RogerBW's Blog

Startide Rising, David Brin 10 November 2017

1983 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction, second book of the Uplift series. In a universe where every known intelligent species has been "uplifted" to sapience by an earlier species, humanity is the sole exception, and it's breaking interstellar politics; if humans hadn't already uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees before first contact, it would be even worse. An exploration vessel from Earth (mostly dolphin-crewed, with some humans and one chimpanzee) has found something amazing, but has made a forced landing on an unknown world while evading alien fleets.

Although this was the second book published in this universe, it got much wider distribution than Sundiver, and was the first Uplift book that many people read (including me). It stands well on its own, with only some minor references to characters from the earlier book.

The main problem is that it's entirely schizophrenic as to viewpoints. Most of the humans get sections from their own perspectives (except the black guy), as do several of the dolphins, and every so often we jump into orbit round the planet to spy on the battle that's taking place as a random assortment of aliens (and their favoured technologies) fight it out to see who'll take the information for themselves. Multiple viewpoint can often work, but all these narrative voices (to be fair, all third person) sound the same.

But there's a lot going on: apart from the battle in orbit, the ship's crew are working on an escape plan, but they also have to solve a planet-puzzle in the vein of Poul Anderson, they find pre-sapient life, and there are factional splits among the crew. This leads to a common difficulty with multi-strand novels: inevitably the reader will find one line more interesting than the others, and be annoyed each time the narrative cuts away from it.

Sexual politics aren't a major component of the story, but what there is is icky. (This is not entirely surprising for those of us who've met Brin or heard tales of his antics at conventions; he's an unreconstructed 1950s white male American at heart.) One human female crewmember is being pestered by an amorous male dolphin; the only comment on this is that she shouldn't be (unknowingly) encouraging him. All the humans get laid (except the black guy and the evil scientist). On the racial side, the only character whose skin colour is mentioned is the black guy, and it's mentioned pretty much every time there's an opportunity; and all the mutinous dolphins are from a variant gene line, because apparently race is destiny. (Actually many things here come apart when you prod at them, including a survey group that's all in favour of safeguarding planetary ecology having casual access to atomic bombs.)

The action, when it comes, is decent, even if there's an error of a couple of orders of magnitude in one crucial figure ("lightened by megatonnes")… but it takes a while to get there.

This is a classic example of a trend I remember in 1980s science fiction: some really great ideas, and some really terrible writing and characterisation, not because (Clarke-style) the characters were just passive observers of awesome events, but because the author was bad at characters and didn't know it. Followed in the series by The Uplift War, and more directly by the second trilogy. Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 11:55am on 10 November 2017

    I've read the series, once, and thought they were OK, but not eminently re-readable. Too long for a start, but that's just one of my bugbears about books.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:27pm on 10 November 2017

    I read this and The Uplift War (which felt somewhat flabby even to me) when they first came out, and Sundiver shortly after I first read this. But I never felt any particular urge to visit the second trilogy; it seemed that the things Brin found interesting to write about weren't the things I found interesting to read.

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