by David Brin
(Tor Books, 2012)
Reviewed by Michael Woods
Usually, when I rate a book only three stars, it means I just barely managed to enjoy it. This book actually gets 2.9 stars, which means it has some redeeming qualities, but overall it just seems to miss the mark for me.
What is good and that I enjoyed includes some very interesting characters, a well developed not-too-far distant future society envisioned by the author, and an intriguing mystery that at least initially captures the reader’s interest. The pace has a tendency to start out slow as Brin introduces you to multiple characters essential to the story and allows the reader to become familiar with the near-future setting. He even managed to keep me interested with all these up until the middle of the story.
But Brin has an unfortunate tendency to leave out a lot of what would be interesting plot details. What happens to several of the characters is not something we witness directly through the narration but we learn about only after the fact – sometimes through other characters – and what we learn is something we wish Brin would have taken the time to describe to us as it was happening. This after-the-fact method of storytelling leaves the reader feeling disappointed as if they just missed out on something big.
Another problem I have with the novel is, although it is peopled by several very interesting characters, Brin never utilizes them to their fullest potential. A good example of this would be Ping Xiang Bin and his wife Mei Ling, the Chinese “shoresteaders” living in the remains of a city sunken by rising ocean levels. They find themselves caught up in world changing events, are separated from each other, and have their own separate adventures. However, Brin never reunites the two of them in front of the reader’s eyes, although we learn later this must surely have happened. The two of them drop inexplicably out of the story and, again, we feel like we’ve missed out on something.
But the biggest disappointment of them all is the aliens. If you’ve come to enjoy Brin, as I have, mainly through his Uplift series of novels, what you have come to expect is a well developed alien society, full of very vivid depictions of the aliens and their various cultures. Expect none of that in this work – it’s not even clear what the aliens even look like in this novel!
In the end, the reader finishes the novel – not because of any sympathy for its characters or anticipation about what happens next – but just to get it over with. Brin seems to be far more interested in developing abstract concepts better left to a work of nonfiction than to the kind of concrete details that bring a story alive.