Critical Mass

Unwary readers who plunge recklessly into David Brin's fat new "Uplift" trilogy – Brightness Reef, Infinity's Shore and Heaven's Reach, all from Orbit – will soon feel out of their depth. Although this trio extends over nearly 1,900 pages, one plotline is laden with a further intimidating weight of back-story from the 1983 Startide Rising. (It's permissible to skip the other series novels Sundiver and The Uplift War.) There ought to be a system of government health warnings about snags like this.

The Uplift series has a vast galactic setting – extending in fact over five galaxies, although this situation is soon to change – with lots of contending alien factions. These gain status and power points by being "patrons" who "Uplift" animals to intelligent sapience. The process isn't as altruistic as it sounds, since uplifted "client" races are expected to work out the indenture through millennia of grateful slavery to their patrons.

One of Brin's major premises is that, as so often in the comforting tradition of sf, humans are awkward sods who don't fit the universal pattern. We appear to be a unique "wolfling" species which has bootstrapped itself into sapience without assistance from patrons. To most galactics, this is heresy, thoughtcrime, and very probably a fraud – so claimed patrons of humanity play important plot roles in more than one book.

Shameless Terrans have even usurped the privileges of galactic patrons and cheekily done some unauthorized Uplifting of their own, the beneficiaries being chimps and dolphins. It's the first dolphin-crewed starship Streaker which stumbles on an ancient fleet of derelicts not recorded in the official histories, possibly built by the fabled Original Progenitors who two billion years ago began the whole cycle of patronage and Uplift. Merely carrying the information of this discovery makes Streaker a coveted McGuffin pursued by dozens of galactic heavies who (perhaps a little farcically) spend most of Startide Rising beating hell out of each other in space – battling for the right to make this important capture, while the ambush-damaged Streaker is shaken by mutiny and more exotic problems at the bottom of a planetary ocean.

The series' vast time-spans, deep secrets and long-buried conspiracies are boggling if not always terribly plausible. One client race in Sundiver turns out to have concealed its inbuilt super-powers for millennia, until at last the time came to reveal them when David Brin needed a climax for his first novel. An important idea in Startide and the new trio is that of fallow planets, evacuated and proscribed for aeons until all remnants of contaminating technology have passed through the tectonic document-shredder. It's not just the trilogy's main world Jijo which is fallow, but the entire surrounding galaxy. There are Hidden Reasons for this, buried at last half a million years deep – and likewise for the fact that while the rest of this galaxy remains empty, six (or seven, or eight) races have illegally settled on Jijo, which is also the latest hidey-hole for the still-pursued Streaker....

Like E.E. "Doc" Smith in his prime, Brin is lavish with the piling-on of improbabilities. Just as every ultimate weapon in the Lensman sequence is sooner or later countered by a more ultimate one, each revelation of galaxy-wide Uplift secrets and conspiracies tends to be undermined by deeper secrets on a larger scale. Jijo isn't just a wild and beautiful world but a repository of mysteries, the home of an evolving planetary consciousness, and a stage on which the master plan of its long-gone inhabitants the Buyur is meant to be played out. Brin even manages to top the now-routine sf trope of ultimate transcendence – with whole advanced cultures moving beyond the slums of mere matter and energy – by hinting that this too may be recycling, which converts the over-ambitious and over-sophisticated into basic cosmological mulch. Nice one.

"Back to basics" is also the official creed of those variously guilty races of settlers on planet Jijo, who are supposedly atoning for their crime of being there at all by un-Uplifting themselves and devolving into presentience. Indeed, one species has already got there. Little do they know that rather than the long-feared discovery and judgment by a vengeful galactic community, the interesting times ahead include fraudulent patrons, genocidal vendettas and Streaker....

Brin drives his story forward at what soon becomes compulsive, page-turning speed, by intercutting between many engaging characters whose scenes end with narrative teasers if not outright cliffhangers. One strand features a mixed-race party of Jijoian youngsters whose alien members have names like Huck, for Huckleberry Finn, and Alvin, perhaps for the hero of Clarke's The City and the Stars. (The libraries of Earth are a major human contribution to Jijo's cultural melting-pot.) They quixotically set out in a makeshift, leaky submersible to recover forbidden technologies long since dumped on the ocean floor, only to bump rather literally into mysterious six-legged cyborg entities and an inexplicable hologram presence. These – again it helps to have read Startide – respectively prove to be dolphins in their mechanical land-walking frames and the visual interface of the Niss Machine, a querulously sarcastic AI lent to Streaker by one of Earth's few advanced allies.... And so on. Although these books are so hefty, the narrative is still crowded and breathless.

It's also rather fun. Uplifted dolphins may have lost their permanent "smile", but still regard humanity as enormously amusing and are apt to convey wilful near-insubordination in sassy haiku. Chimps, still subject to species discrimination, are morbidly sensitive about falling into stereotyped ape/monkey behaviour such as – even for survival – climbing a tree. A man deprived of his speech centres by yet further scheming galactics can only express himself in song, rousing dark suspicions that the planet was named solely in anticipation of the daft moment when during a supreme communal effort he bursts into, "Jijo, Jijo, it's off to work we go ..."

Another seriocomic situation involves the Jijoian settler race called the traeki, gentle group creatures resembling conical stacks of slimy old inner tubes, each ring being one element of the symbiosis. Out in the galaxies, traeki have been superseded by a variant race that was Uplifted a second time to make them more dynamic and purposeful – that is, fascist bastards. When these "Jophur" invade Jijo, they upgrade one of the established traeki with a right little Mussolini of a "master ring", overriding the unassertive lower-case "i" of symbiotic consensus with a bullying, domineering ME. The Jophur plans for planetary outrages and atrocities are related through this absurdly vain master ring, with other rings' protests implied in constant capitalized asides about THE VERY GREAT IMPORTANCE OF ME. Occasionally you detect the bulge of a tongue in the author's cheek.

For all their low-tech lives and religious bickering about how far and how fast to walk the backward path, the "Six Races" community of Jijo provides an admirable, liberal contrast to bellicose galactic rivalries. The traeki (as emphatically distinct from the Jophur) co-exist with their ancient enemies the g'Kek, wheeled beings designed for space habitats and at this time extinct everywhere else in the Five Galaxies. The centaur-like urs and vaguely humanoid hoons have similarly abandoned another traditional feud, with the former (incapable of swimming) coming to love the sea and the latter (proverbially incapable of fun) learning to loosen up. The crab-starfish qheuens have shaken off the yoke of their horrible old caste system. The sixth race is humanity, which apparently needed no improvement. A seventh exists, the glavers, revered as holy fools for successfully reverting to animal level. Meanwhile – secrets again – a further species of seeming animals conceals hidden intelligence. But of course.

In fact, the Six Races form a kind of ideal commonwealth which would be well suited to expand through their empty galaxy if it weren't that everyone is cowering in fear of discovery (their townships mined by skilled "explosers" for expiatory detonation and return to the wild should the galactic authorities arrive) – and if it weren't that invaders following the trail of Streaker have discovered their refuge. Only a violent rearrangement of the entire known universe could possibly isolate the Fourth Galaxy and leave Jijo in peace. Heaven's Reach duly rumbles with doom-laden side effects of cosmological expansion (or maybe of something else), which are wrecking ancient space-refuges like the Fractal World and by a startling coincidence look set to rearrange the entire known universe. Well, I never.

In short, the new Uplift trilogy is grand space opera in the approved kitchen-sink mode, which throws absolutely everything at the reader, adds a spice of mysticism, and makes you like it. Weird spatial bolt-holes, unlikely life-forms and bizarre weapons abound, and of course the seemingly backward Six Races improvise some nifty attacks on invaders laden with vastly superior armour and firepower.

But he's a canny fellow, is David Brin. Despite socko cosmic revelations right, left and centre, he still remains cagy about the precise significance of the ghost fleet whose discovery by Streaker began all this ruckus ... and likewise the oddly human-like mummy retrieved from those "Original Progenitor" vessels. He doesn't even resolve the long-dangling plot thread involving the separation of two lovers at the close of Startide Rising: some 1,900 pages later, they're still in the dark about each other's fates – indeed, we're in the dark about one of them. To lay bare another deep and sinister secret of the many-splendoured Uplift universe, Brin admits to planning further sequels.

For all its tortuous narrative coils and exhausting length, the trilogy offers much enjoyable reading. Whatever next?