Brightness Reef by David Brin (The Uplift Saga)

Brightness Reef has been a treat my lady and I have been saving, since as a brief glance at my previous reviews will show, we’re both quite the fans of David Brin, even reading through The Uplift War on our honeymoon.

Brin has remarked that he’s not usually one for writing trilogies, yet in Brightness Reef he was forced to split the story into three parts simply because he had too much material for one book, even if he made the book a real doorstop. This is not surprising since not only in terms of characters and action, but even the basic setting Brin creates will take a deal of exploring.

Taking place after both Star Tide Rising and The Uplift War, Brightness Reef is a return to Brin’s five galaxies, a universe where one patron race “uplifts” a client species to sentience using eugenics and teaching, a client species who may then uplift clients in their turn, thus forming galactic clans with complex webs of political and ecological intrigue.

Brightness Reef takes place in a particularly fascinating corner of this universe, the planet Jijo.

Though left fallow for the last million years in order to be allowed to develop more intelligent life, Jijo has become home to several groups of refugees who have settled on the world illegally and formed a complex, multi species society, a culture overshadowed by the fear of discovery by galactic authorities and the punishment of their “crimes” of unlawful settlement.

Brin has always been great at creating very alien aliens, but in Brightness Reef he goes one step further, imagining a society where six very different races (including humans), have come to a hard won and hard fought peace and now interact equally. In particular, I love the way Brin is able to create an impression of each race, their culture and history and overall character (including hints as to why they fled galactic society), and yet then have the actual members of each race we encounter be distinct individuals on their own. For example, he presents the Hoon as large, deep voiced furry aliens known for their patience, (they reminded my lady of Robert Jordan’s Ogier), and yet one major character in the novel is Alvin, an impetuous young Hoon who loves human adventure stories, even taking his name from a fantasy book by Orson Scott Card, and longs to have adventures of his own to write about.

Even in its environment, Jijo is as distinct and weird a place as any lover of the fantastic could want, with huge, semi sentient spiders bent on destroying all traces of technology, planes of poisonous grass and small bugs that were genetically engineered by the planet's inhabitants to carry messages.

As the book opens, the unthinkable happens, a starship lands on Jijo. To everyone’s surprise however, the ship does not contain representatives of the galactic institute bent on investigating Jijo’s illegal settlements, but a group of humans searching for intelligent life who claim to speak for the previously unknown patrons of humanity, the Rothen.

As usual in Brin there is a diverse cast of characters all with their different intersecting and complex stories, Lark, a kindly human biologist who quite sincerely believes that all the settlers on Jijo should die out slowly, but is horrified at the idea that the star travelling humans might immediately threaten that prospect. His brother Dwer, a hunter whose chief job is to keep Jijo’s intelligent inhabitants from disturbing the echo system too much, Retty, a teenage girl fleeing a chauvinistic and primitive tribe of humans living in the wilds in pursuit of an enigmatic bird, and Sara, a mathematician and linguist who is journeying to Biblios, Jijo’s principle library in the company of a cruelly wounded stranger who might or might not be another of the star travelling humans and could represent Jijo’s salvation.

One character I particularly admired is Asx, the wise elderly sage from the traeki race. The traeki are perhaps one of the most alien races I’ve ever come across, stacks of sap covered rings, with each ring effectively being part of the cooperative consciousness of the individual traeki (Brin even has to mangle pronouns and change capitalization occasionally for Asx to speak of itself. Yet at the same time, Asx retains the calm gravitas of Galadriel or Dumbledore, and its tragic recollections of Jijo’s history and contrasts to the violent splits into factional disagreement over the newly arrived starship are extremely poignant, particularly when Asx contrasts the traeki against their aggressive cousins briefly seen in Star Tide Rising, the Jofour.

As is usual with Brin all his characters are extremely complex and have journeys to undergo, journeys which take unexpected (and not always pleasant), directions, indeed it’s rather difficult to discuss Brightness Reef without giving spoilers because the sense of doom and frightening ambiguity over the star ship’s inhabitants and their motivations is such a major force in the plot. This is one reason why the Uplift trilogy is far darker than the proceeding books, in the ways that the otherwise comparatively harmonious society of Jijo begins to fracture under threat, with discord, zealotry and racism running rampant. In one sense Brightness Reef has the tone of apocalypse fiction, even if the world the apocalypse is happening to is an alien one. I applaud Brin (the hard science fiction writer and physics professor), for recognizing that even ecology can become a tool of violence if carried too far, not to mention the damaging ways visitors from a technologically advanced race might affect a less technological society.

On a basic level, Brin’s plot construction is wonderfully put together, like a juggler spinning five or six balls in the air at once who is so experienced he doesn’t have to hurry his hand movements to catch them, Brin is able to keep each plot moving at a compelling pace. Indeed my only critique of Brin in terms of pacing is that frequently he’d land a tantalizing cliffhanger, then cut to a completely unrelated plot, one which initially I found harder to get into since I was so eager to see what happened to the previous character, but just as I thought “oh this is the boring bit”, he’d have the second plot kick into higher gear. In this respect (as well as his style of chapters each told from one perspective), his writing rather resembles that of George R R Martin,. Though interestingly enough, Brin also changes his style slightly for each character, having Alvin’s adventures recounted in a sloppy, enthusiastic first person, while Asx observations made to its rings flow with solemn reflective poetry. Even in his more conventional third person chapters he shows each perspective in detail, with Sara’s rational and scholarly examination of the overall situation leavened with a wistful concern for others and lack of confidence, and Dwer’s offhand, occasionally irritable competence in the wilderness contrasting markedly with his reticence around other people. Even with the fourteen year old Retty, the way her level of maturity changes according to how comfortable she is with the situation she’s in is the mark of an author who recognizes that most people (even teenagers), are not simply one note affairs, as well as one who definitely has places for his characters to go.

I was also surprised just how smoothly Brin could give us quite a lot of detail and information about Jijo, its people and its society in such a short time without any chapter feeling like an infodump, indeed in putting together this review and trying to explain a little of the book’s setting, , I’m rather amazed to find just how complex and difficult to explain it is, particularly considering how distinct the six Jijoan races are and how hard they are to some up in a brief description.

My only major issue with the book, is that I wish Brin included a little more information about the previous entries in the series. In particular, there are several subtle links to Star Tide Rising, yet both the previous book and this one are so complex and detailed, that fathoming the connections isn’t always easy, though since the links to the previous book are tenuous for perfectly logical reasons, I can understand why Brin was a little obscure, even if it makes connections harder to follow.

Brin also makes some rather odd statements about gender. While he has some extremely three dimensional and well fleshed out female characters (both primary and secondary), there are a couple of strange passages in which Sara intimates that she had to “suppress her maternal instincts” in order to have a career in scholarship rather than following the life of a farm wife and mother as most human women on Jijo apparently do. This is more than a little weird given that we see several human women in positions of authority and respect (not the least Sara herself), yet we see no traditional stay at home wives throughout the book. Sara’s assertions are even odder when contrasted against the nasty attitudes and practices of the medieval and misogynistic primitive tribe Retty is fleeing from. I suspect this was a point where either Sara’s assumptions were intended to be a little self-contradictory, especially given Sara’s tragic record with previous relationships and hints that Sara’s own mother was also a scholar, or where Brin’s instincts as an author to create complex characters overroad any simplistic ideas about gender, and complex indeed his characters are, with some ending in quite unsuspected places, often shifting loyalties or allegiances, undergoing uplifting moments of beauty or extreme darkness along the way whatever their gender.

Brightness Reef is undoubtedly a very dense book. From little details such as the individual way Brin writes each race’s speech pattern to reflect their speaking apparatus, to the way that events on Jijo could echo into a galactic scale over millions of years. Rarely have I seen an author who can deal with the macrocosm of a massive eons spanning universe, to the microcosm of a small society on a very alien planet full of people (both human and otherwise), who we grow to care deeply about, with consummate ease. A typical example is when one of the visiting humans offers to shake hands, which is utterly unrecognized on Jijo since races such as the Hoon might crush a human hand by mistake, while to the centaur like urs touching hands would be considered offensively intimate.

My only other major problem with Brightness Reef is the book’s ending, or rather lack of one. Though two of the books plots culminate in the appearance of groups foreshadowed from the books’ beginning, other plots simply stop rather abruptly midway through. Of course, this makes me extremely eager to move on to the next volume, but equally does make the conclusion to Brightness Reef when considered alone feel a bit unsatisfying, indeed I wouldn’t recommend anyone read Brightness Reef unless you have the other books immediately to hand.

One matter my lady and I tend to differ in opinion on is how dark we like our reading material. She tends to err on the lighter side, where as I tend to be okay with a greater gradient of grimness. This is why she for example prefers Jordan over Martin, and also why she prefers the Uplift War over Brin’s later work. I would certainly not disagree with her that Brightness Reef (and presumably the next two parts of the trilogy as well), are darker than the other Uplift stories, with far less of Brin’s trademark humour or generally optimistic outlook. For me however, this made Brightness Reef if anything more compelling. Just as Deep Space 9 took the moralistic and utopian Star Trek universe to the far less utopian planet Bajor so they could include plots with war, atrocities and political intrigue, so Brin removes himself from the main glittering span of the Uplift universe; which wasn’t all that utopian to begin with, to deal with a smaller society on an out of the way and very alien planet, and thus take into account racism, hard line zealotry and hubris, indeed nasty though the Gubru were in The Uplift War, the villains of Brightness Reef are skin crawlingly loathsome, and thus require all the more heroism and courage among a cast of decidedly flawed protagonists to set against them.

If you’ve enjoyed Brin’s Uplift stories, needless to say you’ll also enjoy this one, indeed since the connections to Star Tide Rising are somewhat tenuous, you could potentially even start with Brightness Reef, though bear in mind you might have to absorb a little galactic culture along the way. Whichever order you read them though, you can be sure Brin won’t disappoint. Strong and complex characters, a truly alien and fascinating world, writing that is as intelligent as it is epic, this one really does have it all.

10/10 We come in peace shoot to kill

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