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Old 11th July 2011, 08:33 PM   #1 (permalink)
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The Uplift Saga by David Brin

Book 1: Sundiver

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Two billion years ago, the Progenitors commenced the process of 'uplift': genetically engineering the more intelligent animals of many scores of worlds to sentience and intelligence. They in turn uplifted other races, and then others, in an unbroken chain that would eventually span aeons and no less than five galaxies. Each 'Patron' race would receive 100,000 years of indentured servitude from their client races before the clients would be allowed to uplift species of their own and become Patrons themselves. The Progenitors are long gone, as are many of the races they sired, but the process of uplift goes on. When a race is discovered in a tiny corner of one galaxy which has no Patrons and claims to have evolved naturally without outside intervention, it sends shockwaves through galactic society.

The Solar system, 2246. Humanity has narrowly avoided being given to another Patron race to 'complete' their 'long-abandoned' uplifting. At the time they were discovered, humanity had already uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins to sentience, and were able to claim Patron status for themselves, to the fury of many, far older races. When a scientific mission is launched from Mercury to investigate lifeforms discovered living in the Sun's upper layers, several other alien races are furious with humanity's temerity: the Galactic Library states that life cannot exist in the atmosphere of stars, so their claims are clearly lies intended to bolster their own status. Jacob Demwa, an expert in uplift, is called in to help clarify the situation, but he finds several human and alien factions battling to control the information about the discovery for their own ends, and some of them may be willing to kill to achieve their ends.

Sundiver (originally published in 1980) is the first novel in David Brin's acclaimed Uplift Saga, a space opera series running to six novels. The series has won two Hugos, two Locus awards and a Nebula for Best Novel, and is highly regarded in the SF canon. However, most of these plaudits are aimed at later books in the series (particularly the second and third volumes, Startide Rising and The Uplift War). Sundiver itself tends to get a little overlooked in the mix.

Sundiver is a totally stand-alone SF novel. It's set about 240 years before the other books and features no ongoing storylines or characters. Readers are in fact often encouraged to start with the superb second volume and disregard this one (there are also a few minor continuity issues between Sundiver and the other books), which is a bit of a shame. Though Sundiver is the weakest book in the series and the most forgettable, it's still a reasonably entertaining SF mystery novel.

Our primary POV in the novel is the conflicted character of Jacob. Jacob is suffering severe PTSD after saving one of Earth's space elevators from destruction through various feats of derring-do, which has led to various mental problems that he has to deal with through conditioning. This makes for a highly unreliable narrator, who often pauses to wonder if his own psyche is undermining his efforts to solve the mystery. This introduces an element of uncertainty into the story which is effective at being unsettling and forcing the reader to re-examine everything that's going on. On the other hand, Brin isn't as good at doing this kind of thing as Gene Wolfe or Christopher Priest and eventually it turns out that the amount of misdirection going on is rather slight compared to the potential. Still, it's a nice idea.

The mystery itself is at the centre of the book: what is going on with these newly-discovered lifeforms floating above the Sun? There are your usual assortment of false leads, red herrings, enemies turning out to be good guys and vice versa, but the reader is not given sufficient information to solve the mystery by themselves (always a slight problem with a mystery-based narrative). The mystery is solved through the application of scientific principles, which is quite enjoyable, but the way Jacob gathers everyone around to reveal the secrets in a scene straight out of Columbo is a little bit cheesy. Luckily, the characters other than Jacob are a colourful and interesting bunch (though the annoying journalist with the outrageous French accent borders on caricature), and Brin is already doing his signature trick of giving us really bizarre and 'different' aliens but also making them relatable as individual characters, something that will come out much more strongly in the later books.

Sundiver (***) is a reasonably solid SF mystery novel, though the solution is a little bit too neat and the story's full potential is not realised. The book's biggest problem is that its sequels are so vastly superior they tend to outshine it, which I suppose isn't the worst problem in the world to have. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
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Old 16th July 2011, 07:21 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: The Uplift Saga by David Brin

Book 2: Startide Rising

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The abandoned and fallow ocean world of Kithrup, AD 2489. The predominantly dolphin-crewed starship Streaker has sought refuge deep underwater whilst pursuing armadas belonging to dozens of major Galactic races clash in the skies overhead, each fighting for the right to capture Streaker and the secrets she possesses. Streaker has found a fleet of abandoned starships in a globular cluster that date back to the time of the fabled Progenitors, and there are races willing to commit murder and genocide to learn more about the birth of intergalactic civilisation. The crew of the Streaker will have to call upon all their resources and cleverness if they are to escape from Kithrup, but the crew itself is divided over the course of action to take, and the planet itself harbours dark secrets of its own.

Startide Rising was first published in 1983 and is one of the rare SF novels to 'win the double', securing both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novel, a feat also achieved by Dune, Neuromancer, Doomsday Book, Rendezvous with Rama and Ender's Game. It's one of the best space opera novels published in the last thirty years and is probably the most advisable starting point for reading Brin's Uplift Saga (the first book, Sundiver, is the weakest in the series and has little to nothing to do with the other five books, though still a reasonably entertaining novel on its own merits).

The book is notable for being a space opera where most of the action takes place deep underwater, and where humans are in the minority as characters. Most of the cast are neo-dolphins, 'uplifted' from animals into sentient beings. They are mostly at home in the water, but have cybernetic walkers to allow them to interact with humans on dry land. Because dolphins are a new addition to the ranks of uplifted races they are also a tad of the flaky side, and several subplots in the books follow the problems caused when some of the dolphins' conditioning fails in the face of stress and they revert into mindless animals (especially dangerous for the ones that have elements of more hostile aquatic species spliced into their genetic code). Brin puts a lot of work into the dolphin society, organisation and language (the dolphins have a haiku-like way of speaking which bridges their primal language of squeaks, clicks and sonar and the human language, Anglic) and it's extremely convincing. The premise - talking space dolphins! - could veer into silliness very easily, but Brin overcomes this by simply taking the subject seriously, though injecting a lightness of tone into proceedings to reflect the playful nature of the species.

The character-building is strong. The neo-dolphin captain, Creideiki, is developed as a philosophical warrior who has developed a personal code of combining the best traits of his pre-sentient ancestors with things they have learned from humanity, rather than valuing one above the other as some of his other crewmembers do. Similarly, many of the other dolphins are painted distinctly with their own personalities, goals and motivations, some of them in conflict with one another. The other crewmembers of Streaker - seven humans and a neo-chimp - also come across well, though they fall into broader archetypes than the dolphins: the befuddled professor, the morally ambiguous and ambitious scientist, the hotheaded young kid who discovers responsibility and maturity and so on. Still entertaining, but it is interesting that the human characters come across as slightly broader than the dolphin ones. I was also surprised that some characters who play major roles in later books barely even appear in this one.

The book is broken up by interludes focusing on the various alien races battling for control of the planet: the humourless but honourable Thennanin, the avian Gubru, the rapacious Tandu, the cruel Soro, the weird Jophur (a race of hostile stacked donuts!) and so on. Brin doesn't have much time to do more than characterise these races in the quickest of strokes and they lack real depth, something I suspect Brin realised as subsequent books flesh out various of these races in more detail (the Gubru and Thennanin in The Uplift War, the Jophur in Infinity's Shore and so on). However, they are in the book primarily to provide an impetus for the Streaker to get away, and the regular switches away to their POVs keep us updated on the course of the battle and how much time the Earthlings have before one of the alien races triumphs and is able to pursue the Streaker. It's an effective way of building tension, especially as the novel moves into is climactic stages and the author puts his foot down in the run-up to the finale.

Essentially, Startide Rising is a big, brash, colourful and fun space opera. He addresses some interesting and real scientific issues and concerns (the need for the Galactics to be ecologically aware to avoid 'burning out' their galaxies of habitable planets in just a few tens of millennia is touched on, though lightly enough not to get preachy), but his main objective is to entertain, and he does that in spades. The structure of the series means that a number of storylines are left hanging at the end of Startide Rising which aren't revisited until the fifth book, which isn't a problem now but was a bit more unusual at the time (especially as the fifth book wasn't published until fifteen years after the second), but these hanging elements are more, "What adventures will they have next?" rather than cliffhangers. The book does a good job of standing alone, whilst the subsequent book, The Uplift War, shows the fall-out of events in this novel on Earth and her colonies, but also works more or less as a stand-alone.

Startide Rising (****) is a tremendously readable, entertaining and smart novel that takes a wild premise and runs with it. The novel is available now in the USA, though is currently not in print in the UK (Amazon has some second-hand copies).
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Old 24th July 2011, 12:43 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: The Uplift Saga by David Brin

Book 3: The Uplift War

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Far across the Galaxy, a dolphin-crewed starship has made a discovery of startling significance. Senior Galactic clans have dispatched fleets to find that ship, but have also decided to hold Earth and her colony worlds hostage for the data being handed over. To this end, Earth and her Tymbrimi allies have been forced to pull back most of their military to defend their homeworlds, leaving outlying colonies vulnerable.

Garth is one such world, a verdant planet nearly wrecked in an ecological holocaust millennia earlier. Humans and their neo-chimpanzee clients have worked hard to restore the planet to a livable state, but now find their world under occupation by the hostile, avian Gubru. With most of the human populace imprisoned, it falls to a band of chimps, a single free human and the Tymbrimi ambassador and his daughter to resist the occupiers...and try to keep a secret that Garth has held for years.

The Uplift War is the third novel in David Brin's Uplift Saga, originally published in 1987, and takes place concurrently and just after the events of Startide Rising, but many thousands of light-years away. Whilst the events of Startide Rising set in motion The Uplift War, knowledge of that novel is not required to really enjoy The Uplift War, which stands alone. The novel won the Hugo and Locus awards for Best Novel in 1988.

The Uplift War is a fine SF novel which is notably different in tone to Startide Rising; in the intervening four years Brin had penned three non-Uplift novels and had become a better, more experienced writer. The Uplift War is slightly darker and much less frantic than its forerunner, with a somewhat less frivolous tone. The cast of characters is smaller, with a much greater focus on the motivations and ambitions of each individual character. Startide Rising was good at this, but the larger cast meant that there was a fair bit of 'off-screen characterisation' (i.e. we are told about great a character is but only get glimpses of it ourselves due to limited page space). Here much more is on the page, and more effective for it. Brin seems to have realised that his alien races in the previous novel were very broadly sketched, so here we get much more information and depth to the Tybrimi, Gubru and Thennanin, as well as the neo-chimpanzees whose culture and social structure are as well-realised as that of the dolphins in the previous novel.

The book is essentially a war story where the military conflict is undertaken under extremely limiting rules of war (though the ruthless Gubru show some ingenuity in getting around these restrictions), resulting in occasionally humorous comedy-of-manners moments as the chimps (who, as a junior client species, have to show respect for senior Patron races, even enemy ones, at all times) bow and use formal greetings and dialogue against the Gubru whilst simultaneously trying to blow them them with prejudice. These lighter moments are set in contrast to the more ruthless methods imposed by the invaders at other points.

This is a long novel - over 600 pages in paperback - but moves quite quickly. Brin's prose is easy to read and quite page-turning, but bogs down a little whenever the Tymbrimi characters appear, as they express emotions through a series of psi-glyphs which appear above their heads. Rather than explaining what these glyphs mean in the text, Brin instead merely mentions their name and expects the reader to refer to the glyph-glossary at the front of the book, the sort of narrative 'cheat' more commonly encountered in epic fantasy. This interrupts the narrative flow, but fortunately becomes less common in the second half of the book.

Brin develops an ecological theme throughout the novel. The Uplift universe is based on the idea that if races were allowed to exploit each planet they colonised however they liked, then all of the Five Galaxies would be 'burned out' in a few tens of millennia (an eyeblink for a civilisation between two and three billion years of age). Even the most fanatically conservative Galactic clans are aware of this danger, so ecological maintenance and repair is a primary responsibility of all races. This also handily explains the virtual non-existence of biosphere-wrecking weapons, such as nukes and antimatter, from the Uplift universe...at least whilst the rules of war are being respected. Brin doesn't use this as an excuse to lecture - although the importing of one of Earth's endangered species to Garth to help in the ecological recovery skirts close to it - but instead as a way of intelligently developing the plot and bringing about a logical conclusion to the crisis. I suspect at the time (this book came out just before the movie Gorillas in the Mist) the ecological angle may have come across as a bit more strident.

The Uplift War (****) is well-written, with memorable characters (flamboyant neo-chimp Filben could helm his own spin-off series) and some great ideas. There are moments of cliche and perhaps a slight feeling that everything falls out a little too neatly to allow for a happy ending (contrasted to the messy ending to Startide Rising, with multiple characters killed or abandoned in hostile territory), which dents the book a little, but overall this is a fine, colourful and entertaining space opera. The novel is available now in the USA and, second-hand, in the UK.
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Old 24th July 2011, 03:29 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: The Uplift Saga by David Brin

I love these books! Awesome series!
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Old 2nd August 2011, 04:14 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: The Uplift Saga by David Brin

Book 4: Brightness Reef

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The planet Jijo is home to representatives from six different races, each hiding from the Civilisation of the Five Galaxies for their own reasons. Most of their high technology has been abandoned, lest it lead pursuers to them, but at great cost peaceful coexistence between the six races has been achieved. At the time of the Gathering representatives from these races meet to discuss the future...but this Gathering is interrupted by the arrival of a starship. Fearing the worst, the people of Jijo are faced with disturbing revelations from the outside universe and discover that their little backwater world is about to become very important indeed.

Brightness Reef is the fourth novel in David Brin's Uplift Saga and the first in a closely-linked trilogy. Whilst the first three books were set in the same universe and shared some references, they were mostly stand-alone novels. This trilogy is a continuous storyline spanning three novels, and indeed serves as a sequel to the events of both Startide Rising and The Uplift War, though this does not become more apparent until the fifth and sixth books.

Brightness Reef was published nine years after The Uplift War and it's clear that Brin has become a stronger writer in the interim. His prose is smoother and more varied in this novel than the preceding books in the series. Brin abandons the straightforward POV structure of the first three books in favour of a more varied approach, mixing third-person limited narration with the first person accounts of the traeki Asx (which, given that traeki are actually gestalt entities consisting of several semi-autonomous lifeforms, is not as straightforward as it sounds) and the memoirs of the hoon Alvin as he and his friends attempt to build a bathysphere to explore an off-shore underwater trench.

Of the other main characters, we have an amnesiac who has lost the power of speech and understanding language through severe head trauma, but can still communicate via music; a girl from a primitive tribe interacting with both the more advanced races of the Slope and then the visiting aliens; and a number of other Jijoan characters representing a number of different ideological viewpoints as they argue over the way forward for their unique culture. Brin's characterisation has always been strong, but here, given the much larger cast size, he is forced to be more concise, building up characters, plots and events quite quickly (though never rushed) in comparison. He pulls this off, and it's interesting that although the events of this novel are restricted to one small geographical area on one planet with no scenes set in space at all, the large cast and shifting viewpoints give the novel a more epic feeling than even the space battle-heavy Startide Rising. In fact, given the low technology nature of the setting, Brightness Reef is probably the closest Brin has come to writing a fantasy novel, and based on this novel it's a setting that Brin would do very well in.

As well as individual characterisation, Brin has to create six (eight, counting the more animal-like glavers and noors) distinct species, along with their biology and culture, and show how they interact with one another. Brin excels at this kind of 'worldbuilding', making each race distinct and interesting. This is enhanced by giving us POV characters from several of these other races to further bring them to life.

The pace of the novel is brisk, but the large cast means that Brin gets a little bogged down in touching base with all of the POV characters on a regular basis (probably the cause of the novel expanding from one book to three, although it has to be said I doubt he'd have fitted the whole trilogy into one novel, particularly in the last book where events take on a truly cosmic scale), and the importance and relevance of all the characters is still unclear at this point. There's also a question on exactly how Brightness Reef fits in with the events of the preceding two novels, though this is made abundantly clear in the last few chapters as events build to a climax and the reader realises how Brin is bringing together storylines he had been working on for fifteen years by this point in a rather impressive manner.

Brightness Reef ( **** ) features superior worldbuilding, an epic scope and a readable, varied prose style, but suffers in comparison to its two forebears due to some bloat and a number of cliffhanger endings. Nevertheless, it is a rich and enjoyable SF novel that leads directly into its sequel, Infinity's Shore. The novel is available now in the USA and, second-hand, in the UK.
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Old 24th August 2011, 03:27 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: The Uplift Saga by David Brin

Book 5: Infinity's Shore

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Peace has endured on the world of Jijo, where six races shelter from the wider civilisation of the Five Galaxies, for decades. That peace has now been shattered by the arrival of a starship of the Jophur, a powerful Galactic race, searching for the fugitive Terran exploration vessel Streaker and the billion-year-old secrets it contains. As members of the six races struggle to survive under the brutal Jophur occupation, the crew of the beleaguered Streaker realise they must draw the Jophur away from Jijo and its innocent population, even if the cost is their own destruction...

Infinity's Shore, the fifth and penultimate book in David Brin's Uplift Saga, picks up moments after the end of Brightness Reef, with the arrival of a Jophur warship spelling disaster for the refugee nations of the Slope. The opening of the novel successfully gets across the scale of this chaos, with the Jophur brutally 'altering' the traeki ambassador Asx with the imposition of a master ring (traeki are gestalt entities consisting of independently intelligent rings which combine to form a sentient being; Jophur have a 'master ring' which dominates and controls the others), slaughtering some of the inhabitants ruthlessly and then engaging in clandestine negotiations with criminal elements to try and splinter the six races from one another. We briefly met the Jophur in Startide Rising, but Infinity's Shore delves much more deeply into their characters and we discover how unpleasant they can really be. This is emphasised by an interesting narrative device, where the first-person musings of Asx in the previous novel continue, but now under the aegis of 'Ewasx', the same being now perverted into a full Jophur. This gives us a somewhat schizophrenic POV character who is desperately trying to keep his other intelligences under control through the application of pain, which is an original, if dark, idea. Brin's writing skills here are first rate, as Asx continues to be a character in his own right, and the reader has to puzzle out what he is up to under Ewasx's very nose (or olfactory ring sense organ, more accurately) through limited information.

Elsewhere, the novel unfolds across a number of POV characters. The purpose of the very large cast of the first book is now revealed, as the events become even more epic. Different factions choose to fight or side with the Jophur on a large scale, whilst a few characters are now revealed to be in contact with the crew of the Streaker. We also get additional POVs from the crew of the Streaker as we learn what they've been up to since we last saw them blasting free from the Kithrup system in Startide Rising. It's a complex structure that sometimes threatens to become ungainly, but Brin maintains the cohesion of the narrative, and he admirably finds time to drop in a few POV chapters that are not strictly necessary but are there to provide atmosphere and colour, showing the scale of the unrest triggered by the arrival of the spacecraft.

Infinity's Shore manages to escape 'middle book' syndrome due to is structure: whilst there is a further book to come, Heaven's Reach, Infinity's Shore successfully wraps up most of the storylines on Jijo, and the planet is (somewhat regretfully, as Brin's worldbuilding skills here are impressive) left behind at the end of the novel as the focus switches squarely to the crew of the Streaker. This gives us a lot of endings and conclusions at the end of the book, with only a couple of cliffhangers left for the next book (though these are quite large).

Brin's skills with characters are impressive, with Asx/Ewasx being the most notable, but we also get great stuff from Emerson (the semi-amnesiac human who has lost the power of speech due to torture but can still communicate through song), Alvin (the Arthur C. Clarke-loving hoon whose journal extracts drive part of the story) and Gillian (the commander of the Streaker following the events of Startide Rising), not to mention the return of a number of dolphin POVs which continue to be entertaining. Brin also successfully builds tension as Streaker tries to escape the Jophur, but in a manner that will also leave Jijo free from reprisals, and various plans are outlined and tested before one is found that might just work. There are also some great details on technology, such as the steampunk non-digital computer that one character builds, or the various genetically-engineered insects and other lifeforms of Jijo that have tasks programmed into them from millions of years ago that the refugees can suit to their own ends.

As the novel continues, Brin laces in hints that something much bigger is afoot. Markings on some of the ships abandoned on the ocean floor, abnormalities in the hyperspace transfer points approaching Jijo and some strange problems in the Galactic Library's historical record suggest something else is happening, something so vast it will utterly dwarf even the chaos and warfare unleashed across the Five Galaxies by Streaker's activities. This then leaves the reader eager to learn more in the final, monstrously cataclysmic novel in the series.

Infinity's Shore (****) is an inventive, enjoyable and page-turning SF nove that rounds off a number of storylines from the preceding books and sets things up well for the grand finale.
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Old 27th August 2011, 05:24 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: The Uplift Saga by David Brin

Book 6: Heaven's Reach

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Three years ago, the human and dolphin crewmembers of the scout vessel Streaker stumbled across a fleet of derelict starships. The revelation of that discovery plunged the Five Galaxies into chaos, as vast galactic armadas mobilised to intercept Streaker and, when that failed, to lay siege to Earth itself, intending to hold it hostage for the secrets that Streaker discovered. Streaker fled to a remote corner of a fallow galaxy, lying low on Jijo where refugee species had built a new society in peace. But the arrival of pursuers has flushed out Streaker from its hiding place. Fed up and annoyed after years on the run, the crew of the Streaker has now decided it's time to go home, braving the machinations of ancient alien intelligences, the firepower of vast blockading fleets and the threat of a cataclysm that will transform the Five Galaxies forever...a cataclysm that has happened before.

Heaven's Reach is the sixth - and to date, final - novel in The Uplift Saga and is the very definition of the 'grand finale'. Storylines and character arcs begun way back in Startide Rising, published seventeen years earlier, reach epic conclusions, major revelations about the setting and the backstory take place and a number of satisfying resolutions are found. Controversially, the author also leaves a quite a few loose ends dangling.

Whilst claiming to be the concluding volume of the 'second Uplift trilogy', Heaven's Reach drops a lot of events and characters back on Jijo in order to focus on the Streaker, the Jophur battleship pursuing it and, slightly bemusingly, a new subplot about a neo-chimpanzee pilot scouting E-space, a level of hyperspace which can only be viewed in metaphors. The relevance of this latter subplot becomes clearer later on, but the slight incongruity of Brin dropping in this new storyline into an already crowded narrative space is soon overshadowed by the sheer number of ideas and hard SF concepts that Brin incorporates in the novel.

Heaven's Reach is, by far, the most wildly inventive of the six Uplift novels. Ideas that would fill up other novels, or entire trilogies, rocket past the reader at a rate of knots: the Fractal World (a fresh spin on the Dyson Sphere idea), a cluster of space habitats circling a white dwarf so fast that time slows down, memetic entities, hydrogen-based lifeforms and many more concepts are on display here, Brin unleashing them with fiendish glee. The Uplift universe has already been established as a colourful, epic setting packed with thousands of sentient races and lots of cool ideas, but Heaven's Reach brings it up to the next level and does so in a readable, gripping manner.

The characters' development continue to be a high point, with a few newcomers (like the chimp scout, Harry) fitting in nicely amongst the established cast. Seeing a few of the Jijo characters out in the weird and wonderful society of the Five Galaxies also raises a number of amusing culture clash storylines, though space constraints mean these can't be developed too much. Gillian, the commander of the Streaker and formerly a major character in Startide Rising, also comes to the fore as an opportunity (albeit a slim one) to return home arises. There is a slight backfiring here as Gillian makes frequent references to the disappearance of Creideiki and Tom Orley in Startide Rising, enough to make the reader expect an explanation as to their eventual fate which is not forthcoming (although there is a vague hint of a possible explanation at one point, though this is exceptionally vague).

This leads to the book's biggest problem: whilst several key storylines come to a conclusion quite a few others are left dangling. A character kidnapped at the end of Infinity's Shore remains kidnapped. Most of the mysteries discovered by the Streaker crew remain mysteries. A few of the cliffhangers are story seeds which Brin seems to have dropped for development in future, as-yet-unwritten stories and novels (and given it's been a decade since his last novel, may never be written), whilst there's also a few deliberately ambiguous endings which satisfy (after two decades - now three - would any explanation for the Streaker crew's discoveries satisfy?). Those hoping for this book to neatly tie up every loose end (or even a majority of them) will likely feel dissatisfied, whilst those who are happy with the prospect of unresolved elements will enjoy it more.

For myself, Heaven's Reach (****) is brash, exuberant, almost endlessly inventive and, when the crew of the Streaker finally give the Galactics the middle finger and head home, enormously satisfying, let down by a few too many open questions at the end. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
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