Dolphin starship pilots! Chimpanzee scientists! Hordes of vicious aliens! And a fleet of billion-year-old warships connected to a galactic conspiracy. 1984's Hugo-winning novel Startide Rising has everything — yet something important is missing.
Hello, and welcome to Blogging the Hugos! It has been some time since we last convened, and I believe a note of (re)introduction may be in order. So:
Blogging the Hugos is a series of posts discussing each Hugo Award–winning novel in chronological order. We started way back here, with Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man; you can follow along through the successive books by way of the links at the bottom of each post or the handy menu at the side. (If there is no handy menu at the side, click the words "Blogging the Hugos" near the top of this post.)
Most recently, Isaac Asimov aficionado Alasdair Wilkins and I completed an epic review of all seven of the Good Doctor's Foundation books. And then I got very busy, and that is the reason for the dearth of hot Hugos action round these here parts over the past few months. (It is an adorable reason.)
In the beginning, this series ran biweekly, and I hoping we get back on that schedule again at least until the upcoming winter holidays. For updates and links to the newest posts, there is a Twitter feed to follow.
OK, then! Now let's talk about Startide Rising.
First, I read this book and made my notes back in late May/early June, right around the time we were getting ready to have a baby, and then actually having the baby, and then trying to find a buyer for said baby. (Ultimately, we changed our minds; this is a horrible economy in which to try to sell a baby.) I do not apologize for not writing this post sooner, because as the new parents among you know, there was just no frickin' way. I have gone over the book again, but if I make any mistakes here, I hope you understand that I have had other things on my mind, and obviously, I invite you to correct me (not that you have ever needed an invitation, gentle readers).
Second, I've said it in other posts but will say it again: This novel is part of a series. David Brin wrote Sundiver before this one, and I haven't read that; my understanding is that you don't need to, to appreciate this one. (And my overall philosophy about series is that you generally shouldn't have to read the other books to appreciate just one of them, no matter where it falls in the order, although reading the others certainly might help you appreciate it more.) But if you are tempted to comment that "Oh, he explains that in Sundiver" — I mean, that's fine, comment away, just don't hold it against me for not knowing it.
Thirdly, Wikipedia informs me that Brin revised Startide Rising in 1993. My copy was published in 1987 (it's actually the Earthclan omnibus, which also includes 1988 Hugo winner The Uplift War), so I will be writing about the original version.
Here's my opinion in a nutshell: I admire this book, but it didn't resonate with me. I think there are two reasons why, but first let's talk about all the stuff it does awfully well.
Chiefly, there's the setting, Brin's Uplift Universe. I like space opera, and I especially like really big space opera, where distances and years are measured in millions, billions, or other illions, and there's plenty of room for what should be momentously unforgettable events to be lost to memory, leaving us with lots of interesting backstory, obscured by the mists of the ages.
The Uplift Universe gives us that in spades. Its Five Galaxies are populated by countless species, each of whom — with one notable exception — was "uplifted" by a patron race: evolved to the point of sentience and welcomed into the interstellar community, for the relatively small price (considering the time scales we're dealing with) of 100,000 years of indentured servitude to their patron. For patron species, collecting client races to uplift is a way of increasing their own power and prestige. And though there are institutes whose role is nominally to prevent patrons from abusing clients and to maintain order throughout the stars, they're as about as effective at reining in powerful offenders as most human governments have been.
The most powerful of these galactic agencies is the one that runs the Library, an information network dating back to the time of the Progenitors, the oldest intelligent species in the universe, who began the tradition of uplift and then mysteriously disappeared. In theory, the Library ought to have information on just about anything big that's happened in the last several billion years, but in practice this isn't the case. Occasionally, it's just wrong; more often, the Library Institute plays politics, withholding data from some races or covering up events it believes are better forgotten.
For example: There doesn't seem to be anything in the Library about the armada of ancient, moon-size spaceships the protagonists have stumbled upon just before Startide Rising opens.
Our heroes are the crew of Streaker — humans and uplifted dolphins and a chimpanzee. Humans, naturally, are the one race that doesn't seem to have a patron. Either we evolved on our own and then brought the dolphins and chimps up with us, or some mystery species got us partway there and then abandoned us during Earth's prehistory. Whichever it was, our status as an orphan "wolfling" race has made us enemies of all but a handful of the Galactics.
Streaker, the first spacecraft run by a dolphin crew (humans are along to advise, but officially in a subordinate position), discovered the alien fleet and recovered a strange mummified corpse from it, and then unthinkingly broadcast news of the find over telepathic radio on an open band, alerting all those unfriendly Galactics to its existence. At the start of the book, Streaker has fled to the water planet Kithrup, and is hiding deep below the waves, while multiple bad guys fight it out above them in outer space. Whoever is the last race standing will be able to zoom down and find Streaker, make the crew reveal the ancient fleet's location, and then, presumably, kill them. The crew needs to escape before that happens.
Brin switches perspectives throughout the book, letting us see through the eyes of not just the various characters down on Kithrup, but also the alien forces. And those alien sections were by far my favorite part of the story. I dunno — it's the same thing that makes it more fun to play the Zerg than the humans in StarCraft, or the Mos Eisley cantina scene one of Star Wars's most memorable. There's surely a profound way to analyze it, like something about "the Other" or how such monsters are dark reflections of ourselves, but mostly it just boils down to: Done right, aliens are really cool. (Not to mention: Villains have more fun.)
Brin does it right, offering what feels like a Fiend Folio's worth of Galactic species: The hatefully fanatic insectoid Tandu, and their awesome clients, an Episiarch (a race that psychically defies physical reality, making instantaneous space travel and more possible) and an Acceptor (a spider-like psychic that lives to observe new happenings). The dark-loving Brothers of the Night. And most especially, the reptilian Soro and their coldhearted grand admiral Krat, a pregnant female with a penchant for murdering her own people. Then, too, there are a few Galactics who like humans, like the Synth and the mischievous, inscrutable Tymbrimi. I could happily read a whole mess of stories about all these guys that didn't mention Earth at all.
That is one of my problems with Startide Rising. Its backdrop and supporting cast are so enthralling, I frankly got antsy every time the narrative switched back to Streaker's crew. It doesn't help that the good guys' story line is, although neatly structured and deftly executed, kinda rote.
After an alien battleship gets knocked out of the heavens and tumbles to the ocean floor, the crew determines that their best shot at escape is to maneuver Streaker inside it and lift off, hoping the disguise buys them enough time to get the hell outta there. So half the crew jets over to the battleship to repair it, while the others conduct research on Kithrup and ultimately uncover a mystery involving the planet's geology and biology that reeks of ancient atrocities committed by some patron race and covered up by the Library Institute.
Now, the story is just packed with intriguing notions. For example, the dolphins (or "fins," or "fen") speak three languages, one of which is organized in haunting haiku-like verse; they practice a form of mental exercise called Keneenk, meant to keep their more playful, primitive sides in check. (Brin does an outstanding job of characterization with all the fen, giving them each their own personality but making their overarching dolphin-ness indisputably apparent.)
But much of the plot itself is standard genre rigmarole. The senior human on board, Tom Orley, has to venture off alone to do recon and distract the aliens who've landed on Kithrup, if the escape plan is going to work. As soon as he leaves, some of the fen crew members mutiny, putting the dolphin captain in a coma. And will it turn out that the mutineers are the product of illicit genetic experiments, conducted by a misguided human scientist on Streaker, who is convinced he's too smart to be doing the wrong thing? You bet it will.
Brin handles the material well, and he's hardly the only writer to use such tropes — just a couple books ago in this blog series, we saw a similar betrayal-from-within plotline in C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station. But Cherryh let hers play out a little longer, and the result was that the traitors eventually found themselves too ensnared in their own machinations to get out, to very satisfying effect; she also writes a richer villain in Jon Lukas, fleshing him out just enough that we almost feel sympathy for the bastard. Brin's treacherous fen Takkata-Jim and K'tha-jon come off more as simple bad seeds (the latter literally is one, actually). His characterization draws a lot of praise in the reviews I've read, but I'd say he goes just as far as he has to, and no further: We understand who the characters are, and we see they're not cookie-cutter — but still, they don't ever surprise us. That's a shame, given the niftily unpredictable universe they inhabit.
(They're kind of like characters in a solid action movie, really. In fact, Startide Rising is cinematic enough that I wonder, particularly since it was written right around the time everyone must have been trying to replicate Star Wars' success, if Brin was actively aiming to get his series adapted to the big screen. There are even a couple scenes at the end — one where a bad guy goes almost comically sailing past the enemy aliens alone in a ship he can't control, another where the escaping heroes give the raspberry to the Galactics — that feel like they were torn straight out of an '80s SF flick.)
That is part of why the novel doesn't resonate with me. The other part is something that could be a matter of personal taste or a matter of the intervening twenty-some years between when the book was published and when I read it.
In Brin's universe, man, are the human beings great people. Like, instead of using the Library to learn how to build awesome starships like all the species that hate us have, the humans decide to design their own, because they don't want to come to rely on the Library like a crutch, as so many older races do. Similarly, they treat the uplifted dolphins and chimps much more kindly than other patrons treat their clients, according them legal protections and full status as conscious, more or less autonomous beings.
My memories of 1984 are faint and vague (I was eight), but this is about in keeping with how stories went back then, especially genre fiction and especially genre fiction that resembled an action movie. This was the era when Gene Roddenberry's vision for humanity was reaching its popular peak. I mean, a Star Trek movie about time-traveling to save the whales was accepted by the general populace without the bat of an eye. (This is not a dig on The Voyage Home, which is in my opinion a wonderful film.) This was shortly before "We Are the World" would dominate the radio and U2 would play Live Aid. This was the decade of Russkies.
So the book is of its time, but even knowing that, it is very hard for me to engage emotionally with a story where humanity wears such a near-unequivocally white hat. It just does not ring true. Maybe I'm a rude Gus, but one look at the headlines on any day of the week makes it impossible for me to imagine a future where almost all the true monsters lurk out in space, wearing claws and leathery skin.
I feel like Brin goes too easy in Startide Rising. Oh, there's a body count, but it's not high, and except for one sacrificial lamb, the major characters who get it in the end deserve it. And there are rumblings about how even if Streaker escapes, Galactics have already started taking out all the human settlements in an effort to get at the secret of the ancient fleet's location; but they don't strike the note of despair news like that should. A moment where Tom Orley's wife, Gillian, has to win control of Streaker back from the mutineers? Despite all her worries about how it will go — well, it turns out not to be that hard. Even concerns about how poorly humans treated dolphins before the fen were uplifted are brushed off. The animals simply say there's no resentment on their part because they understood that being predated upon was a reality of nature. That may be an interesting idea, and consistent with the dolphin worldview Brin has created, but it still feels like he's letting us off the hook.
Let me close by noting that (1) I have strenuously avoided drawing an analogy between my belief that a greater struggle would lend more weight to this story, and my observations after four months of living with a baby about just how tough it is to grow up into full sentience — and given some of the crazy pseudo-deep shit I have written in these posts in the past, I feel like you should be very grateful for my self-restraint. And (2) I would absolutely recommend Startide Rising to others. At least two people whose taste I trust had nothing but positive words for the Uplift Saga, and it garners high reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, so I suspect that if you're not as cranky a bastard as I am (and probably you are not), you'll dig it. And even if it didn't quite ring my chimes, I'm looking forward to The Uplift War a few posts from now. If nothing else, I want to find out what's the story with the ancient fleet of moon-size ships. So: Well played, Brin, well played.
Blogging the Hugos is a series examining the Hugo Award–winning novels in chronological order. In the next installment: Neuromancer, by William Gibson, from 1985. Follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI.