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War in Heaven

by David Zindell

(HarperCollins Voyager, £6.99, 791 pages, paperback; published 15 February 1999.)

cover scan

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 interstellar gossip.

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 very quickly.

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 genuine.

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 fellow indeed.

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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