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It’s usual to end a series first volume with a cliffhanger. Brightness Reef however takes that tendency to extremes, ending some plots with dire or game changing new twists, and simply cutting others off in their prime.
It isn’t surprising therefore that my lady and I weren’t slow about starting Infinity’s Shore after finishing the first volume of the trilogy. Before continuing with this review therefore, be aware that I will be discussing spoilers for Brightness Reef, and indeed for the previous uplift story Star tide rising as well.
As the book opens it seems Brin is directly dealing with all of those loose ends he left hanging. After subduing the heretic Dettingerr, Sara and the wounded Emerson, actually the engineer on the dolphin crewed star ship Streaker first seen in Star Tide Rising ; continue their journey to a hidden valley inhabited by a clan of horsewomen, whilst the Rothen agent Ling, now held captive by Lark her Erstwhile guide is forced to face hard questions about the Rothen’s motivations, especially when several Jijoan races contract a deadly plague. But the Rothen are not the only starfarers to come to Jijo. It is revealed that the Streaker has landed in Jijo’s oceans, where a crew of weary dolphins under the uncertain leadership of psychologist Gillian Baskin are desperately trying to keep the data they’ve learned about the ancient progenitors out of the hands of several greedy galactic clans. As Alvin, the adventurous young Hoon and his companions, saved from certain death by the Streaker’s crew try to puzzle out the identity and motives of their rescuers, another shocking development arrives on Jijo, a battle cruiser of the domineering Jofour, egotistical cousins of Jijo’s peaceful Traeki, a race who will stop at nothing to achieve their ends, in particular, the capture of the Streaker.
I admit, at the start of the book, I began to feel somewhat frustrated. Brightness Reef had top notch pacing, a fascinating and detailed alien world to explore, and a genuinely interesting culture under dire and immediate threat. The problem is, as Infinity’s Shore opens however, the pace of the action slows down exponentially.
In some cases this was due to Brin’s need to introduce new characters, such as Gillian Baskin and the Streaker’s crew, however in other cases it seemed Brin was delaying the action directly, having important meetings or revelations pushed back seemingly artificially.
Sara’s journey across Jijo felt far slower than needed, despite how appealing Sara and Emerson were to be around. Similarly, Alvin’s musings over the strange identity of the creatures that are holding him and his friends prisoner seemed to go on far too long, indeed since we as readers know the plot won’t progress until the Streaker’s crew have met up with other strands of the action, beginning by making themselves known to Alvin and co, this felt (appropriately enough for a ship crewed by dolphins), rather like treading water.
On the other hand, Brin pulls an exceptional sleight of hand with Asx. The Traeki; as congregate beings forms of stacks of sap covered rings each with its own individual consciousness, necessarily think and act somewhat slowly. With Asx however, the action seemed to slow to a positive crawl, reviewing previous events, prevaricating and in general obfuscating.
The actual reason for this is truly shocking. That Asx has been fitted with a Jofour master ring a phrase whose provenance such an erudite author as Brin definitely understood. Now fitted with an egotistical single consciousness which directly enslaves all of Asx rings, Asx becomes Ewasx, our main point of view character for the Jofour.
This possession is nothing short of horrific, especially considering we only have Ewasx perspective on what Asx rings are going through, and even more especially with both the stark differences, and genuinely disgusting similarities between Asx and EwAsx which mirror the differences between the Jofour and their peace loving cousins; hearing Ewasx speak of “my rings” in the same tones as Asx before threatening pain or pompously posturing is absolutely skin crawling.
Where the conflict in Brightness Reef revolved around trying to work out the true intentions of the Rothen, here the Jofour’s intentions are obvious. The Jofour indeed are truly alien, extremely nasty and so different to the Traeki that the contrast is as much a shock to the reader as it is to the people of Jijo. Indeed, with their single minded arrogance, their willingness to make any deal to achieve their ends and the occasional rather amusing short sightedness caused by that very arrogance, the Jofour reminded me strongly of the Daleks (at least in their better written appearances), which is never a bad thing and definitely insured that the action here would be even darker than in the previous book.
Towards the book’s middle section the plot did start to pick up speed. Part of this was due to the ominous presence of the Jofour and some truly horrific events, both perpetrated by them and by unpleasant elements on Jijo, and part of this was Brin’s continual ability to blindside the reader with new revelations. Though it took a needlessly long time to finally get Alvin and the Streaker’s crew talking to each other, eventually what is revealed about Jijo is quite astounding, and the hints we get about the misadventures of the Streaker’s crew following their departure from Kithrup in Star Tide Rising are tantalising in the extreme, indeed even though Brinn has not written any other stories set between Star Tide Rising and Brightness Reef, the amount of catching up almost feels as if there is a story missing, though whether this is a good thing or a bad thing I’m not honestly sure.
Part of the issue the book has with pacing is also down to introducing so many characters. Brin uses many character perspectives to show larger scale events or coordinated efforts, even if those characters have previously been minor ones or need to be introduced afresh. Being Brin, these characters do remain distinct for the most part, from Sara and Lark’s paper maker father, to the Streaker’s cyborg engineer. One problem however, is that since Brin knows the best way of making readers sympathise with characters is to have them go through personalised bits of privation; quite aside from the large scale unpleasantness going on on the rest of Jijo, he occasionally seemed to be tormenting his characters needlessly, which is quite a thing to say in a book that features possession, genocidal alien invaders, a genetically engineered plague, and acts of terrorism carried out by rabid ecological zealots.
Ka for example, the dolphin pilot is initially a slightly flat character right up until he has a horrifically doomed romance, while Brin introduces Falen, Dwer’s mentor in the arts of tracking just in time for him to be captured and tortured (along with two horse women bystanders whose fate is never mentioned). These casual bits of nasty wouldn’t be so bad if Brin had given them some kind of resolution, and indeed I still hope a few of these plots (such as Ka’s romance), will be dealt with properly in the third volume. I can however in this instance sympathise with my lady when she accused Brin of being a bit gratuitously grim in this book.
Brin’s need to show larger perspectives of sides or factions also fell into the trap of occasionally sidelining several characters.
Just as Alvin and co are starting to talk to the Streaker’s crew, their perspective dropped off the map for a while, similarly, despite dealing with their robot based travails, the misadventures of Dwer and the increasingly mercenary Retty seemed to drop entirely out of focus, only to appear towards the end, which is a shame since there are hints at relations between Dwer and members of the Streaker’s crew that are never explored, and though Retty has a few sarcastic asides about her time with the dolphins, it would’ve been nice to see her interact directly; indeed one of the nastier previously mentioned character torments would have been perfect to resolve with Retty.
One of the plus points however, is the writing style. Brin again gives most of the characters distinct and unique voices of their own. Jijo remains as beautiful and alien as ever, particularly when we start to discover hitherto unseen parts of the world or learn mysteries about its people, and from the reminiscences of the Streaker’s crew, we get a sense of the wider universe as well.
One thing I particularly admire about Brin as a stylist, is that he is clearly a massively intelligent author, who expects the same level of intelligence from his readers. Not just in his philosophy of Uplift and galactic clan politics or his tossing off millions of years of galactic history and knowledge in a breath or two, but also in his ability to say so much about a character, a situation or an idea in such a short way. For example Alvin’s enthusiastic description of the Streaker’s escape as “like snatching the crown jewels from under old Richelieu’s nose”, which is not only a wonderful mangling of Alexander Dumas, but also tells you exactly how the book loving Alvin thinks about events.
Some people have criticised Brin for falling into the trap of making humans in his galaxy a little too special, and yet the contrasts between so called “wolfling” science and philosophy, from a race who grew up without a patron and the rather stodgy galactic way of thinking are highlighted very nicely. To say Brin is able to be so dark about events and show so much by way of ugly factionalism, the fact that he retains a guarded optimism about humanity as a hole despite how scummy some individual parts of it are is really rather; well, uplifting.
One mildly irritating thing, is that Brin’s attention to both plot and character seems to be slightly uneven. Lark and Ling’s story receives wonderful development and attention all the way through, going to some quite surprising places, and though on occasion she seemed to be dragged along for the ride the growing romance between Emerson and Sara, especially given that in this volume we finally learn how Emerson received his horrific injuries, continues to give the story a bit of lightness.
On the other hand, Brin spends a rather inordinate length of time discussing the building of an analogue computer, likely an interest of his as an astrophysicist, but not something I was overly patient with given I’d much rather catch up with what beloved characters doing or what atrocity the Jofour might perpetrate next, and other major elements of the plot he introduced seemed to apparently be forgotten.
The book’s final few hours and conclusion also felt somewhat odd. One strategy against the Jofour is planned out and executed in detail complete with consequences, indeed I got to pat myself on the back for guessing it ahead of time. Yet, two planned elements are suddenly introduced, hailed as forms of salvation and put into practice in a huge and needlessly spectacular way (particularly since they partly mirrored the conclusion to Star Tide Rising). Admittedly, both of these elements were necessary from a basic mechanical perspective to get certain characters where they needed to be and setup the book’s third volume as being a likely different story to what we’ve seen previously, but still, the fact that some elements of the plot were forgotten and yet these new stratagem suddenly came out of the blue made things feel a little rushed, especially given a few apparently abrupt time skips.
Of course, some aspects of the conclusion were beautifully delivered, particularly since even though he had a lot of plots to deal with Brin did take a little time out to show the emotive and tangible significance of at least a few of his revelations and developments in a truly glorious scene, one which was a celebration of Jijo as a setting and culture.
Brightness Reef was an absolutely memorable and awesome tale, a science fiction novel which truly deserves the status of classic. Carrying on that standard would’ve been difficult, especially with so many new elements to introduce. While I admit I’m a little disappointed that the series seems to have taken a slight slump, at the same time there is no denying this was a really amazing book in its own right, with alien, awesomely evil villains, a range of shocks to the system, and characters you really come to care about, even if Brin has picked up a case of what Mrs. Dark refers to as Martin’s disease, getting you to care about a character just so he give you an emotional left hook when something bad happens to them, quite apart from all the generally bad stuff happening anyway. (If Brightness Reef was apocalyptic fiction, then Infinity’s Shore is War of the Worlds or the Dalek invasion of earth, the aliens are here, and it’s not just tourist attractions that are going to get blasted)
Hopefully, with a tighter focus in the next book Brin will be able to pull matters together, give some of his characters some needed closure, and resolve some of the more barbed plot hooks he’s left dangling, which will make for an epic conclusion to both this trilogy, and the Uplift saga as a whole.
There's sap rings on the starboard bow, scrape 'em off Jill
Review by Dark
8.6/10 from 1 reviews
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