Saturday, 4 January 2003

David Brin: Heaven's Reach (1998)

Edition: Orbit, 1999
Review number: 1138

On a science fiction newsgroup recently, there was a post with the subject, "When did David Brin start to suck?" It rather crudely overstates the reality, but there can be no doubt that this novel (the only recent one of his that I have read) is less good than his early work. It comes at the end of the second Uplift trilogy, and not reading the first two (because of Cambridgeshire libraries' random acquisition policy) may mean I am being too harsh, but I don't really think so.

The main plot of the novel centres around the fugitive starship Streaker, which has found unsettling relics of the Progenitors, technological artefacts which have startled the various races of the Five Galaxies out of the protocols by which they co-exist, leading several to lay siege to the home planet of the dolphin crew. Strange convulsions are, at the same time, taking place in the structure of the universe (a coincidence important to the plot but never explained), and wherever Streaker flees, its crew find enmity and betrayal.

The novel's major problem is that is structured from the very beginning as a set of disjoint narratives following the major characters. For readers of the other parts of the trilogy, which I presume tell of how the Streaker reached this point, this structure may well make sense, but it ruins the novel as a stand-alone. This is particularly so as the different strands are not all of equal interest, encouraging the reader to hurry through some chapters looking for something better.

The best strand by far is one which seems to be the most likely to have no connection to the earlier Uplift books. In fact, it seems almost completely out of place here - it details the journeys of neochimp Harry through E-space, a kind of hyperspace shaped by memes (ideas) and inhabited by weird and dangerous creatures such as the idea of carnivorousness. Brin's portrayal of the totally alien (which owes something to ideas about virtual reality in cyberpunk, it must be said) is excellent, coming across as as some kind of hybrid of Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland and an acid trip. It reminded me just how strong many of Brin's ideas have been. The separation brought about by the multiple viewpoints does in fact enhance the effectiveness of these chapters, which I suspect would become rather wearing if strung together as a single narrative at any length much beyond that of a short story. Generally, though, the multiple viewpoints detract from the novel, diffusing tension and introducing unnecessary complexity.

The occasional flashes of brilliance make Heaven's Reach worth skimming, but it is a rather dull novel compared with Brin's work from the eighties.

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