Down The Bright Way - Robert Reed

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Down The Bright Way
Robert Reed
Orbit Science Fiction
ISBN: 1841492558 (Amazon link)

One word review: whee!

I picked this up after reading the interesting fix-up novel Sister Alice a few weeks ago. Initially, I had thought that this was Reed's new book, but it seems it was first published back in 1991. This makes me wonder why I didn't hear about Reed until the recent issue of Marrow, because Down The Bright Way is a very good SF adventure. It's been a while since I read a SF novel which grabbed me by the collar and kept me glued to a chair until I finished it. Down The Bright Way is a hard novel to talk about in detail without spoilers, but here goes:

Earth is not unique. There are millions of Earths out there, each one different. They all shared a common past up to a point, and then their histories diverged completely. Most have human inhabitants, but they come in many different forms. These Earths are all linked by The Bright Way; buried in each Earth's crust are ancient patterns of exotic matter which enable those with the correct technology to travel along the Bright Way to the next, or previous, Earth. The first Humans to discover the Bright Way were the Founders, a peace loving farming race who managed to build a stable civilisation much earlier that most. One of the Founders, Jy, now leads an expedition along the Bright Way to find the enigmatic Makers, those who originally made the Bright Way, and about whom almost nothing is known.

Jy leads her band of Wanderers to each Earth and negotiates small parcels of land on which to set up portals. On the way through, each civilisation is made aware of their place in the grand scheme, but denied access to the Bright Way until they can become properly civilised, which means establishing a lasting and stable world peace. In the meantime, Jy's Wanderers freely give certain technological Gifts to help each world with medicine, pollution control and other civilising tasks. Ever mindful of how their arrival could utterly disrupt the society and history of a world, Jy and the Wanderers are masters of political spin, always cautious of their effect, mindful of past failures.

Down The Bright Way opens as we follow one Wanderer, Kyle, on his daily life on what looks like our Earth. Kyle is a curious example of a Wanderer, not least because he has a girlfriend, the bright but naive Billie. As the novel opens, young Billie has managed to talk a post-coital Kyle into taking her along to meet the revered Jy, something Kyle seems oddly reluctant to do. Billie's abrasive, seen-it-all-done-most-of-it-too room-mate, Janice, warns her friend to be careful, that she doesn't really trust Kyle. Each of these three characters is beautifully drawn, even for the minor role of Janice, with Reed managing to create a compelling opening in just a couple of pages.

From this start, Reed widens the scope with a few more characters - Jy, the ancient female leader of the Wanderers, Quence, one of her oldest and most trusted lieutenants, Cotton and Molak, two off-worlders who clearly aren't Wanderers, and whose motivations are clearly hostile to Jy and her mission. From here, Reed proceeds to pull the rug out from under the reader - first he sets up a sketch of his world, as seen from the viewpoint of one character, then he switches to another and shows you how you were wrong in your understanding. After the couple of these initial twists you think you realise what the real story is, but then Reed just widens the focus and shows you how the wider mission of the Wanderers is itself not as simple as it might appear, and how everything has a complicated history in which real people acting within their nature can't help but destroy any attempt at building a peaceful Utopia. There are no goodies or baddies in this story, things aren't that simple. What I liked most about this book was that as the plot develops we're still seeing events from one of a handful of very different viewpoints, each carefully delineated from the others, each with its own bias. Within each reference frame, that character's own actions always seem sensible and reasonable, even when what is proposed might drastically affect the very fate of Humanity. I loved the gradual increase in scale; at first, events are local to one person, to one morning, but with each page the stakes seem to increase until we get to a classic SF ending let down only slightly by a minor excursion into Hollywood action adventure at a climactic moment.


Posted: Sun - October 26, 2003 at 01:20 PM