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.]