Heaven's Reach by David Brin (The Uplift Saga)

Heaven’s Reach is the huge, bombastic and epic conclusion not just to the new Uplift trilogy which began in Brightness Reef, but also to the saga of all six Uplift books. Finally, it brings to an end the tale of the ill-fated Streaker and her long chase across the five galaxies protecting data about the mysterious Progenitor’s, the first of all sapient races to begin uplifting other species. It’s also; obviously, something I’ve been hugely looking forward to.

With the mathematician Sarah and Alvin the Hoon and his friends aboard, the Streaker races towards the newly created hyperspace transfer point out of Jijo’s system with the mighty Jofour battle cruiser still in pursuit. Aboard the Jofour ship, Lark and his lover, ex Rothen agent Ling are frantically trying to avoid pursuers lead by Ewasx, the being who was once the kindly traeki sage Asx. Yet, this region of space is not empty, and the oxygen breathing society of the five galaxies is not the only order of life. Both Streaker and the Jofour find themselves straying into the affairs of other more alien and more powerful beings, from the hydrogen breathing Zang, to sentient machines, and even older and enigmatic life orders with plans of their own. This is after all a time of changes when natural disaster looms over the five galaxies, a disaster which threatens not only Streaker but all of sapient society.

If Jijo was a hard world to describe in reviews, trying to sum up even a small part of the plot in Heaven’s Reach is nearly impossible. Brin has hinted before that there are other orders of life, even aside from the countless alien clans of the five galaxies, yet here we visit them in all their diverse otherworldly strangeness, from oddly delicate machine life, to the retired order, oxygen life forms who have given up galactic politics and star fairing for “the embrace of tides”, the almost religious ecstasy brought on by being close to the gravity well of a star. Yet Brin doesn’t even stop there. Our one major new character is Harry Harms, a Neochimp observer for the Institute of Navigation; a sort of galactic coastguard. Not only does the thoughtful Harry’s perspective give our first real up close and personal view of galactic society since the Uplift War, with a planetoid teaming with so many diverse alien species it makes the Star Wars Cantina feel uniform, but also Harry lets us explore E space, a level of hyperspace where mind and reality intermingle. With Harry we therefore come into contact with even weirder forms of life, predatory memes who attack each other with caustic arguments across surreal landscapes created from Harry’s own experience. Indeed, it almost feels as if Brin, knowing that we’re by now familiar enough with Traikee and Urs and all the other weirder types of aliens, (not to mention uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins), was trying to push the boundary of ideas right to the edge.

In another writer this might have ended up as either overly dry explanations of alien biology or simply weird for the sake of weird, but Brin’s ever shifting and erudite style is more than up to the job, giving us views of gleaming hyperspatial gateways or structures that make Dyson spheres look mundane. I know few writers who can both write with such scope and yet such music, discussing the destiny of sapient life in a manner that is as poetic as it is richly scientific. Indeed, though many writers have tried to depict a truly epic galactic scale disaster and near godlike alien beings with inscrutable concerns, Brin is one of the few who I can say absolutely succeeds.

Unfortunately, much as I adore huge great sf ideas and speculations on how different forms of life would interact with white dwarfs and neutron stars, all of this does come at something of a price, and not merely that Heaven’s Reach requires at least a little technical knowledge by the reader. Some reviews have dismissed Brin generally, and Heaven’s Reach in particular as far better at exploring huge sf concepts than plot or character. I do not agree, indeed no writer who could bring us characters as endearing as Alvin the literary Hoon and his friends or show a relationship as delicate as that of Sarah and the profoundly wounded Emmerson could be lacking in character or empathy. However, in Heaven’s Reach since Brin had so many giant concepts to get around, he did have a habit of focusing a little too heavily just on characters who would explore those concepts, to the detriment both of characters we love, and of tying up loose ends in the plot.

For example, Harry is a very likable character and his travails in e space negotiating obstacles like transcendental banana peels and memetic predators were wonderfully mind boggling, almost a nod to Douglas Adams, however having the focus on Harry, we frequently missed other characters views of galactic society.

Similarly, as matters get ever grimmer for the Streaker’s crew, other plot arcs we only see in glimpses or not at all. This meant that expected character moments simply don’t have the time to be explored as fully as they should’ve been, and after spending so much time on Jijo I would’ve loved to see what our Jijoan heroes made of meeting “star gods” first hand (or equivalent appendage). Indeed, some Jijoan characters such as the traeki sage Tyug barely appear at all.

Sadly Alvin is the only one of the younger cast to really get much by way of development or new relationships and yet most of that occurs off screen, including Alvin’s first romance and his meeting with bureaucratic galactic Hoons. This problem is particularly egregious with retty, since I for one was looking forward to seeing the bright, mercenary teenager get a good kick in her invincible sense of self-importance and perhaps learn a little compassion, and extremely sorry said kick never arrived.

Yet, the shame is that the glimpses we do get of galactic society, from the Sinthians, furry entrepreneurs who make Quark from Deep space 9 look generous, or the wonderfully strange mangling of human religious beliefs by some particularly balmy aliens are matters I would’ve definitely liked to have seen more of.

Another problem, with the focus being almost exclusively on the Streaker’s crew, is that we don’t really get as much personal impressions of the scale of some of the disasters this book as we should do. Indeed, despite some awesomely stellar views of the deaths of quadrillions, or some vague implications on how the break down in hyperspace might be affecting the five galaxies, emotionally I was far closer to the smaller scale but far more personal massacres perpetrated on Jijo in Infinity’s Shore.

Speaking of Jijo, it was also extremely sad that many loose ends simply got left hanging , from the Rothen ship still extant on the surface, to the implication that there might still be Jofour garrisoned on the planet. In particular, one plotline featuring a major malefactor is not only simply dropped, but dropped with the almost casual murder of a beloved character along the way, with the murderer not only getting off scot free, but also literally walking off the map afterwards, something which was not only dissatisfying but actively frustrating, especially as contrasted to the definitive and quite appropriate fate of another vile villain who happened to get in the way of another of Brin’s stranger sf ideas.

All that being said, this is till David Brin, and even when playing around with big colourful concepts he is still able to tell the stories of some very real and fragile characters a long way from home with pathos and poise. One episode featuring the biologist Lark’s efforts to understand and communicate with the extremely alien hydrogen breathing Zang represents one of the most beautiful sequences I’ve read in an sf novel for a long time, particularly since it deals with an extremely different sort of life and yet one which is as eager to communicate and understand Lark (including his love for Ling), as he is to understand the Zang. Another awesome moment features the confrontation between the wounded Emmerson and the old ones who previously mutilated his brain removing all speech, a confrontation fraught with heartache, heroism and hard choices.

My only minor issue where Emerson is concerned, is that I do wish Brin had been a little better describing Emerson and Sarah’s romance, since for such a highly literate writer with a knack for very human characters, suddenly talking of Emerson “finding her arousing”, or of Emerson “proving his manly desires” was like someone blowing a party noise maker in the middle of a symphony orchestra.

Yet, Brin’s ability to create tense situations doesn’t falter just because he’s exploring the edges of the concept of life, and unlike Infinity’s Shore the pacing here is full of tension and building crescendo, even if the lion’s share tends to be reserved only for the Streaker’s crew and those around them, since undoubtedly this is a world which is not safe, and where dire and alien things can happen to even the best of people.

The book’s ending is both truly and absolutely awesome, and yet slightly disappointing. Many of the huge questions are answered, or at least replaced with massive imponderables, and the long odyssey of the Streaker does finally come to a close and several characters get a rousing send off. We even learn a little of what the Streaker’s data means and why certain factions are so interest in it, albeit there are still plenty of questions to ask for potential future books.

The siege of Earth, an aspect of the plot already hinted at in several previous Uplift novels also comes to a rather ironic resolution; one redolent of Brin’s trademark humour (something doubly welcome given how quite literally universally grim parts of Heaven’s Reach are).

That being said, several other plot threads were left hanging rather badly, in particular, some looked for resolutions for several characters simply do not occur. Brin does include what he refers to as a lagniappe, a small gift to his readers following his author’s note showing the fate of two particularly memorable characters a year later. Unfortunately though, this only served to remind me that for so many other cast members the story felt so unfinished as to be actively upsetting, indeed if one series could’ve done with a few more happy endings, or at least conclusive ones, it is this one, particularly in finishing off Jijo’s story and that of certain members of the Streaker’s crew, people (and dolphins), some of whom we’ve been following since Star Tide Rising.

Heaven’s Reach is a very different book to the others in the series, indeed almost jarringly so. What began as a story of aliens invading a mostly primitive world in Brightness Reef and then morphed into an invasion story in Infinity’s Shore, suddenly leaves all those threads behind for a truly grand and galaxy spanning space opera.

I personally love grand galaxy spanning space opera, and Brin is a clever enough writer to make his depictions of universal destiny be both alien enough to be a bit disturbing, and yet not merely a cheerless reiteration of cynical solipsism as is the case in many other writers.

There is no denying though, that for people with less of an interest in playing around with big bold ideas Heaven’s Reach will not appeal as much. The lovable characters and intense action is still there, but not quite as strongly as in the rest of the series.

So, while I personally rated this book fairly highly, I could appreciate that for others the rating would be rather lower.

Still there is no denying for me at least, despite all of the loose ends and the character threads you don’t see, Heaven’s Reach was a massive ringing conclusion to a truly epic saga with more of the strange and alien than ever before, and at least some resolutions to the tale began all the way back in Star Tide Rising, (the plot even ties back to Sundiver as well), and as such it was a journey I was extremely glad to take, indeed since my biggest complaint here essentially boils down to “I wish Brin had written some more”, even Heaven’s Reach’s inequities show how much I enjoyed the book and would still recommend it.

9/10 There's life Brin but not as we know it

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