During our honeymoon, one thing my lady and I did was begin reading David Brin's The Uplift War, one of her favourite science fiction books, and one which, she assured me, I'd definitely like. It bodes well for our future married life that my wife obviously knows me extremely well, since undoubtedly like it I did.
One thing I really appreciate in science fiction, are aliens who are truly alien. This is actually harder to accomplish than one would think, since simply sticking in a few Viking traditions and Cornish pasties on the forehead, or some squirming tentacles and a propensity for exploding tourist attractions doesn't give that sort of profoundly frightening, slightly off true inhuman thinking that we would expect of a creature from another world. David Brin however not only gives us an entire, and distinctly alien galactic culture full of races with their own unique ways of acting, speaking and behaving, but even a very earthly race who are far from human.
The Uplift War is set in Brin's larger Uplift universe, a universe where humans are unusual in that they've achieved sentience without a superior patron race guiding their evolution. Not only are the five galaxies full of a variety of alien races, but galactic clans, in which one alien race "uplifts" a client through a combination of eugenics and training to become another sentient species who can then begin uplifting clients of their own. Therefore, while some characters in the book are human, many are nio chimpanzees, or Chims as they're called, human's new client species.
The main plot of The Uplift War involves the invasion of the human colony world of Garth by the Avian Gubru, who are bent on discovering the native Garthling species and adding them as a client race, making humanity lose face in the process. While the book is undoubtedly structured as a typical adventure/war story with a small resistance attempting to foil a large occupying force, neither group are quite as you'd expect. The Gubru are far from being a homogenous evil empire, and the motives, thought processes and interplay of the Gubru command structure make up a large part of the book, indeed I give Brin a great deal of credit for the fact that even though this is clearly a war in which there is a right and wrong side, the Gubru are more than simply just evil for its own sake and not only their motivations, but the implications of both the war and the resistance on a galactic scale are something which receives a great deal of consideration.
Indeed, this is not a book for people who don't want to get fully immersed in an alien world and culture, although Brin is more than careful enough to explain a deal of this, and have characters who are examining the galactic culture for the first time themselves. One thing I truly admire about the world Brin creates, is that he manages to portray the idea of not only a very ancient galactic civilization, and one with perhaps higher moral standards in part than your average 21st (or at the time of publication 20th), century humans, but also one which is distinctly dangerous. Even the more advanced and older alien races are not just godlike beings of infinite wisdom, anymore than the Gubru and similar nasties are simply scientific demons. Brin's gift for diversity and for showing paradoxically the human side of alien races is something extremely rare in science fiction authors.
In the resistance to the Gubru occupation, Brin follows several characters such as Robert Oneagle, one of the last free humans, Athaclena a teenaged and partly psychic daughter of the Tymbrimi ambassador, and Fiben Bolger, a laconic Chim space pilot. Most of these characters are not only representatives for their races, but also have their own journeys to go through, journeys which are often than not humorous, from the grumbling Fiben's forced participation in a Gubru obstacle course, to Athaclena and Robert gradually realizing not only their feelings for each other, but how to become competent leaders of a planet wide resistance.
The story is compelling, surprisingly light, and often adventurous, with a background containing a sweeping galaxy large enough to satisfy any love of the exotic, despite the fact that the action is for the most part confined just to the planet Garth, though again here Brin's world building is exceptional, given that Garth is a planet very much with its own ecology, history and plant life. I also give Brin a large amount of credit for his efforts at misdirection in his plotting, not just for his readers, but for his characters as well (this is not a war where all plans succeed or fail or everyone has complete information), indeed many of the major plot turns in the novel rest on misdirected actions, and produce a lovely unexpected "Aha!" moment when revealed. It’s also notable however, that while things are by no means straightforward, neither did I ever feel lost in too many convolutions either, which is quite an achievement for a book with such a political slant to its action.
My only minor issue with the book, is that to an extent Brin does not make the war feel quite as urgent as it should, indeed many of the battles and more military actions occur in time skips, and thus have something of a less immediate quality, although Brin is too careful a writer to have everything feel too safe. While Brin's style is often wonderfully ironic and adroitly humorous, he sometimes misses the darker nuances of his subject matter, meaning often your imagination needs to fill in the blanks as to how bad certain aspects of the war are, though for the record my lady disagrees with me on this point and prefers that the book did not get too dark.
I also felt that while Brin does a great job with several actual Chim characters, some of the background Chims, especially those in the resistance were a little too much of the Victorian "happy to serve" mentality, particularly looking up to two teenagers to lead a resistance movement, though in fairness this is something Brin does acknowledge himself and attributes it to the patron/client relationship between Chims and humans which exists in that culture, and in no way do the human characters (or at least the more pleasant ones), treat the Chims as either disposable or inferior (quite a contrast to how the Gubru treat their own clients).
In some ways The Uplift War is not an easy book. Rarely have I run into an author with quite the level of world building, detail and politics that Brin employs, and to fully appreciate many of the attitudes, manoeuvres and steps in the book it's necessary for a reader to at least absorb a little of this culture. Fortunately, he combines this with humour (several chapters had my lady and I in fits of laughter), action, adventure, and the age old trope of a war against overwhelming odds, albeit one with a decidedly unexpected course, a unique outcome and conclusion and far more than the usual "evil empire" vs. "small band of heroes" that you might expect.
With a plot that takes unexpected, and often quite uplifting (forgive the pun), twists, especially for animal lovers, a compelling cast of characters, and a fast, expanding pace, this is a science fiction classic I'd highly recommend, and I look forward to revisiting Brin's Uplift universe in the future.
Review by Dark
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