Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The (second) Uplift Trilogy: Review

Alright, so you may have surmised from my last post that I really enjoyed reading Brin's second Uplift trilogy.  Brightness Reef (1995), Infinity's Shore (1996) and Heaven's Reach (1998) contain so many thought-provoking ideas wrapped up in an exciting plot, how could I not rate it highly?  [This is yet another example of how I need half steps in my rating system--I would give it 4.5 hamsters if I had a suitable graphic!]

First off--do you need to have read the previous Uplift novels to make sense of the story in this series?  The answer is definitely not as the essential details (particularly the events of Startide Rising [1983]) are revealed as remembrances of the characters.  But, on the other hand,  it certainly couldn't hurt.  I read the first Uplift books many years ago and had only a vague remembrance of the plot, and I did just fine.  The better question is why haven't you read them yet anyway?

The story opens on Jijo, a backwoods planet that has been declared fallow by the galactic Institute of Migration so that its ecosystem might have time to recover after use by its former inhabitants.  Here we find a society forged by members of six species (of which humans are one) who have independently colonized the planet for different reasons but with the same intent--to drop out of galactic society.  Unauthorized use of the planet is, of course, highly illegal in the eyes of galactic law.  As a result, the colonists have forsaken galactic technology and strive to leave no mark upon Jijo that might give them away from space. These circumstances have led to the development of a uniquely Jijoan religion based around the hope of regressing to a pre-sentient state by fostering a more primitive lifestyle.  If this state can be achieved, perhaps the Jijoans will be discovered by a new patron species and uplifted to a more perfect state.  This concept permeates every aspect of Jijoan culture.

Despite a somewhat fractious pass, the sooner species have forged peaceful bonds, united in their striving for redemption in the form of devolution.  This fairly idyllic life is shattered when a starship descends to the planet surface in the middle of an annual gathering of the six species.  It is soon discovered that these newcomers are not agents of the galactic government, but are, instead, criminals looking to raid fallow planets for species that may be ready for the uplift process.  This revelation sparks a fierce debate among different Jijoan factions, and the first half of the trilogy deals with the upheaval caused by the conflict.

Unbeknownst to just about everyone on the planet, two other spaceships have also arrived on Jijo.  The Streaker, from Earth and crewed by uplifted dolphins, has been on the run from most of the galaxy for several years following a spectacular discovery with implications for the identity of the revered Progenitors (detailed in Startide Rising).  The second ship, from the feared Jophur clan, has arrived in pursuit of the Streaker.  Streaker's predicament slowly transitions to the fore of the plot and drives the action for the remainder of series when a group of Jijoans are caught up in the trouble and forced to leave the planet.  It turns out that the Streaker has a pivotal role to play in deciding the fate of not only humankind but that of galactic civilization at large!

The characterization of the dolphins aboard Streaker is definitely one of the high points of the novels.  They are imbued with just the right blend of playfulness and intelligence.  This often comes across in the haiku verse (named trinary) that the neofins use to communicate with one another aboard the Streaker.  Also enjoyable was our first experience with hydrogen breathers, the second major order of life in the galaxy.  The idea of a wholly separate division of life above the species level really grabbed me when I read the first Uplift books, and I was hoping it would get explored further in this trilogy!

I'm not sure that I've done the novels justice above, but I hope it comes across that I thoroughly enjoyed this trilogy for both its bold ideas and wonderful writing.  This will teach me to combine three reviews into one next time I read a trilogy...it turns out to be harder than I thought!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The (second) Uplift Trilogy: Introduction

No, I haven't abandoned posting to the blog!  After nearly a month, I'm back to review not one but three novels: David Brin's "new" or "second" or whatever-you-want-to-call-it Uplift trilogy. Unlike the previous three  novels set in the Uplift universe, Brightness Reef (1995), Infinity's Shore (1996) and Heaven's Reach (1998) share a continuous plot from book to book.  For this reason, after finishing the first novel, I decided to review the series as a whole.  To make this a less monumental task, I'm going to break the review into two parts:  an introduction to the Uplift universe and a review of the three novels themselves.

Are you looking for a literary universe with mind bogglingly cool ideas?  Well, David Brin has more of them than you can shake a stick at in his Uplift novels!  I really don't even know where to begin.  The essential feature of his universe revolves around the idea that more advanced starfaring civilizations "uplift" presapient species by directing the final stages of their evolution into an intelligent species.  This is, of course, done through genetic and social manipulation over the course of many years.  Once uplifted, the species is considered a member of galactic civilization in its own right but is indebted to and remains part of the "clan" of their patrons.

It is commonly believed that a mysterious race known as The Progenitors instituted the Uplift process up to a billion years ago before disappearing without a trace.  This has led to the development of a number of different belief systems based around the fate of the Progenitors, and, indeed, the ultimate fate of all galactic species.  In galactic society, the purpose and fate of individuals is rarely considered important (or even considered at all).

Humans are relative newcomers onto the galactic scene, having made contact a few hundred years prior to most of the events in the Uplift novels.  They are one of the rare species (known as wolflings) who have managed to bootstrap themselves into the stars without the help of a patron species.  The lack of patrons to guide and protect humans as they establish themselves puts them in a very rough spot among the rigid caste system that dominates every aspect of galactic life.   Luckily, humans had already began the process of uplifting chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins before making contact with galactic civilization.  This gives them a little more cred than the few other wolfling species have had in the past.

In the Uplift universe, life in the linked galaxies is divided into several orders of life.  Not only are there oxygen breathing species, but also those that utilize hydrogen to sustain life (I won't comment on the biological feasibility of this concept).  Suffice it to say that the two groups don't get along well.  The Institute of Migration, an arm of galactic bureaucracy, coordinates oxy interactions with hydros, even going so far as ceding them whole swathes of galaxies to avoid conflict.  While hydros were tangentially mentioned in the first three Uplift novels, they play a far larger role in the second series of novels.  In addition to the two organic forms of life, there are a number of other orders that oxygen species have so far had limited interactions with:  machine, quantum, memetic, etc.

The age of galactic civilization is staggering, with at least a billion years of history going back to the Progenitors.  Starfaring civilizations have, therefore, been gathering and refining their knowledge for many hundreds of millions of years, collecting it in a repository known as the Galactic Library.  This knowledge is communicated using a set of standardized languages that have been refined over the eons to transmit information as efficiently as possible between species with vastly different auditory, visual, and vocal organs.  The languages vary from a series of pops and clicks that most any species produce (with tools if necessary) to higher level languages more akin to what we humans would call "talking."  Because of these highly ordered information conventions, most species take the opinion that "everything that is done has been done before," thereby reinforcing the conservative nature of society as a whole.  Needless to say, this conflicts with indomitable human nature and becomes one of the central themes of the Uplift novels.

Are you getting the drift here?  Brin has created a rich and vibrant universe!  I could list ten other provocative ideas he describes without even trying.  The Uplift novels have a bit of everything--hard biology and physics with a large dose of sociology, anthropology (or species-pology?) and psychology thrown in.  I highly recommend all six Uplift novels--they are both well written and thought-provoking and rank among the best that science fiction has to offer!

[Next time:  an actual review of the second Uplift trilogy.]