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Heaven    by Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen order for
by Ian Stewart
Order:  USA  Can
Aspect, 2004 (2004)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

On the planet No-Moon, we meet highly empathetic Neanderthal traders (long since evacuated from Earth) Smiling Teeth May Bite (May for short) and her friend Stun, as they wait for polypoid Second-Best Sailor to hit port - he's late as usual. Polypoids are delightful creations of the authors, as are all the sentient aliens in this novel. Male polypoids sail their boats 'from the safety of the water' and suit up to dare the surface, while their females are secretly sentient reefs who make the best electronics in the galaxy. Second-Best Sailor's mom is Crooked Atoll - all of it.

May feels forebodings 'that a great beast is coming to this world' and shares them with her mate Sharp Wit Will Cut on their Precursor starship (Precursor technology is ubiquitous, though not well understood). May's right. 'Cosmic Unity' is en route with a large space fleet, intending to 'bring the memplexes of universal joy and tolerance to yet another grateful world'. Sensing what's ahead, the reefwives make a decision ... 'Implacable resistance.' Along with plans to fight back, they bargain with the Neanderthals to evacuate a group of their males, along with living pieces of wife coral, to colonize another planet. Unfortunately they pick Aquifer. Unbeknownst to the Neanderthals, a secret Cosmic Unity monastery lurks under its northern polar ice cap.

On a ship with the space fleet, we meet a devout believer, an ordinary human named Servant-of-Unity XIV Samuel Godwin'sson Travers. Sam spends his shipboard time duplicating tools, whose purpose is unknown to him, along with regular worship in the multi-species 'Assembly of Joy'. Suddenly Sam is promoted to train as a 'healer' and sent to the Aquifer caverns, where he is soon assigned the responsibility for the spiritual health of a stubborn young Neanderthal girl. Gradually Sam learns things about his faith that challenge his beliefs. He discovers that he's being trained to act as a member of a future Inquisition, and is surprised by the nature of his religion's 'Heavens'. Violent clashes quickly accelerate on both Aquifer and No-Moon. Struggling to cope, the Neanderthals discover that their Precursor ship has surprising powers, once its crew reaches a certain 'ethical threshold'.

There's a strong satirical flavor to this SF novel, and an amazing variety of intelligent life in its universe, from Neanderthals and polypoids to a sentient pond and the galaxy itself. Though fascinating, their descriptions and the authors' ongoing philosophical commentary, do slow down the story. But it's worth the effort to persist to an ending in which a young polypoid named Fat Apprentice changes the course of history. Sam gains wisdom, quoting 'We should not reject the good because it has been attempted badly' and founds a new religion. And new life blossoms in the devastation that is No-Moon - in a young ('a mere twelve billion years old') Galaxy renewed to health.

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