David Brin,
The Uplift Saga #3: The Uplift War
(Spectra, 1987)

Warning: if you are not a fan of novels that deal in ideas rather than mindless shoot-'em-ups, which trade in complex concepts and mysteries rather than simple plots, or that take their time to develop three-dimensional, motivated characters rather than offer thinly drawn, unimaginative dimbulbs whose chief function is to chew cigars and shewt them thar alien critters, then this book is not for you. However, if you are a fan of those things, then The Uplift War is something you should read, if you haven't already. This novel is one of David Brin's finest, brimming cover to cover with the things that make science fiction great: rich world-building, characters that leap off the page and make you care about them, tight plotting, aliens that are truly alien rather than just humans in suits, and enough credible science to please a bevy of MIT grads.

The novel is set in Brin's Uplift universe, introduced in his novel Sundiver and fleshed out in his Hugo-winning Startide Rising. Uplift War won the Hugo as well, a considerable achievement ... and while it is not quite as good as the book that preceded it, it is still a thoroughly excellent novel, which benefits from being both part of a great series of books, and being a novel that can be read as a stand-alone.

Anyone interested enough in Brin and the Uplift universe should know something about it by now; for those who don't, they can glean all they need to know from any of the other Uplift books. The simple explanation is that every species in the Five Galaxies has been uplifted or raised to sentience by another race, except for the "wolfling" human race. As a result, humans' place in the galactic political structure is uncertain at best. And humans, aided by their own uplifted clients, chimpanzees and dolphins, have a knack for stirring up trouble.

In the case of The Uplift War, the Five Galaxies are in turmoil because of an important find made by the dolphin ship Streaker -- a mummified corpse nicknamed Herbie that may be one of the fabled Progenitors, the race that first uplifted a client species billions of years ago, and the location of the derelict fleet where Herbie was found. (All this is dealt with in far more detail in Startide Rising, and though it isn't necessary to read that book to enjoy this one, you may want to do so anyway because it's just as good.) Streaker and its dolphins never make an appearance in The Uplift War except by mention, but the repercussions of their discovery are a chief motivator for everything that happens.

The novel is set on Garth, a planet nearly destroyed by its last owners, a client race that reverted to feral status and ravaged it. It was given over to humans mostly as a cruel joke by the other Galactics -- the planet is on the verge of dying, and if it fails, it will be a human failure, furthering the arguments of those who want to reduce men to clients. But because war is erupting across the galaxies, Garth has gained strategic importance -- especially if it can be seized from the humans, and its large population of uplifted chimpanzees can be made to forsake their human patrons in favor of another race. This is the plot of the Gubru, birdlike beings that invade Garth near the beginning of the novel, plunging the planet into chaos and putting its residents under martial law.

Among those residents are Robert Oneagle, a captain in the Planetary Defense force and son of the Planetary Coordinator; Fiben Bolger, a chimpanzee ecologist and lieutenant in the militia; Uthacalthing, the practical joke-loving Tymbrimi ambassador; his spirited daughter Athaclena; Kault, the newly-arrived Thenannin ambassador; Gailet Jones, a chimpanzee sociologist; and Sylvie, a chimpanzee who becomes one of Fiben's companions. They are thrown together in various interesting combinations as humans and chimpanzees fight a guerilla war to free Garth, and uncover the Gubru's plot to replace men as chimpanzees' patrons. A secondary plot is the race to discover and adopt a mysterious, unseen race known as Garthlings. There's also a developing relationship between Robert Oneagle and Athaclena, an intricate jest planned by Uthacalthing, explorations of the various aliens on Garth, action galore and more mysteries than you can shake a banana at.

Brin handles it all with aplomb and intelligence. He lets the story develop at its own pace -- something I find far preferable to the forced pace of most SF. Along the way develops his characters, and their stories, in truly masterful fashion. Most impressive, aside from his adept handling of the Tymbrimi and Gubru characters, is what he does with the chimpanzees. As he did with the dolphins in Startide Rising, Brin takes animals we have unconsciously anthropomorphized for decades, and creates for them an intelligence similar to, yet wholly independent from, what we think of as human. Brin makes an entirely new species out of his "chims," and the more you read about them the more fascinating, and enjoyable, they become. Of course, the same can be said of all the characters in the book, but the chims are the heart of this novel, much as the dolphins were in Startide. They make the book what it is.

One of the things the book is, is long. At more than 600 pages it's pretty darned big, and there's a little fat here and there that Brin might have been able to safely cut -- but this is a minor fault, in the end. The Uplift War is an excellent, intelligent novel, an exhilarating page-turner that exemplifies so much of what is great about science fiction. Just writing about it has made me want to read it all over again, and higher praise than that I cannot give.

book review by
Jay Whelan

30 April 2011

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