of the book, “Aficionado”, is an early prequel to the “Uplift” series. Such links are not uncommon, of course. As suggested above, Tomorrow Happens feels a lot like Otherness, and Brin’s ideas are common to his entire oeuvre. Some essays prefigure ideas what he would explore in books like The Transparent Society or even the Hugo-nominated novel Kiln People.

David Brin has made a number of, er, un-friends in the SF field, mostly thanks to the same character traits that make Tomorrow Happens such a joy to read for his fans: He is unbelievable self-confident, playful with his ideas yet utterly unshakable in his themes. He often returns time and time again to the same topics and he’s never above a truckload of lousy puns. His style is clear and direct like few others: it’s hard not to feel the joy of his mindset through the words he sets down. Taken together, the stories and essays show why he inherited Larry Niven’s reputation as the SF writer having the most fun with the ideas, themes and possibilities not just of science-fiction, but the whole future.

Tomorrow Happens is an oddball book, once that may not have been published if it wasn’t for the efforts of NESFA press, the dedicated small-scale publisher run by the same group of Boston-area fans responsible for such fine things as the Boskone and Norseacon4 conventions. The book itself is indistinguishable from the works of bigger publishers (as it should be!) and is cleverly tuned to what Brin fans expect from his work. A fine, fine book, and one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone with an interest is Science Fiction as the herald of a bright future.

I know that Brin’s techno-optimism may not resonate well with some of the most mentally down-trodden members of today’s society. But that’s exactly why Brin is so important and often so right. The present is better than the past. The Future will be better than the present. There is a lovely implicit challenge in this book’s title: Tomorrow happens; what are going to do about it? Tomorrow happens, are you ready?

Hell yeah. And I like to think that writer/philosophers like David Brin are part of the reason why I look forward to what will happen tomorrow.

Kiln People, David Brin

Tor, 2002, 569 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34261-8

The golem has a long and distinguished history in fantastic literature, from the Bible onward, up to the Capek’s first “robots”, men of metallic clay designed to do the work of humans. David Brin’s Kiln People is a playful update on this concept, wrapped in a futuristic thriller and smoothed over with clear prose.

In the future, there will be dittos, states Brin as a starting premise. Clay replicas of people, temporarily imprinted with their memories and personalities for up to 24 hours until the chemical dissolution of the ditto. Re-assimilation of ditto memories is possible, but remains optional. Why spend a day cleaning up the house when you can simply replicate a ditto for this express purpose, then re-integrate their memories just to make sure you remember where you’ve filed everything? Why risk policemen’s lives when you can just use dittos instead? Why subject your permanent body to sexual, chemical or physical abuse when you can send it to party all night long and then re-integrate their memories at dawn?

Mega “What If?”! The possibilities are limitless, and that’s part of what makes the first half of Kiln People so compelling: This is a big Science-Fiction novel with a brand-new premise (does it sound like Laura J. Mixon’s Proxies, though?) and the guts to take a hard look at the possibilities of the thing. For those who still cling to the comfortable notion that SF should be a literature of ideas, well, look not further than this book to make you fall in love with the genre all over again. Brin easily integrates plenty of neat derived possibilities and runs with them through the course of the novel.

There is a plot to tie everything together, and (perhaps unfortunately), it ends up being a complex, heavy-duty story of familial obsessions, criminal conspiracies, doomsday devices and fancy detection. The hero of the piece is one Albert Morris, private investigator extraordinaire with an uncanny ability to make very faithful dittos. (Most people have trouble creating completely-faithful versions of themselves, and occasionally create runaway dittos that don’t identify with their creators.) In the course of his work, RealAl often generates clay duplicates of himself, sending them in dangerous or boring situations, always trying to nab crooks and corporate criminals. But on one particular day where he decides to generate four dittos to make care of ongoing business, well, let’s just say that a lot of very bad things happen at once to all of him…

Fans of the author won’t be dissatisfied by this effort, Brin’s first stand-alone adult novel since 1993’s Glory Season. His trademark blend of deep extrapolation, cheerful optimism and good humour is on full display here, in a novel that is more than worthy of attention. Those who have read Brin’s non-fiction work The Transparent Society can expect some further discussion of privacy and accountability. Stylistically, the challenges in representing five different first-person variants of the same characters are significant. And yet it’s one of Brin’s greatest successes that the viewpoint-hopping is handled almost seamlessly. (Readers with a low tolerance for puns or cliffhanger chapters may not be overly pleased, though.)

As the novel advances, its challenges become even greater and Brin stumbles a bit. The carefully-constructed rules of dittotech are, as expected, bent and then broken by new technology. (Alas, a suggestion that dittos have their own subculture hidden from the real humans is sort of left unexplored) The progressive slide of the novel from light-hearted mystery to deeper metaphysical territory isn’t completely unexpected, but it’s a thematic departure from the initial feel of the story. It nevertheless evolves into an interesting dissection of identity and even of humanity.

Add to that the lighthearted tone, and you’ve got an old-school pure-SF novel that works on several levels at once, and provides a great reading experience on top of everything else. I don’t ask for much more than that in my SF diet, and that’s why I’m pleased to see that Kiln People made it on the 2003 Hugo ballot for best novel of the year. It certainly has my vote.

The Uplift Storm Trilogy, David Brin

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.

Heart of the Comet, Gregory Benford and David Brin

Bantam Spectra, 1986, 468 pages, C$21.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-05125-3

The passage of Halley Comet in 1986 was, to the layman, almost the definition of a non-event: It passed too far away from Earthy to be easily visible to the naked eye and all the media build-up was reduced to naught. (Fortunately, ten years later, the spectacular Hyakutake comet proved to be far more spectacular, satisfying all of us “once-in-a-lifetime” astronomical freaks.) Still, Halley provided a reasonably good excuse to vulgarize information about some of the solar system’s most fascinating subject.

In 1985-1986 -probably envisioning a truckload of media-derived money- hard-SF authors David Brin and Gregory Benford collaborated on a themed novel titled Heart of the Comet. Even though the result didn’t set the world of SF on fire, it still proves to be a reasonable read even more than a decade later.

The novel follows three characters as they embark upon a massive expedition on Halley. Far from being a joy-ride, this scientific mission aims to stay on Halley for a complete 76-years orbit. The story begins in 2061 as the hundreds of scientists, engineers and other personnel attached to the Halley mission board the comet and burrow inside in an effort to make themselves at home. Everything seems to be working for a while, until the colony faces the first of the innumerable dangers of the voyage…

The scope of Heart of the Comet is large enough to satisfy most readers, spanning more than fifty years and the whole solar system. The novel plays with most of Science-Fiction’s usual devices, from space exploration (naturally) to artificial intelligence, body modification, longevity, etc… It’s a Big SF Book, and nearly succeeds as such.

Given the academic pedigree of both co-authors, it’s no surprise to find out that the science of Heart of the Comet is reasonably exact, or convincingly faked. No faster-than-light gizmos, but plenty of paragraphs of we-did-our-research information on comets. A few welcome diagrams and plans punctuate the book, providing occasionally very helpful ancillary material.

Unfortunately, the book proves to be less successful outside the realm of straight scientific knowledge: Several annoying SF clichés are used without apology, and the result diminishes the impact of the book. The most egregious is the character of Saul Bellows, who proves to be not only a scientist on the order of Newton and Einstein combined, but also the co-father of genetically-enhanced human group and an immortal. (!) Though it’s certainly handy to have someone like this around, it strains credulity to use such a character as a universal solution. The treatment of the AI is also weak, bringing little of importance to the plot besides a happy (deus-ex-machina, literally) ending. There’s yet-another-war-between-humans-and-superhuman. The oh-so-bad “irrational” religious sects also make a wholly expected appearance. You gnash your teeth in frustration at a the characters’ blockheadedness.

But if it’s a comet SF story you want, then this is what Heart of the Comet delivers. A decently enjoyable mix of hard-SF and gritty adventure. You could do worse than pick up this book. At nearly 500 pages, chances are that it’ll last until your next peek at a comet.

The Transparent Society, David Brin

Perseus Books, 1998 (1999 reprint), 377 pages, C$22.00 tpb, ISBN 0-7382-0144-8

Imagine two cities in which cameras are installed in every public area. The only difference is who controls the camera: City Number One has cameras accessible only by the police force. City Number Two has cameras easily accessible by everyone. City Number Two even has cameras installed inside the Police stations! Which city would you rather live in?

This, in a nutshell, is the main argument of David Brin’s The Transparent Society: modern information technology cannot be stopped and our only choice is to learn to live with them openly. This lucid and thought-provoking work explores the new possibilities and dangers of the information age and comes out with a set of opinions at odds with everyone else, yet curiously reasonable.

David Brin is no stranger to odd ideas. An astrophysicist by formation and science-fiction writer by trade, Brin’s novels include new concepts and fancy extrapolations by the truckload. With this book, he polishes off a few pet notions, integrates new material, backs it up with some research and enlivens everything with a prose forged in the merciless arena of escapist entertainment. The result is very, very good.

To be fair, The Transparent Society is not only a book about privacy versus accountability, but also a fascinating techno-social study of neo-western civilization. Fans of Brin’s previous writings will recognize an attempt to consolidate and strengthen his earlier themes. The concept of “social T-cells” alone is a meme that should spread far and wide.

One of Brin’s biggest strengths is that, even while exhorting a quiet revolution, he just sounds so darn reasonable. Unlike what one might expect from a hard-SF writer, Brin is no elitist: it is obvious that he loves today’s society and the people that compose it. That puts him at least a notch above the many cleverer-than-thou techno-social writers.

For this reason, not everyone will agree with Brin’s “contrarian” approach. On public discussion forums, he and The Transparent Society have attracted a fair amount of negative comment. Some of this is undoubtedly due to Brin’s skepticism regarding the so-called “cypherpunk” (or “crypto-anarchist”) movement, who claim that strong encryption will liberate the people and bring down all evil governments. Brin offers several compelling reasons why this simply won’t happen, earning the enmity of these online groups.

The notion of transparency as championed by Brin is not the easiest choice to make. It’s far easier to make mistakes and have your way behind closed doors than in public. On the other hand, our civilization is more or less already based on transparency: Think of the medias, the check and balances in our government, our free market economy, our scientific method based on rigorous peer review… The very idea of truth-as-transparent is even ingrained in our language, as demonstrated by some wonderful common expressions: shady deals, dark side, murky affairs, obscure intent…

On more practical matters, the book itself is well-produced, though the numerous “hidden” footnotes bring so much to the text that they should have been integrated as on-page side notes rather than put at the end of the book. The index, however, is very complete and useful.

Brin’s overall thesis is quite convincing. The Transparent Society should be required reading for most policy-makers and forward-thinking individuals. We should consider ourselves lucky to see such a readable counterpoint to the usual shrill privacy alarms that seem to be issued daily. Brin’s ultimate message is worth thinking about; with increasingly decentralized power put in the hands of wholly average persons, privacy will become obsolete, even dangerous in the future. We cannot possibly hope to live in an information age without being transparent to some degree or another.

[July 1999: It should be noted that, fittingly enough, The Transparent Society was my first purchase ever by on-line commerce. A suitable book for a system built on a sane balance of openness (Internet) and security (encrypted transactions).]

Otherness, David Brin

Bantam Spectra, 1994, 357 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-29528-4

David Brin is one of my favourite writers, ever. His fiction is full of technological optimism, cautious but determined environmentalist, good old Campellian human chauvinism and rockin’ action. More than anything else, Brin reminds me of early Niven stories, where the galactic void was the limit, characters dared to go beyond it and ideas flowed freely. He may not write the most polished prose ever, but Brin never loses sight of the reason readers buy his books: To be entertained. For that reason alone, a single of Brin’s short stories is worth more to me than truckloads of stuffy self-conscious literary dreck. (Okay, so I’m hyperbolating again. Shoot me.)

The River of Time, his first short story collection, was probably the best single-author short story collection I’ve ever read, the only other contender being Greg Egan’s Axiomatic. So, it’s really unexcusable that I waited so much time to read Otherness, more than three years after it came out on the market.

The bad news is that it’s less overwhelmingly impressive as The River of Time. The good news is that it’s still a Brin anthology; fun and fascination available for all.

This isn’t your usual “bag’o’stories” collection: The book is divided in five thematic sections, from “Transitions” to “Otherness”. Included in the mix are story notes (unusually placed in the middle of the section) and short essays mostly concerned about the theme of “Otherness”.

What is that Otherness thing Brin seems to be so enthusiastic about? Well, it’s a bit like this: Only in the Western world today, do we have an obsession at proving that we are wrong: Youth questions authority, historian question traditional interpretation of history, children are expected to be better (ie: not do what their parents did wrong), people often using the expression “But I might be wrong”, outright glorification of other cultures, etc… This is socially unprecedented, and a good thing, says Brin in a much better way than I can. The essay in which this principle is first explained is hilarious and profoundly fascinating. Recommended reading.

The rest of the book is mostly entertaining. The only dull section is “Cosmos”, where literary tricks take the initiative, and the story suffers. “What continues, what fails…” has a fantastic premise but an overlong execution that still didn’t grab me, even the second time around.

A seemingly disproportionate amount of stories deal with motherhood (At least four of them), an unusual theme for a male author. A typically Campbellian “human-uber-alles” story, “The Warm Space” is also the weakest of the volume. I particularly enjoyed “Those Eyes” (a story) and “What to say to an UFO” (an essay) for the coldly rationalistic perspective of the UFO hysteria. “Detritus Affected” was very interesting up to the ending, which is absent.

Overall, a pleasant but not really spectacular anthology. The cover illustration by Donato is lovely, and the whole anthology can be read in a short amount of time. Not to be missed by any Brin fan.

Glory Season, David Brin

Bantam Spectra, 1993, 772 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56767-5

Some critics say that the difference between literature and the remainder of the “fiction” section is that literature is dedicated to a thoughtful exploration of the human mind. This, they tell us, is why SF will never be anything more than a glorified escapist genre for people who can’t handle the real world.

The appropriate response to these idiots is to pity them, for they are well and truly living in a world of their own.

Any half-decent SF fan already knows the answer to that accusation. But how to tell them that SF is uniquely positioned to examine the real issues that concern the human heart? What tool but SF lets authors examine the relationship between the flesh and the mind? (cyberpunk) The human and his times? (time travel) Man and his environment? (ecological/space stories) The person and the sex? (Gender explorations)

The last category is, to put it bluntly, a pack of troubles. Gender exploration is usually slanted toward feminist fiction (since that’s the underdog) and outright propaganda. Some of it is good (The Maerland Chronicles/In the Mother’s Land, Elisabeth Vonarburg), some of it is stuffy and boring (The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin) and some of it is plainly, embarrassingly bad (Ammonite, Nicola Griffith).

Another addition to the pack is David Brin’s Glory Season.

Now, understand that I like David Brin. His viewpoint is one of boundless technological optimism, which happens to be my favourite philosophy too. Almost everything he writes is thoughtful, inventive, entertaining and utterly readable. Glory Season is a mixed bag, but still upholds most of Brin’s usual qualities.

Glory Season weighs in at nearly 800 pages, and stars Maia, a young woman living on Stratos, a planet long divorced from the human confederation. Stratos’ society is mostly composed of females: Males are the disadvantaged sex. Two “kinds” of females exist on this planet: clones and the more Earth-familiar vars. (At this point, things get a bit complicated and Brin explains them better than myself anyway.)

At the beginning of the book, Maia leaves her home to make her fortune in the world. With her is Leie, her twin-sister. Not quite a var but not really a clone, Maia thinks she can make her fortune on Stratos… And the adventure begins. Maia’s story is intercut with “didactic interludes”, excepts of diaries and works about Stratos’ history. Like the “Ancillary Documentation” in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap series, these bits are tasty, interesting, and don’t really detract from the flow of the story.

And lest anyone be confused, this is a story. Brin never loses sight of the reason people buy his books: Entertainment. Maia will be participant in gunfights, revolutions, betrayals and the usual gamut of adventure fiction situations. To be fair, this is perhaps the weakest aspect of Glory Season: The fast-paced adventures of Maia are sometimes a bit too fast-paced to sustain interest. A quieter, shorter novel could have been better.

Fortunately, Maia’s an interesting protagonist and her coming-of-age is as fascinating as the society surrounding her. The ending is a bit abrupt, but still wrap most things up. It’s evident that Brin has spent a great deal of time thinking about the issues presented in this novel. Fans won’t be disappointed.

Neither conclusive nor embarrassing, Glory Season is a blend of adventure and extrapolation that’s perhaps not dense enough. Nevertheless, still a solid novel from David Brin.