Review of Heaven's Reach by David Brin
by David Brin
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
(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.