The fundamental theme behind David Brin’s various Uplift series of novels makes me feel uncomfortable. But that’s a good thing; one of the strengths of science fiction is that it can be used to explore uncomfortable themes without the associated cultural baggage.
The Uplift series explores race and racism without obvious reference to the terrible history of the first half of the 20th century. This allows Brin to consider this deeply disturbing subject without the baggage of antisemitism, or other living anti–X cowardices which so poison the question of race in the modern world. He can look at the core principles of race and racism and explore their core characteristics, exposing the unavoidable genocidal characteristic underlying the attitude, without invoking the clouds of violent passion caused by recent and contemporary world history. Those clouds? So many governments stoke fear of foreigners to keep their population distracted from the real cause of their problems, those very governments.
In the Uplift universe, intelligent species are almost always “uplifted” by others, changed from dumb animal to intelligent animal by another species’ biotechnical intervention. But the newly uplifted species remain in the debt of the uplifters, and that species that has to pay off the debt. Individuals do not matter a hoot; your fate is determined by your choice of parents. Race is at the core of the culture of the five galaxies.
One thing that isn’t explored is the difference between race and nation, something particularly relevant in our contemporary world. In these novels, species is race is nation. It’s a pity, but there’s a lot to chew over in any case.
Brightness Reef is set on an isolated planet, Jijo, in a galaxy left fallow for wildlife to recover and develop new candidate species for uplift to appear. Renegades and criminals from varies species, “sooners”, have arrived to illegally settle Jijo. Different species arrive at different points, and fall into racist war with each other. But after the last species, humans, arrive, and after more wars, a “commons” is established in which the various species live together, in a tense peace, in service to their common religion & planet, not their species. This is something of a cross between an American experience (lots of different peoples arriving from outside and coming together to create a new society) and the European experience (lots of warring tribes exhausted by total war and working together instead). Underlying the commons is the uniting religion: each species has given up their advance technology so they can devolve back to animal status, so future aliens can uplift them again, having lost the sins / debts that currently stain their species. At least, that’s the religious ideal.
Then along come a bunch of starfaring aliens, with their starfaring technology, to stir things up. These are criminals, not here to join the devolution, but to steal biological material for illegal projects. Unfortunately, these criminals need to cover their tracks by eradicating the existing population. They try to go about this by creating false divisions between the peoples of Brightness Reef. These false divisions invoke false fears that sound much like the false fears raised by nationalists and racists in the modern media. Brightness Reef is relevant.
These criminals are human and Rothen, who claim to be the species who uplifted humans. What interests me in particular is that the Rothen are presented in the same way as racists present “aliens within”, and that presentation isn’t questioned. The Rothan, here, are the jews of the uplift universe (or should we say muslims now?), and that’s one thing that makes me particularly uncomfortable about this novel. But it’s sci–fi, it’s exploring these themes, it’s bringing the attitude to attention without the usual baggage. This is interesting indeed. That the “jews” are the ones sowing the fears reveals the underlying truth: using the race card is all about gaining, using and abusing power, dividing your perceived enemies, making them fall. The divisions are fake. The people you are encouraged to hate are your natural allies; the real enemies are those wanting you to hate.
The adventure is good and told well, with many characters taking their part in its progress. There’s much jumping between characters, but the tales are all pretty much contemporary to each other, and they’re not difficult to follow.
The different races are physically different. I enjoyed imagining their physical experiences, there are some deliciously inventive ideas in here. However, the psychological difference is much smaller: a matter of timbre, not depth. This disappoints me, as always: it’s so rare to see genuinely different ways of thinking in sci–fi, unfortunately. Even so, relative to too many novels, they’re inventive and enjoyably different aliens.
A key character is a man who’s undergone a very serious head injury, losing his ability to speak. His stark injury is dealt with interestingly and sympathetically. He needs to be mentioned, but I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about such injuries to know whether his portrayal is accurate. However, his psychological experience is stranger than those of the alien characters. I think this reinforces my opinion of the weakness of the psychology of the aliens.
One of my favourite characters is a young “hoon” who has the good taste to be very fond of 19th and 20th century anglophone literature. He calls himself after Alvin, from Clarke’s The City and the Stars. A friend calls herself Huck, a name to give a taste of their particular adventure. I have to thank Alvin for his description of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a description of the novel that describes what I love to find in poetry.
Brightness Reef is not a standalone novel, unless you don’t mind some seriously unanswered questions. It is well written, adventurous, ambitious, tight and with enough depth to sustain and entertain. I certainly enjoyed listening to George Wilson’s narration, and found it good. I will follow up with the other books in the trilogy when I can. This book’s worth an exploration.