War in Heaven
(HarperCollins Voyager, £6.99, 791 pages, paperback; published
15 February 1999.)
I'm suffering from that perennial
ailment of reviewing whereby you inevitably end up having to read
only the final part of any trilogy. Although a big old-fashioned
infodump would have been nice at times, I was fortunate this time
that if you're prepared to live with a few holes in your understanding
of events and background then there's nothing to really spoil
your enjoyment (just like reality!).
Book Three of A Requiem for Homo
Sapiens, which itself follows Zindell's first novel, Neverness,
War in Heaven is able to stand by itself. Although it didn't
make me necessarily want to snap up Books One and Two, I'm certainly
intending to read Neverness.
The story is huge and complicated:
suffice to say that Danlo wi Soli Ringess is returning as an ambassador
to the world he grew up on and left behind, hoping to stop a cataclysmic
war between a new religion (called "Ringism" and based
upon the teachings of his father, a now absent god) and an ancient
secular academy. This is all counter-pointed by vague warnings
of a war between supremely advanced galactic entities, generally
recognised as gods, of whom we frustratingly hear nothing but
Most of the book's events in fact
take place on a surprisingly low-tech level, given the wonders
Zindell sometimes off-handedly refers to, but he's concerned with
examining the gap between technological and primitive Man. It's
a small gap, apparently, with the wonders of technology nothing
but window dressing to our fundamental nature.
It took me a long time to warm to
Danlo, and much suffering on his part.
He isn't a particularly interesting
character; his tendency to preface everything he says with "I
", and his bleating pacifism really began to irritate
However, with a bit of patience you
can rest assured that such idiosyncrasies aren't just a substitute
for real depth. Similarly, try and tolerate Danlo's worst excesses
of shamanistic nonsense and his pain and grief seems quite frighteningly
It's been a long time since I sympathised
with a character as I eventually did for Danlo. Which, compared
with my initial dislike for him, makes me think Zindell is a clever
If David Zindell were ever to bump
into Greg Egan down the pub then I'd love to be there, if only
to pick up the pieces afterwards. The two of them are absolute
diametric opposites. A one on one prize fight between Zindell's
humanist pastoral SF vision and the relentless hard extrapolation
of Egan would be something to see. Egan is one of the bravest
SF writers we have; however Zindell is also, in his own way, very
nearly his equal.
Zindell's writing does have many
similarities to that of Olaf Stapledon though, in that a great
deal of War in Heaven is a spiritual quest after the meaning
of the universe and the role of life therein, with science and
technology mostly as background. The difference between the two
of them lies, I think, in their different nationalities (Zindell
is an American). The narrators of Stapledon's cosmic voyages were
very English, detached observers of a universe indifferent to
life, whereas War in Heaven owes a sizeable debt to the
19th century American Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman. Danlo
is very much "down and dirty", wrestling with pure physical
reality, eating raw bear meat, empathising with the spirit of
bears, relishing the great outdoors, all that kind of thing. I
was actually surprised to find that Whitman wasn't quoted in any
of the chapter headings since the Bhagvad Gita and the Bible,
both favourites of his, are.
Danlo's narrative voice is the main
similarity to Whitman, not least (and as you'd expect) when Danlo
is undergoing his revelations as to the nature of life, the universe
and everything. The message being, no matter how cynical you are
(and I'm pretty cynical), a hopeful one based upon some reasonably
elementary physics applied to "Life" on a cosmic scale.
Danlo spends many pages realising this. Importantly he doesn't
preach his conclusions though; we tag along as he realises them,
which was a crucial difference for me.
I got a lot out of this book, which
is not quite the same as saying that I loved it, but almost as
high praise. The fact that there's even a moon-sized supercomputer
which I just couldn't help but visualise as the Death Star edges
War In Heaven up from a B+ to an A.
Review by Stuart Carter.
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