Brightness Reef (1995) by David Brin

BrightessReef1Huck shrugged two stalks, as if to say she couldn’t be bothered with petty legalistic details. (62)

Set within his Uplift Universe crowded with sapient species, Brin abandons the Earthling-dominated dolphin-chimp-human narrative for something less familiar and (slightly) more alien. Like Startide Rising (1983), it still feels youthful, even childish, which makes it hard to take seriously at times, and when it does get serious, sometimes the dump of moral entanglements and plot movements musses up what could be a fresh little tale.

I felt a twirl in my heart-spine. (94)

The supposed-to-be fallow planet of Jijo is secretly home to eight alien races of illegal settlers, including a tribe of Humans. Many of the sooners (yes, the illegal settlers are called sooners. they also love football and frakking…) live in a precarious alliance with one another, having little in common but relying on the truce to conceal their presence from Galactic law, while other groups choose to pretend pre-sentience. But suspected Galactic investigators arrive and the future of the races on Jijo is threatened.

…leaving just one buried in her well-thumbed copy of Lord Valentine’s Castle. She groaned. (240)

The most enjoyable thread is “Alvin’s Tale,” a group of mixed race adolescent aliens who obsess over human fiction, particularly American classics and science fiction, while on the constant lookout for adventures. They adopt human names. They adopt human mannerisms that don’t quite match their body parts. It’s unrealistic (and too humanistic) that cultural artifacts from humanity, like fiction and the word sooner, would influence so many alien races, in such a far future, but it’s a humorous thread, the only one that easily kept my attention. Plus, the subtextual commentary on cultural hegemony is relevant to current events.

Ur-Jah’s voice trailed off as Lester, the human, rocked his head—a simple gesture of negation lately fashionable throughout the Commons, among those with heads. (34)

…but the commentary is undermined when all peoples of the Eight Great Races (aka aliens!) behave in such human ways, without reciprocal human adoption of non-human cultural habits. Humans: the galaxy’s Ugly Americans.

(And this observation did bring to mind the unfair comparison of Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of the Spacewoman (1962), which has the coolest assortment of non-humanish aliens ever.)

BrightnessReef2“Because we uplifted ourselves, without the help of a patron?”
Ling laughed. “Oh,
that old myth!” (160)

The overarching question that haunts the entire series: Who, if anyone, uplifted Humanity to sapience? mirrors current debates on evolution, and even reminds me of the “It was aliens!” guy who just can’t quite comprehend human ingenuity (and the hard-backed labor of a duty-bound peasantry) but, yes, the Maya actually did that. And, yes, Egyptians actually did that. It’s another point that catches my eye when it starts to glaze over from the plot of this guy doing this and that girl doing that. So, lots of this and that going on, I guess is what I’m saying.

–in the long run, the Universe as a whole owes you nothing. – The Scroll of Hope (621). (Not relevant to what I’m saying. I just like nihilism. Especially around the holidays.)

Lots of characters, lots of threads, and not enough emotional development, internal conflict, or philosophical pontificating to foster reader empathy or to justify the high word count. The external conflict lacks the intensity to hold a casual reader’s interest. Like the last Brin I read, the light fabric of the tale doesn’t match its unwieldy structure. It will feel miresome for any reader not intimate and/or obsessed with this Uplift Universe.

13 thoughts on “Brightness Reef (1995) by David Brin

  1. fromcouchtomoon says:

    And now that I read this and think about it, I wonder if maybe there’s not enough plot for all those threads… it’s an awful lot of hiking here and talking there…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember really liking these when I was a kid—they’d be the ideal kind of thing to gift to a teenage relative. I didn’t think the second Uplift trilogy was as good as the first, though, definitely more for readers obsessed with the universe. (Not as bad as Kiln People at least.) And I haven’t read any of them in a dog’s age, so I expect to be a bit disappointed whenever I return.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I would have loved these when I was younger– maybe as a preteen. And I did enjoy Alvin and Huck and their obsessiveness with sci-fi and their little human affectations. It makes me smile to think about. I was detached from the rest of the threads, but I do tend to like Brin’s female (human) characters better
      than most. Startide Rising was definitely more dramatic and enjoyable, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The only Uplift novel I’ve read it Uplift War, which I read earlier in the year. I loved it. Will make my favorites list this year. I went and picked up several of the others, but haven’t bothered to dive into them. Sorry to hear this one doesn’t completely satisfy.

    I didn’t find it troublesome to not have read Startide Rising before Uplift War, though I usually don’t read books out of order. I did this time because we were reading it for a SF book club.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I felt the same with Startide Rising– I did not read the prequel, which I heard was not as good, yet felt grounded enough diving into the middle. You might find the stories more satisfactory than I did. I nearly dismissed Startide, too, but there is a darker sense of drama that eventually caught my attention. This installment lacks particular flavor.


  4. Joachim Boaz says:

    I enjoyed this series as a kid. But then again, I loved everything Bring wrote but haven’t returned to him since. For obvious reasons — scared that my love will VANISH 😉


    • Joachim Boaz says:


      (well, I have to modify this statement. I read The Kiln People as you know — and was old enough to absolutely hate it. I am sort of scared that will happen again).

      Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I suspect your love will vanish, too. I even struggled with Startide, but the cast had more dimension than this book. I suspect there is some milking going on with this series.


  5. I love the idea of the aliens who obsess over human fiction. But otherwise I still remain unconvinced that I ever need bother reading Brin. My 55-year-old neighbor is obsessively reading all of his books right now. Puzzling, considering what you all are saying about loving him as a kid but finding themselves not loving his work so much as an adult reader.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, no. Plenty of other things to read before you get to him. I don’t get the adult obsession with young-feeling books, but apparently it’s snobby to say things like that.


  6. […] way through Bob Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mansplainer, meh’d my way through David Brin’s Brightness Reef, and crept my way through Sheri S. Tepper’s insidious world of […]


  7. […] Brightness Reef by David Brin – Brin returns to his award-winning universe of uplifted animals working side-by-side with humanity. Brightness Reef brings us new drama, this time among illegally settled sapient tribes on a fallow, cordoned planet. The story is crusty, even lacking the more tension-laden dramatic moments from Startide Rising, but I can’t imagine this series being for anyone other than kids. […]


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