Saturday, 27 August 2011

Heaven's Reach by David Brin

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 (****½) 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.