Uplift – Book List

The Uplift series is one of the most memorable, complete series I’ve ever read. It’s just a nifty idea: what if every species in the galaxy was “uplifted” to sentience by another species? And what if humanity appears to be the only species that gained sentience on its own? From this simple premise, David Brin creates a complex but comprehensible galactic society predicated on the chain of uplift—every species belongs to a clan based on the species that gave it sentience, to which it owes servitude for a set number of centuries. Humanity’s independence galls many of these species, who are naturally quite conservative and invested in preserving the status quo. Unravelling the mystery behind humanity’s past, as well as learning more about the mythical Progenitors, the ur-species, is the main focus of these novels.


1. Sundiver

by David Brin

Sundiver  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 341 pages
Bantam Spectra, 1980

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

First read October 17, 2008. (No review)

Second reading review, April 23, 2010.

There are as many origin theories as there are people to think about the origins of humanity. Like most reviews, I can't help but praise David Brin's Uplift concept. On one hand, the von Daniken-like idea of having a "patron" species that shepherded humanity toward sentience is comforting and resonates with our need to have concrete origins and a sense of belonging in a larger community. On the other hand, the Darwinian idea that humans evolved on their own—coupled with the even more interesting idea that we are special among the larger galactic community in this regard—is also attractive. Almost immediately, the latent question is: are you a Darwinist or a von Danikenite? Skin or Shirt?

I'll be honest: I'm incredibly biased toward the Humans Are Special camp and hope we evolved on our own. But Brin doesn't take any sure stance, at least not in Sundiver. And there's a host of secondary mysteries mixed up in this larger one. These form the core of the plot of Sundiver. If humanity was Uplifted, then maybe the mysterious solarians discovered by the Sundiver Expedition are their patrons, or know who their patrons were. If humanity is a "wolfling" race, then maybe the solarians know why no one stumbled across us earlier. Either way, the answers lie past Mercury.

Brin manages to meld together so many different aspects of story and science fiction that Sundiver becomes a very intense work of literature. It's an epic of exploration, a testament to humanity's struggle against adversity: we're going to conquer the Sun! It's also a mystery, multiple mysteries, with alien adversaries with their own inscrutable agendas. And it's a psychological thriller: is Jacob crazy or just very, very discerning?

Of course, by trying to appeal to all these aspects, Brin walks a tight rope. He doesn't always pull off this fusion successfully. In particular, his characters tend to suffer from having to carry so much around on their shoulders. Jacob, despite his mental malady, is not a very interesting protagonist. Brin alludes to a past conflict in which Jacob emerged the hero (and which resulted in his subsequent psychological trauma); unfortunately, he manages to make it sound so interesting that I kind of wish it had been part of the story and not just a past event. But it wasn't.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the characters. We never get to see what makes the characters tick, aside from maybe Jacob. They just act, especially the aliens, who conform to the species-stereotypes that Brin creates for them: Bubbacup is the ur-Pil, Culla is the ur-Pring, etc. The humans at least have individuality personalities; they just aren't very interesting ones. As a result, although Sundiver is primarily a mystery, it lacks the threat offered by a credible villain. There's nothing sinister about what happens so much as childish—dangerous, yes, but childish. The characters often allude to the political implications of various events, but we don't witness the fallout.

So while there's a lot going on in Sundiver, it never really congeals into a satisfactory ending. The same goes for how Brin portrays post-Contact Earth. While he does a good job of portraying a "Confederacy" (of states) that shuns civil liberties, it's a very abstract and distant entity. We don't see an agent of it until the very end of the book. Worse still, however, is the apparent lack of contribution to the Sundiver Expedition from any government aside from the Confederacy. Apparently, at least in this future, America is still the only country that matters. . . .

Sundiver has so much potential, but it shies away from the detail necessary to fulfil that potential. What rescues it from mediocrity is not a brilliant plot or convincing story but the sheer quality of Brin's writing itself:

Lumps and streaming shreds of ionized gas seared thither and back, twisted by the forces that their very package created. Flows of glowing matter popped suddenly in and out of visibility, as the Doppler effect took the emission lines of the gas into and then out of coincidence with the spectral line being used for observation.

The ship swooped through the turbulent chromospheric crosswinds, tacking on the plasma forces by subtle shifts in its own magnetic shields . . . sailing with sheets made of almost corporeal mathematics.

I love that phrase, "corporeal mathematics." Brin, as a physicist, knows his science and wields it well. If only he were as strong with the fiction part of "science fiction."

My Reviews of the Uplift series:
Startide Rising ?

2. Startide Rising

by David Brin

Startide Rising  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 462 pages
Bantam, 1983

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

At first, I couldn't decide if I liked Sundiver or this book better. The former has a superior mystery, and arguably a superior plot. Startide Rising, on the other hand, is more satisfying on the subject of "uplift" itself and better portrays the multitudinous horrors of Galactic society.

After considering my quandary further, I decided to throw in behind Sundiver. My fellow Goodreads reviewers seem split on this question, but the more I think about it, the more I'm certain. As much as I like what Startide Rising does to further the uplift concept central this series, its story and characters are muddled and dull.

We get a very sparse look at Galactic society in Sundiver, with singular representatives from a few species. Startide Rising rectifies this by showing us entire fleets from a variety of species, all of them pursuing the Streaker in attempt to take the information it has discovered. We get to meet the matriarchal Soro; the vicious Tandu and their reality-altering client species, the Episiarchs and the Acceptors; the Jophur, the Thennanin, etc. Brin's quite creative when it comes to species names and behaviours. But if Sundiver was a drought, then Startide Rising is a deluge: there are just too many aliens, and we don't spend enough time with any one of them. The results are thin, one-dimensional antagonists like Krat, fleet-mother of the Soro contingent. The Galactics are once again bogeyman instead of credible players.

This tendency of Brin's to overindulge is obvious planetside as well. There are just too many characters, too many points of view. At times this results in a total breakdown of the coherence of the story; I found myself unable to tell what was happening any more. Primal Delphin, Trinary, Anglic, whatever language the Karrank% spoke . . . too many symbols, and all very surreal. This is not an easy book to read, and while that's no disqualification on its own, it means the reward for reading it should be proportionally greater.

Yet I found Startide Rising lacklustre in its resolution. Once again, Brin explores what it means to be human by showing us how aliens (in this case, Uplifited dolphins) adopt human-like behaviour, including belligerence. Takkata-Jim's mutiny is a perfect example of this. The dolphins' journey toward sentience has been one away from the "Whale Dream" that prevents cetaceans from logical, abstract thought so critical for tool use (and thus spaceflight). While many of Takkata-Jim's mutineers revert to more primal instincts, Takkata-Jim himself behaves more and more human as the story progresses (not always to the benefit of our protagonists).

No matter how great its themes, however, Startide Rising is still burdened by its story. As with the antagonists, the main plot points begin multiplying until it's hard to tell what matters any more. There are metallic life-forms, pre-sentient aboriginals, voices telling Captain Credeiki what to do, etc. It just happens that after stumbling on a derelict fleet—setting off this great galactic chase—Streaker hides on a planet that has more mysteries than anyone could have imagined! Alas, we do not learn the ultimate fate of the Streaker crew or the inhabitants of Kithrup! This book provides many questions but precious few answers.

And so the moral of Startide Rising comes not from its themes but its execution: less is more! David Brin's "uplift" concept is so intriguing, so deliciously seductive in its shiny science fiction package, that it's enough to sell me on the series. But I'm finding the experience less fulfilling than expected, because the books just try too hard. Keep it simple Startide Rising does not.

My Reviews of the Uplift series:
? Sundiver | The Uplift War ?

3. The Uplift War

by David Brin

The Uplift War  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 672 pages
Spectra, 1987

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

David Brin's Uplift Trilogy has not been the easiest series for me to read. I enjoyed Sundiver as a mystery set within a much larger universe. Brin left me hungry for more, but Startide Rising left me bitter and disappointed. What had started with so much potential seemed encumbered by flawed storylines and a myriad of unwanted characters. Hence, I was doubtful of The Uplift War's ability to mollify me.

While certainly superior to Startide Rising, The Uplift War lacks the central protagonist that made Sundiver so compelling. If the first book was a murder mystery and the second a siege story, this one is about living under occupation by the enemy. As such, the span of the story is somewhat larger than Startide Rising's, which at least gives the much-inflated cast something to do for six hundred pages.

Maybe my expectations are just skewed here, but I'm in this series for the answer to one question: who, if anyone, Uplifted humanity? After such tantalizing promises in Startide Rising, Brin shelves that question once again. Instead, we get another look at the sociological implications of Uplift and the stringent codes of Galactic warfare.

I don't mean to make The Uplift War sound boring. For the most part, it's interesting to watch the resistance crystallize in the mountains outside Port Helenia. It's fun to wonder who among the three Gubru Suzerains will achieve the dominance required to become the triumvirate's queen. As usual, Brin's depiction of a truly alien species and its leadership structure is second to none.

Even a species closely related to humanity, the neo-chimpanzees, can seem alien at times. Brin raises the question of whether neo-chimps have sentience or are merely "aping" their human patrons. Although it seems obvious that chims like Fiben and Gailet are sentient beings, the behaviour of those like Irongrip makes one wonder. It's scary to think that other creatures, the Gubru and the various Uplift examiners, are watching, judging whether another species is sapient. Imagine what would happen if humanity were declared the clients of another species!

We walk a thin line between being animals and thinking beings. Brin's obsession with comparing Richard Oneagle to Tarzan makes that clear. That being said, I'm not sure how much of that subplot was Brin's enthusiasm for the rugged wilderness adventurer and how much was a conscious statement about how environment shapes us. It's this exploration of what divides us from animals, thinking beings from non-thinking beings, at which the Uplift Trilogy excels. And of the three books in the trilogy, The Uplift War emphasizes this best.

So I've got a lot of complaints about The Uplift War. It just didn't satisfy me in the way I had hoped. Try as I might, however, I can't dismiss the book as "bad" or even "poor." Brin's execution is not flawless, but it's enough to convey a powerful theme about humanity and our role at large in the universe. I can't condemn the Uplift Trilogy—but I can't go so far as to celebrate it. You'll have to make up your own mind.

My Reviews of the Uplift series:
? Startide Rising | Brightness Reef ?

4. Brightness Reef

by David Brin

Brightness Reef  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 688 pages
Spectra, 1995

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

You cannot ask for a better premise than Uplift. Of all the science fiction series I've read, David Brin has something special here. Uplift is more than just panspermia, because Brin has taken the idea of aliens genetically engineering pre-sapient life to full sapience and wrapped his own entire mythos around the concept. As a result of Uplift, galactic civilization is a network of intricate social relationships defined and bound by literally millions of years of tradition. Client races are beholden to their patrons for millennia, if not hundreds of millennia. Entire species can be found culpable for the actions of a single group. It's very different from what we know, which is not surprising: in the Uplift series, humans are "wolflings." Either our patrons abandoned us long ago, or we developed sentience all by ourselves. Either concept is scary for the rest of galactic civilization.

So of course, the question is: did someone Uplift humanity, and if so, who?! It frustrates me that Brin has been so remarkably tight-lipped with that answer for the past three books. Hence, I begin this second trilogy with the ardent hope that by the time I finish Heaven's Reach, something like an answer will have emerged. (And please, if you have finished this series and Brin doesn't provide such an answer, do not tell me. I prefer to be disappointed on my own.)

Jijo is a fallow world. Settlement is not allowed. Fugitives from five species have settled there and formed an ad hoc society, well aware of their crime, well aware that when a ship arrives, it spells the end. Like the series premise of Uplift, Brightness Reef opens with high stakes, immediately establishing what these people fear and how it can all go wrong for them.

So when it does, it's no surprise. But that is where the lack of surprises ends, abruptly. Brin continuously new twists, and unlike Startide Rising, it actually works well here. For example, humanity's purported patron race, the Rothen, are first portrayed as somewhat god-like uber-humans. Of course, they have a much more sinister purpose that I won't reveal here, and after one of them is killed by some overzealous Jijoan defenders, we see that they have been deceptive even in their appearance. This aspect of the plot, like most of the book, doesn't get explained fully, and that would be extremely frustrating if I didn't have Infinity's Shore on the shelf.

The book ends quite abruptly too. It starts slow, despite its high stakes, and then in the last hundred pages adopts an astounding alacrity as if it has just remembered it needs to wrap up loose ends—until it doesn't. This is one of those qualities which are greatly subjective; it may bother you more than it does me (and it bothers me a little). So fair warning.

Aside from tantalizing hints, the question of human Uplift and the secret of the Streaker carries never gets addressed here (not that I expected it to be). Instead, where Brightness Reef excels is, as usual, its depiction of inter-species relations (wait, no, not those types of relations). The history of these five fugitive groups, as communicated by their sacred scrolls, is one of intermittent conflict ending in a recent peace known as the "Commons." As each sneakship landed on Jijo, it took time for the new settlers to fit into the rhythm of society. For some species, it was a matter of mutual distrust. For some, it's simply because humans smell bad—and ride horses. Whatever the reason, the harmony we see at the beginning of Brightness Reef is young—and, as we see as the story unfolds, very fragile.

My favourite characters were Sara and Lark, and not just because I am human-philic. I liked Sara's plight, her role as an intermediary between the Stranger and the sages, her discomfort with the "Path of Redemption" promoted by the sacred scrolls. That was something I didn't anticipate, the extent to which Brin juxtaposed the received wisdom of the Galactic Civilization's vast Library with the Jijoan settlers' desire to lose knowledge and retreat to the bliss of pre-sapient ignorance. As a bibliophile and an intellectual, all this talk of burning books got under my skin. As Sara watched the more militant parts of her society express their desires to hasten along the Path of Redemption, I found myself wanting to shout, "Nooo! Save the books!" I guess this resonates with me because of the zeitgeist, especially when I think about America and American media. The idea that there are people who are proud of their ignorance, and who wilfully seek to perpetuate the ignorance of others, astounds and, yes, offends me. So I found the Path to Redemption chilling, scary, and not at all to my liking.

Now, Lark was interesting because, like Sara, he is a bit of an outsider. As a heretic, he supports a movement that wants to end the settlers' habitation on Jijo by not reproducing. This differs from the Path to Redemption, which advocates for actual return to pre-sapience, as we see in the form of the dubiously unintelligent glavers. Lark's views are interesting, especially in the context of our growing population on Earth. Plus, through Lark we get to meet Ling, a starfaring human who believes (or believed) the Rothen are humanity's patrons. At first, she approaches Lark and the other humans on Jijo as backward, ignorant. Then they develop a mutual respect (and, if I'm not mistaken, not a little attraction between each other). I'm looking forward to seeing Ling resolve her crisis of faith, as well as Lark resolving his should they decide to get together and stay on Jijo.

As far as the other subplots go—Dwer and his interaction with Rety, Alvin and his companions diving, etc.—these were interesting, but I seldom found myself wondering, "Gee, I wonder what Dwer is doing now." There was never that sense of urgency to return to their perspective. The exception to this would be Alvin after their diving bell gets captured by an as-yet unidentified player. Still, those portions of the book were always shorter than the other perspectives, so I didn't get as attached to Alvin as I did to the other characters.

One character that did surprise me was Asx. The traeki fascinate me. Brin is very talented at coming up with unique species that are not merely humanoid stand-ins, and the traeki are a great example. Apparently they are the same as the Jophur, antagonists in previous books, but they are peaceful. Each individual traeki body is made up of "rings" that have different skill sets and traits; the rings together form a sort of group-mind that acts based upon consensus. So a single traeki can swap out rings and become a slightly different person in the process. Asx is the traeki sage, and his perspectives are little more than pithy ruminations upon the current action. Yet even in such brevity, glimpses into the traeki mind was still cool. Even though Brin doesn't consistently deliver well-paced action or complex characterization, he does often succeed at that one fundamental aspect of science fiction, that necessity for "difference."

Brightness Reef leaves you with questions—maybe too many questions. Still, it's fun, intriguing, and a great beginning to a new Uplift trilogy. Brin has managed to expand upon everything that makes the Uplift universe so unique and awesome. My only hope is that the series just gets better.

My Reviews of the Uplift series:
? The Uplift War | Infinity's Shore ?

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5. Infinity's Shore

by David Brin

Infinity's Shore  cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 646 pages
Spectra, 1996

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Shit just got real!

OK, so remember how Brin left off Brightness Reef on a cliffhanger? Jophur ship had just landed above the returned Rothen vessel, totally changing the balance of power on Jijo. Sara and the starfaring Stranger, whom we now know to be Emerson from the Streaker escaped the zealots and have fallen in with a group horse-riding human women and urs. Dwer and Rety are stuck on a mad robot. Oh, and Alvin and his comrades sunk to the bottom of the ocean, where they were rescued by mechanical crustaceans.

I kind of suspected that Alvin's rescuers would be Streaker dolphins. It was very neat and tidy. Indeed, Brin wastes no time cutting to the chase and revealing all of this to us. And it turns out the Streaker has been through a lot in the interim—which is a great relief to me, because it has been nearly a year since I read Startide Rising, and I could barely remember who Emerson was, let alone how he got separated from the ship (turns out it happened between books). Much worse for wear, Streaker just so happened to find refuge in Jijo's oceans. And then the Jophur showed up.

I already discussed my fascination with the traeki in my review of Brightness Reef, so I'll keep this brief. The Jophur are easily the best part of this book. They combine the intriguing properties of the traeki with the one thing that the Uplift books often lack: a convincing villain. (The Gubru were OK in The Uplift War, but I couldn't stop thinking of them as giant dodos, and that ruined them for me. In contrast, the Jophur are rather unlike anything on Earth. They are different, and that is cool.) Watching Asx lose itself/themselves to the master ring and become Ewasx saddened me; I was glad his rings managed to rebel once in a while. Even better was getting a glimpse at the command structure of the Jophur vessel, as well as its potential goals regarding Jijo and recovering the Streaker. The fact that the Jophur patently just didn't care about anyone, and in fact were actively hostile to the g'Keks, made them great villains. They were willing to raise towns and destroy the sooners' holy artifact, the Egg. I love a good bad guy willing to follow through on threats!

So Infinity's Shore has a great bad guy. What about the matching good guys? Our protagonists are a melange of the new and the old. Returning from Startide Rising are some old friends, including Gillian, the Niss machine, and Kaa. (For some reason my brain always imagines AIs speaking in the voice of Morgan Freeman, so I found the Niss machine very endearing.) I honestly don't remember many of my feelings toward Gillian, Kaa, et al, so I gave them the benefit of a doubt. And really, none of them are as important to the plot as the protagonists who return from Brightness Reef: Dwer, Sara, Lark, Alvin, etc. These characters are the freshest in our minds, and some of them are genuinely better.

Just as the dolphins lurking at the bottom of the ocean were rather predictable, I'm pretty sure Brin couldn't have made the mutual attraction between Lark and Ling any more obvious except by beginning their names with the same le—oh. I see what you did there! Very clever, Mr. Brin. Still, Infinity's Shore isn't a romance, and the love between 2 Ls blossoms while they are prisoner aboard a Jophur ship. It's sweet, and it happens amid action scenes and some moody meditation on Lark's part about his feelings, as a voluntary extinctionist heretic, about falling in love and possibly wanting children. Moody though it may be, however, it serves a real purpose: change has come to Jijo, and no one is going to be the same.

I suppose you could call this book "apocalyptic" in the sense that the Sacred Scrolls of the Jijoan sooners have always predicted a "Judgement Day" from above. Now it's come, and everything is going to hell, because you know what? When starships descend from on high, suddenly all those sacred stanzas just don't quite prepare you for the sheer pants-soiling, hoof-tripping, wheel-blocking, claw-catching terror of the moment. It is no big surprise that most people, despite their nominal devotion to the Scrolls, prefer not to react hastily and begin destroying signs of civilization. Similarly, it is no big surprise that a small portion of people believe the opposite. So even as a powerful interstellar force threatens all the sooners on Jijo, we see their society begin to fracture, their precious Commons peace falling apart.

These politics never quite take centre stage. We don't learn much about how the sooners will react to these events until the very end of the book, and that's fine. This isn't a work of political intrigue; it's more a quick-and-dirty action-adventure. Though Sara and Lark are both exposed to the fallout from some of the more extreme groups, they also have their own, more immediate problems to resolve, so they are on the fringe of these politics. Sara manages to fall in with Uriel, the renowned urrish smith who had the foresight to build an analog computer, while Lark and Ling, as I mentioned above, make out on a Jophur ship. It's all good.

Because unlike Brightness Reef, which tended to flounder and waver until the last hundred pages, Infinity's Shore constantly feels like it is building toward something. Some of the foreshadowing and hints are annoying, even trite—I'm not a fan of the idea that Buyur somehow planned all this a million years ago. That being said, Brin has done a good job creating a tantalizing 150-million-year backstory, and I am now excited about reading Heaven's Reach and finally learning what's going on (again, if that doesn't happen, don't spoil it for me). So even with a few flaws, the fact that this book manages to excite me and make me eager for its sequel is great, especially when it's the middle book in a trilogy.

Stepping back for a moment, even the story in this book builds to an epic conclusion. We know there has to be some kind of showdown between the Streaker and the Jophur ship, and Brin doesn't disappoint us. He finally seems to have a grasp on this whole multiple, shifting perspectives narration, and in those last critical chapters, he moves us effortlessly among perspectives as the action unfolds. Dwer finds himself taking an unscheduled trip in a hot-air balloon and ends up in an unexpected reunion with guess who (saw that one coming). Streaker heads off on a suicide mission to pull the Jophur away from Jijo. Will they escape? Will they finally find sanctuary and succour? Will they—

Well, damn. David Brin ended on a cliffhanger. Again. You know what? Fine then. If he can end on a cliffhanger, so can I. Final verdict on Infinity's Shore is…

**Stay tuned at the end of the week for my review of Heaven's Reach and the exciting conclusion to this review of Infinity's Shore!***

*(Disclaimer: Conclusion may not contain 100% fresh excitement. Please ask your physician if artificial excitement is right for you. If your excitement lasts for longer than four hours, call your doctor.)

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6. Heaven's Reach

by David Brin

Heaven's Reach  cover image
Hardcover, 447 pages
Spectra, 1996

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

(In my best Majel Barrett voice.) Last time, on my review of the Uplift Storm Trilogy

… Alvin et al were rescued from their wrecked diving bell by none other than the submerged crew of the Streaker.

… a Jophur starship landed on Jijo, capturing the Rothen ship and promising a slow, painful annihilation if the Jijoans did not divulge the location of the Streaker (if they did, the Jophur promised a swift annihilation).

… to combat the Jophur threat and make good its escape, Streaker embarks on what appears to be a suicide mission to get to the hyperspace transfer point beyond Jijo's sun.

Fortunately, something unexpected occurs: Zang (hydrogen-breathing life forms) and machine harvesters show up to grab carbon from Jijo's sun, and this provides the distraction Streaker needs. Thanks to the glavers Gillian took aboard from Jijo, they have a rudimentary means of flagging down the Zang and hitching a ride under the Zang's dubious protection. When they emerge from hyperspace, the Jophur ship in hot pursuit, they find themselves back at the Fractal World, a sort of "retirement home" for galactic species that no longer want to engage with wider civilization. Oh, and it's where Emerson got his brain cut up and where Hannes Suessi became a cyborg. Good times.

And now, the conclusion.

Heaven's Reach is simultaneously the best and worst book of the Uplift series, no question about it. Few authors have managed to frustrate and elate me at the same time as David Brin. This book continues the drama and tension that pervaded Infinity's Shore, and always it is building toward what will hopefully be a final, awesome climax. And though "final" and "awesome" both have a place in this climax, it's just not quite what I wanted from this series. Moreover, with Heaven's Reach, Brin seems to fall back into his old bad habits (or else those same habits were present in Infinity's Shore, but the story was good enough to blind me to them).

Once again, we have a myriad of perspectives from all these different characters, and it can be difficult to grow attached to any one of them. In particular, Dwer and Rety's story as refugee sooners was fascinating but given such little time to develop. Rety, who struck me as an annoying but deep character, is little more than a petulant child in this book; Dwer gets to be a babysitter. I was anxious to hear how Streaker fared, but I was always thinking about these two as well. Still, Brin does give them the honour of being the only Jijoans who actually get to return home, so that's something.

No, what really frustrates me is that after teasing us for five books and spreading the mystery so thinly, Brin concludes with a book that packs in enough exposition for an entirely new trilogy. Suddenly, concepts that had never really mattered before (e.g., the various orders of life, the levels of hyperspace) took front and centre stage, fast enough to make one's head spin. Wait, hyperspace is tearing? Wait, the Transcendent order of life is manipulating everything? These are all great revelations, great plot points, but there is just so much in Heaven's Reach. I feel like a parched man who was trapped in the desert for five books and has suddenly been thrust into the ocean, without a life preserver. We've gone from too little to too much.

Amid these revelations, the one mystery that kept me reading never does get resolved. We don't learn if humans are truly wolflings or if they indeed have a lost patron. The way I interpret the resolution, it sounds like we are wolflings, but that's never made explicit. So for me, personally, this ending was a little disappointing, since it did not reveal what I wanted to know.

In all fairness, however, that's my problem. Brin never promised he was going to tell us the answer to that question, and the answers he does provide (to questions that were unasked, at least by me) are pretty damn epic. It turns out that the corpse Streaker carries from the graveyard of ships belongs to a member of a species active back when the galaxies numbered seventeen, not five. That's right: the number of galaxies accessible through hyperspace have slowly been decreasing. Apparently this is due to the expanding universe and its corresponding metric causing "tears" in hyperspace, although Sarah the sooner mathematician begs to differ. Honestly, any explanation for something involving hyperspace is going to be technobabble and witchcraft, so let's not dwell on that part.

The implications to this revelation are huge, of course. It speaks of manipulation on a massive scale, with the Galactic Library's records being altered to prevent mention of the last time this happened, 150 million years ago. And there is tragedy too, since it means anyone left in the galaxy or galaxies that get severed from the hyperspace routes are cut off from all galactic civilization, effectively forever. This is apparently why the Transcendents manipulated events, including much of the Streaker's journey, so they could eventually send a whole bunch of ships into a far-flung galaxy in an attempt to say "hi" to anyone left alive there.

Brin does a nice job spelling it all out for us, and I guess it makes sense, but it all feels like it's coming out of left field. I wish he had included more foreshadowing in previous books—more than the vague references to "a time of changes" coming upon us. And he falls into a trap common for authors who postulate a chessmaster: suddenly the protagonists don't feel like they have much free will any more. Streaker spends most of the book waiting for things to happen and reacting, which isn't very exciting. It isn't until the final, post-climactic confrontation between Streaker and the fleet surrounding Earth that Gillian and her crew ever get a chance to do anything clever.

When it comes to the new character introduced in this book, Harry Harms, I have to admit a soft-spot for talking chimpanzees. So he gets a pass from me, even though like Streaker, his role is more as an exposition trigger than anything else. He spends a lot of the time being gruff and incorrigible, as chimps ought to be, and that's just fine by me.

More importantly, he allows Brin to explore an interesting motif about species-wide versus individual "salvation." The emphasis in galactic civilization is all about one's species. A client improves patron species over generations, and those species act "for the good of the clan." In the end, millions of years down the line, those species go on to retire, seek the Embrace of Tides, and hopefully Transcend. This is markedly different from the individualist attitudes championed by the wolfling Earthlings, and it is amusing to see such attitudes gaining a cult following on Tanith.

This speaks to some of the deeper issues Brin has raised with his Uplift series. As we learn the truth about the Fractal World, about the white dwarf, the Transcendents, etc., we get a glimpse of the long, long game. Already, Brin had us thinking in terms of millions of years, and now he asks us to think about life in the universe by the billions of years. Maybe black holes are just a recycling unit, a way to get the older species out of the way so that new ones can emerge. Maybe they are a gateway to something beyond. Either way, it is a sobering reminder that, eventually, all things, all species, meet their end.

I love the premise behind Uplift, and I love the way Brin uses it to explore the relationships among galactic species. As an astrophysicist, Brin at least knows when he's diverging from the science and into the realm of fiction—but as a writer, Brin's skills are … frustratingly inconsistent at best. I am about ready to take a good, long break from David Brin, but I still think this series is worth reading. It is some of the best science fiction I've read, for its careful balancing of space opera with posthumanism and ecological themes. Though Heaven's Reach did not deliver exactly what I expected, it was an interesting journey nonetheless.

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