War in Heaven, by David Zindell

war-in-heaven-by-david-zindell coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Bantam
Published: 1998
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by David Hart

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This is the last in the Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy, following The Broken God and The Wild. Danlo Ringess has returned to Thiells from his successful explorations of the Wild, bringing the bad news that the Iviomils, the fundamentalist wing of the Edeic Architect religion, have stolen a spaceship and the device that makes a star go supernova, and with it are likely to attack Neverness. He discovers that his enemy Hanuman has become the leader of the Ringist religion in the Civilized Worlds, and has corrupted both it and that part of the Order of Pilots that remained on Neverness. War follows, but Danlo is sent as part of an embassy to Neverness where, among other things, he takes part in the struggle to oppose Hanuman’s plans.

This book (unsurprisingly) shares the virtues and faults of its predecessors. The faults can be summarised by the word ‘overload’. First there is plot overload. Yes, I know it seems a strange thing to complain about, but the trilogy has too many major plot-lines, each of which might have been explored in a book of its own. Apart from Danlo’s inner journey towards self-knowledge and understanding (which I presume Zindell intended to be the books’ main focus), there is inherited from Neverness the Ieldra and their Elder Eddas — centre stage at first, then sidelined and finally subsumed into more general insights; there are the spacefaring Architects threatening civilization — almost ignored in this book; the rogue Iviomils — supposed to be a major threat but rapidly fizzle out; and the concept that much of the political strife of the galaxy is driven by the rivalries of the supercomputer ‘gods’ — this deserved much more development, but was dealt with mostly by hints and asides. And these are only the major plots; lesser ones include the inevitable love-story, the fate of the remaining Alaloi, the war in space and on Neverness, the Warrior-Poets and their philosophy, the principle of ahimsa . . . . .

But this is an enormous trilogy. Surely, you say, there is room for all this within its 2100 pages? Well yes there would be, were it not for the second sort of overload: word bloat. Brevity and succinctness are foreign to Zindell’s writing style. Furthermore he lacks the techniques that good writers develop to inform the reader about the story’s background or events off stage, without actually spelling out the detail. Zindell just spews it all out in clusters of enormous dense paragraphs of description or introspection. As a result, the good bits of dialogue or plot occur as islands in a sea of verbiage, with inevitable consequences for readability. In fact, though these reviews were submitted together, the books took me many weeks to read, with long gaps for recuperation.

What are the virtues? The space-opera aspect of the books is one. Zindell has created a cosmos that is both large-scale and detailed and has managed to describe much of it while, helped perhaps by the plethora of plots, still leaving a sense of mystery, a feeling that there is yet more unrevealed. For me, the best parts of the books were those where we were learning more about this universe, and I wish there had been more of them. Next there is the eastern mystical theme: that everyone has abilities deep within themselves that can be evinced by meditative techniques; that life is a whole, that death is an alteration of consciousness rather than its extinction. Zindell combines these notions with modern scientific ideas about matter and information to create a plausible-sounding fusion, a sort of physical theory of consciousness and memory. The final virtue is the last quarter of this book, where several of the strands of plot are resolved (or aborted), the action accelerates to a more normal speed, and I found myself actually enjoying what I was reading.

Should you read this trilogy? Were it not for the obesity of the writing, the answer would have been an unqualified “Yes”. As it is, you must decide for yourself. Read Neverness; then consider whether you can tolerate a similar amount of interesting matter diluted by three times the dross. I’m glad I read it, gladder still that I don’t have yet more of it to read.

There is almost a saying: Inside every fat book there is a thin one trying to get out. I wish it had succeeded.

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