Monday, July 26, 2010

2010 Hugo Nominees

A quick rundown on the 2010 Best Novel nominees:

One thing out of the way: Boneshaker is a zombie movie, put into text. It's a well-written, well-plotted, interesting zombie flick, but it's difficult to avoid the feeling that this is a novelization of a B movie, with the well-worn cliches that this implies; there is fog, things jump out at ragtag survivors at inopportune moments, and so on. As in many of this year's nominees, the real star is the city - a steampunk Seattle, covered in corrupting mist, populated with the few diehards who wouldn't leave their homes after the zombifying disaster; their underground world, seen from separately from the eyes of a mother and child is simultaneously terrifying and enchanting. B

What I've seen of Robert Sawyer's work has been characterized by interesting ideas, tripped up by poor characterizations and occasional (to be kind) ham-handedness. www:wake continues that trend, following the development of a collective intelligence in the Internet, as seen through a mis-configured ocular implant of a blind girl. Characters aside, where my earlier gripes apply, Sawyer throws out quite a few tidbits of neat math and computer science - Zipf's Law comes to mind. Unfortunately, these might as well be copied directly out of the Wikipedia pages, as they don't really cohere, or create a great deal of insight into the plot. Spider Robinson also tried the whole sentient Internet gig, with less technical mumbo-jumbo and more interesting characters - see Callahan's Legacy. B-

I wanted to like Julian Comstock. A conservative Christian dystopia, with an evil empire headquartered in Colorado Springs? Hell, I'd write that book. But Wilson not only didn't managed to reproduce the brilliance of Spin, he also managed to turn an adventure story into a slog; the novel's intentionally slow-witted narrator and the faux-oldtimey speech don't help. Much of the world he creates, which has reverted to a roughly 18th-century technological level in the aftermath of oil exhaustion and environmental catastrophe, seems skimmed in equal parts from other post-apocalyptic and industrial revolution fiction. A Canticle for Leibowitz, in particular, does the "distortions of past events become gospel" trick quite well. B-

Since I hadn't managed to finish China Mieville's Perdido Street Station yet, I wasn't expecting great things from The City and the City, and my expectations dropped further when I saw the dedication namecheck Raymond Chandler and Kafka side by side. Surprisingly, that pairing actually gives a reasonable impression of the book to follow, which is more a study in fantastic absurdism than a novel of science fiction or fantasy. Though the gumshoe parts aren't the most original, and the ending is a little unconvincing, I don't think I've seen anything quite this bold, or insane, in quite a while. A-

To my knowledge, Palimpsest sets the record for most sex scenes in a Hugo nominee. Surprisingly, this never feels exploitative - the end result of a plot in which access to a fantastic underworld is sexually transmitted. It's a pity that an equally appropriate title, "Sex and the City," was already taken, preventing me from making puns on Sex and the City and The City and the City. Valente's work has a real lyricism, with beautiful sentences and a dreamlike, but brutally real alter-world, though at times the writing devolves into something stylishly overwrought. Her characters strive and sacrifice, but the novel doesn't reward them with a satisfying finish, stopping all too abruptly. B+

Like Julian Comstock, The Windup Girl is a story about adapting to a world of scarcity; energy and safe food sources are precious as oil is exhausted and mutating plagues scour genetically modified foods. Bacigalupi's particular fixation on food problems occasionally becomes overbearing, and there are some science issues (I can't imagine using large animals to generate electricity ever being efficient, even with massive carbon taxes), but the half-medieval, half-modern Bangkok is a remarkable setting. The characters are mostly not sympathetic, but I don't see that as the point; in Windup, science causes catastrophe and prevents it in the same breath, and each character is trying to come out on top, while their own self-interest keeps Bangkok on the edge of disaster. I should note, though, that the experiences of the "windup" herself, a genetically-designed secretary/sex toy, are more than a little horrifying, but it's almost played out as erotica - which is a little unsettling. The character and her nightmarish job make sense in the world portrayed, and given the cruelty of the other characters - it's not in there for prurient interest, exactly - but nevertheless, the tone is questionable. A-

For the Hugo, I keep switching between The Windup Girl and The City and the City, as the former is probably a better all-around novel, while the latter is a more interesting work that inspires a great deal of fairly weird thought.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Spin (2006) and Accelerando

Space is, as Douglas Adams noted, big. Depressingly so, if you're a hard science fiction writer. Earth is a good few light-years away from anything interesting, and so a lot of space opera handwaves faster-than-light travel, gleefully ignoring relativity and providing the ability to skip across large swaths of space. Spin and Accelerando take a different route, playing with our ideas of time, making stories (mostly) isolated to the solar system have a much larger scope. They are both excellent books - and beyond that, have very little in common.

Robert Charles Wilson's Spin is, at its heart, a classical slow puzzler like Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, where the protagonists try to decipher all of the consequences of "the night the stars disappeared from the sky." It also holds the record for the shortest time to fascinate me of any of the books I've read so far, from the first chapter heading: "4 x 109 A.D." Spin only has one idea (which I won't spoil), but it's a new idea and well-developed; the book captures some of the audacious joy of discovery, as if you were watching Bohr and Heisenberg debate quantum mechanics.

The first time through Spin, I was mostly charmed by its central idea, but on the second go-round, I started to appreciate how well it did everything else. The alternating present-and-flashback storytelling moves a plot that might be a little meandering otherwise, and the characterization is excellent. Spin covers a period of many, many years, but by keeping the narrative focused on three friends, Wilson builds a very strong emotional center to the novel. Wilson creates a profound mood of uncertainty, tracing society's response to events that might be either millennial or apocalyptic, and at the same time matching it with the personal growth of his protagonists. Of the books I read (for the first time) for this project, Spin is probably my favorite.

Accelerando is Spin's polar opposite; think Neuromancer if you made it ten times more ambitious and replaced William Gibson with someone who has actually used a computer. Thirty pages in, I loved the relentless pace, the constant flow of ideas, the newly sentient lobsters, everything. Stross has the knack of making world-building exposition very funny, much like the opening of Snow Crash or the interludes in Stranger in a Strange Land. About sixty pages in, I felt like a whole story had already gone by, and I realized (not so surprisingy, I guess) that the pace wasn't going to slow at all, and I started to get tired. Accelerando pitches its details quickly, making the reader sort most of them out, but also tries to catch people up - so there's a cycle of confusion, understanding, and repetitive summary. The pace eventually makes some of the ideas lose their interest; at times, the sheer volume of new concepts thrown out can make it feel like Stross is playing scifi madlibs. I think he gets away with this high density in part because many of his topics - simulated realities, emergent AI, the singularity, et cetera, have been done in more detail elsewhere (Gibson, Vernor Vinge, even The Matrix). It also helps to have a background in, um, random computer science and physics - there's a few plot details I wouldn't have caught without having read Ken Thompson's Reflections on Trusting Trust. If you're not that type of nerd already, reading Accelerando and googling anything you don't understand will make you one.

The most powerful and new aspect of Accelerando is how well it conveys the bewildering depth of technological change - you understand how Thomas Jefferson would feel in today's society, and wonder if it will happen to you in ten years. That transformation over orders of magnitude of society is something I haven't seen before, and Stross deserves a lot of praise for it. However, Accelerando never gelled as a novel for me; it was written as separate novellas, and the seams show badly at times, in occasional plot disconnects and flat characters.

Hugo-worthy? In another year, Accelerando could certainly have won, but Spin is close to my idea of perfection for a sci-fi novel: one brilliant idea and the joy of discovery, all grounded in believable characters. Accelerando rates A-, Spin the solid A


  • 2006 was apparently a good Hugo year - John Scalzi's Old Man's War was another strong contender. If you ran out of Heinlein novels, and are looking for some methadone, you could do worse.
  • Never, ever read the back covers of science fiction novels - you mostly end up spoiling the surprise. This goes double for Spin.
  • Here's another one where Stross is either serving up world-building in two words, or is just creating word salad:
    The main course - honey-glazed roast long pork with sauteed potatoes a la gratin...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

2009 Hugo Nominees: Anathem, The Graveyard Book, Little Brother, Saturn's Children, and Zoe's Tale

As a preemptive strike, I added the 2009 Hugo nominees to my list, if for no other reason than to be able to grouse more effectively when the winners are announced.

Anathem is Neal Stephenson's latest, initially set within a monastic city that has limited contact with the outside, more technological world, while still embracing scientific and mathematical studies. The monkish focus, the initial emphasis on world-building, and the connection between intricate philosophy and epic events all remind me of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. This may have colored my experience, because though I found Anathem incredibly enjoyable, the plot struck me as comparatively weak. Most of the negative reviews I have read have focused on the initial development of the monks' lives, but I feel this was the strongest part of the novel, setting up the society inside the monastery walls by direct example, and the outside one by contrast. Yes, it takes hundreds of pages to get to any real plot development, but it hardly matters when the world is so engrossing. The real failure of Anathem is a lack of ambition in its second, faster-moving half; having set up this complex society, complete with conflicting philosophies and an alternate history, Stephenson puts up a fairly shallow resolution that occasionally feels like an action movie. The ride is fun, but I can't help feeling a little let down that Anathem isn't just a little bit better. B+

The Graveyard Book is Neil Gaiman's interpretation of The Jungle Book, but with a child raised by ghosts, not wolves. I can shrug a lot of analysis off just by pointing to the author's name - you know the book is going to be creepy, mythologically inspired, and well-written. Gaiman brings his A game, but his ambitions are smaller than in American Gods; Graveyard Book is an excellent children's book, but doesn't wander too far from the boundaries already set up by Kipling, Dahl and others. (And for a personal "it-just-bugs-me," I've noticed that I always want to know either more or less about Gaiman's villains - they always seem to be in an uncomfortable place between inexplicable horrors and well-developed characters.) A-

Little Brother is set a good five or six minutes into the future, in that paranoid, metal-detector-surrounded, hormone-fueled hell known as high school. All of this year's Hugo nominees except, ironically, Saturn's Children, focus on children and adolescents, but this was the one that had me continually flashing back. The focus is on civil disobedience in a technological age, facing an overzealous, data-mining, Department of Homeland Security, over-responding to a terrorist attack. Cory Doctorow: where was this book in 2002, when we needed it more? I can think of many similar stories just from my high school, about students screwing with school technology, getting tear-gassed while protesting, getting into fights over the "patriotic" reaction to terrorism, and so on. Doctorow really grabbed the combination of cynicism, naiveté, and stubbornness that characterizes many smart high schoolers. The strident tone, adolescent characters, and focus on technology make Little Brother occasionally read like Slashdot: The Novel, but there is ambiguity behind the sermonizing, as the protagonist's cohort are shown to be 21st century Yippies, with all the mixed feelings that invokes. As I said, this book would have been better in 2002, and I'm not at all convinced it will age well - but it's certainly a powerful anti-authoritarian mover now. A-

Charles Stross has been previously nominated for five Best Novel Hugos, but I don't think Saturn's Children is his breakthrough novel. The central idea (How can a robot society designed to serve humanity evolve after humanity's extinction?) is interesting, and the plot is a reasonably exciting adventure story, but Stross owes too large a debt to his clear inspiration, Heinlein's Friday. Stop me if this sounds familiar: Freya, initially designed for pleasure but now uniquely suited as a courier, becomes involved with a conspiracy, faces hatred because of her design, goes globe-trotting and along the way has sex with everything. Freya even uses Friday's name as an alias! The theft is well-acknowledged, so I'm not going to hold it against Stross, but Friday is so packed with ideas (including a dead-on parody of California's gubernatorial recall, written years before it happened) that Saturn's Children looks worse in comparison. B

John Scalzi is another writer with a clear debt to Heinlein, but though Zoe's Tale has a little bit of Tunnel in the Sky going on, Scalzi's Old Man's War universe is its own beast. Sadly, very little new in that universe actually ends up on display in this novel; this may be because Zoe's Tale is revisiting an earlier Scalzi novel (one I haven't read) from a different perspective. Scalzi doesn't meet the gold standard of this trick, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow, and though I enjoyed the novel, it seemed empty compared to his earlier Old Man's War. While the teenagers are interesting characters, Zoe's maturing is too neatly matched with the events around her, and the end result feels like a little too much like an episode of the Wonder Years. B

Given all that, who would I give the Hugo to this year? In what might seem a surprise given my grades, I'd have to choose Anathem. Graveyard Book is almost perfect in what it attempts, but it attempts much less than Anathem, and while I loved Little Brother, it's not a book for the ages. Anathem isn't a complete success, but it is a beautiful monstrosity.


  • I now feel very silly that I didn't think to ask Danny Hillis what he thought about Anathem when I met him.
  • I also wrote a little about Anathem in an earlier entry
  • Little Brother is available for free online, for those of you who like ebooks.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Roundup: They'd Rather Be Right (1955), Gateway (1978), The Fountains of Paradise (1980), and The Snow Queen (1981)

Special, extra-glib edition of The Hugo Project!

They'd Rather Be Right has not aged well, and I think the culprit is bad philosophy. The writing is certainly not blameless, but the only co-written Hugo winner would have managed to trudge along with a certain retro flair if it hadn't been for the silliness of its central conceit: scientists have built a machine that can psychoanalyze everyone's physical problems away by replacing their prejudices with scientifically-approved fact. The almost complete disappearance of "psychoanalysis" as a buzzword and the stubborn refusal of scientific facts to be immutable come together to make They'd Rather Be Right look not only quaint, but wrong; the "therapy" comes off as complete brainwashing. Science fiction can overcome bad science, but They'd Rather Be Right doesn't - it's a serviceable 50s pulp scifi novel, complete with sex and psychics, but sadly no aliens. C-

Gateway is an interesting contrast, as it, too, features a computerized therapist, but one far more in line with our current ideas about what therapy can and can't do. Frederick Pohl's novel is told primarily in flashback, as Bob remembers his prospecting missions to the well-programmed Sigfrid. In the world of Gateway, humankind has found remnants of an older culture, including their spaceships - they can start the ships, but have no way of controlling when, where, or if they stop; exploration becomes a very lethal process of trial and error. This is a brilliant setup for an adventure story, but Pohl stays close to home for the most part, focusing on the death-is-cheap society built up by the prospectors. I really wish Gateway had been longer - between the wonderful setting and the cowardly, unreliable narrator it could have been great, but as written it feels like an extended short story. B+

The Fountains of Paradise is Arthur C. Clarke's novel about the building of a "space elevator." If you've read Rendezvous with Rama, some of the structure will feel familiar to you, especially the way the book can sometimes feel like a series of problems and solutions rather than a real narrative. This worked brilliantly for Rama, where the slow unraveling of these puzzles captures the mystery and frustration of first contact with aliens, but it doesn't help this slightly more grounded story. Clarke's book must have been groundbreaking in 1979, but I feel it's been overshadowed by other skyhook stories - some of my favorite parts of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy are focused on a space elevator on Mars. B

The Snow Queen is in an interesting place between fantasy and science fiction, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale of the same name, but stocked with a good dose of genetic manipulation, cloning, and space travel. Joan Vinge's story follows separated childhood sweethearts who are pulled from a peasant-like existence and thrust into two different aspects of the broader technological universe. I don't know how much of the plot is poached from Andersen, but the world of Tiamat stands on its own, as its legends and fantasy are discovered to be science in disguise. As you could guess, The Snow Queen uses one of those great tools for exposition - ignorant main characters - but extends it to their whole society. This has been done in other books, both more (Dreamsnake) and less (Old Man's War) skillfully, but never with quite as interesting a focus on the injustice of keeping a population ignorant. B+

Sunday, May 3, 2009

American Gods (2002)

Subgenre:Fantasy, mythology

Eventually, Neil Gaiman may have to come up with a new plot. Everything I've read (or seen, in the case of Coraline) of his has been built on top of the Alice in Wonderland, outsider in a fantastic world foundation. That is one of my favorite story structures, but after reading Neverwhere, I was fairly disappointed, and started getting a little bit cynical about Gaiman. Neverwhere wasn't exactly bad - enjoyable but disposable, almost redundant. In fairly sharp contrast, American Gods was even better the second time through.

Let's get some of the bad parts out of the way first. Novels that try to say something about the American condition, way of life, Dream, whatever, are doomed to fail where they make that ambition most explicit - they succeed where they tell the stories of interesting characters. I think Gaiman falls into the cheap nostalgia trap a little, talking up roadside attractions and folksy Americana without examining where that image came from. Luckily, the idea of America that informs the gods - well, that's a lot more complex and interesting. Gaiman also uses the classic fantasy novel jerk-around, telling the main character exactly 10% less than he actually needs to know at any given time, which should probably be renamed the "Dumbledore Gambit." Of course, this is verging on believable in American Gods because the main character is essentially in traumatic shock for most of the novel.

Part and parcel of the escapist fantasy structure is something to escape from - evil parents, for Harry Potter or any Roald Dahl book, or a hectoring fiancée in Neverwhere. For American Gods' protagonist Shadow, it's the death of his wife, a few days before he was about to get out of prison. Though this smacks of soap-opera plotting, it works, and sets Shadow on his essential task of surviving after his world has been torn apart first by this double shock, and then by being plunged into the affairs of down-on-their-luck gods. Like Cloverfield, a movie I am probably giving too much credit to, it's possible to completely submerge the supernatural elements and treat them as an ongoing metaphor for the protagonist's emotional upheaval. Or, in this case, for a clash of cultures in America - but I think the Gaiman's book is much less successful on those terms.

Though American Gods is quick, compelling reading, it isn't a novel like Nine Princes in Amber where the main character is caught up in trouble and never stops moving; Shadow's adventures meander a little, and sometimes seem disconnected from one another. The book could almost be split into a few novellas with common themes, except for Shadow's slow evolution.

American Gods succeeds on a lot of different levels. The plot is enjoyable in its own right, but the deeper, more personal story is about flux. The tragedy of struggling to keep up with a changing world is repeated throughout the novel, with the gods' immigrant stories complementing Shadow's personal life. Wednesday's two-bit scams, the drunken belligerence of Mad Sweeney, the careful professionalism of Ibis and Jacquel, they all have this desperation behind them, the fear of acknowledging the inevitable. The matched piece is the Lake Wobegon-esque town of Lakeside, showing the costs of pretending that all is well. That small town is a far more effective commentary on America than the battle between new and old gods. I often felt as if the Lakeside sections were the real story, and the gods just a stalking-horse - for instance, I remembered the Lakeside twist much better than the larger-scope ones.


  • Gaiman gives shouts out to Stranger in a Strange Land, as well as Gravity's Rainbow (in one of the more emotionally powerful moments), and possibly Stand on Zanzibar, naming one of the Lakeside characters Chad Mulligan, after Brunner's provocateur.

  • Of course, citing all the mythological references is impossible, but there's certainly also a little bit of Gawain and the Green Knight that I picked up the second time through.

  • Gaiman does hang a lampshade on one of my frustrations:
    "What I'm trying to say is I don't want mysteries... What I want is explanations. Jackal in Kay-ro. This does not help me. It's a line from a bad spy thriller."

Hugo-worthy? Yes - certainly a better, more important novel than The Curse of Chalion. I give it an A.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Curse of Chalion / Paladin of Souls (2004)

Subgenre: Fantasy

I have a confession to make: before I started this project, I had never heard of Lois McMaster Bujold. This made it a little surprising when I learned that she had won four Best Novel Hugos - tied with Heinlein for most ever. Having now read the Hugo-winning Paladin of Souls and the first-runner-up The Curse of Chalion, I'm starting to understand both why she won and why I hadn't heard of her. Fair warning - I haven't yet read any of her science fiction novels, so we'll see how foolish this sounds three books later.

Chalion and Paladin are both set in your standard warring-countries with battles, swords, bows, etcetera. It would be nice to occasionally read a fantasy novel that didn't feel like it was set in the War of the Roses with the names changed round. (After writing that sentence, I read the wiki which claims Chalion is sort of a retelling of Isabella and Ferdinand's unification of Spain, so I got the time period right but the country wrong). Chalion follows the recently-returned-from-slavery Cazaril, who mostly wants to be left alone, but gets dragged into the affairs of state by being just too damned talented. Between the plotline, the sense of humor, and the supertalented main character with a C-name, I kept on assuming that Chalion was actually a Zelazny novel - fairly high praise. Paladin follows a minor character from Chalion on a very different quest, and though it could be read independently, it would spoil some of the interesting surprises in Chalion.

Both Chalion and Paladin are well-written, compelling fantasy novels, well-executed by any standard. I went out and bought Paladin immediately after I had finished Chalion - they are very good books. But I can't imagine them becoming my favorite books - they have too large a dollop of caution for my taste, and they didn't ever tell me something new. In the best of these Hugo-winners, the ones I recommend to people, and the ones I've had recommended to me, there are moments of revelation - the realization of the piggies' actions in Speaker for the Dead, the end of Stranger in a Strange Land, and pretty much all of books like Spin and A Fire Upon the Deep - and despite some definitely enjoyable plot twists, neither Bujold book reaches the heights of those novels. Still, I can't imagine her writing, say, I Can Fear No Evil, either, so it's not all bad.


  • I do like the sense of humor of these books -
    "His lips tasted of soot, and salt sweat, and the longest day of her life. Well, and horsemeat, but at least it was fresh horsemeat."
  • Both novels wrap up far, far too neatly for my taste.
  • Ista's story in Paladin is one of the few Hugo-winners I would characterize as being an explicitly feminist narrative, especially with its early focus on oppression by social structure. The only other examples I can come up offhand are Ursula K. Le Guin's two winners.

Hugo-worthy? If all of Bujold's books are this strong, they could easily be the best books in a given year - I can see how she wins Hugos. Paladin and Chalion are both B+ books in my mind, but Chalion was up against American Gods, and rightly took second place.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Uplift Trilogy - Sundiver, Startide Rising (1984), The Uplift War (1988)

Subgenre: Enhanced evolution

In David Brin's Uplift series, civilizations of thousands of alien species exist within a galactic culture in which each race has been brought from semi-sentience to spacefarer status by the intervention of a more advanced species. Only Earth, with its unknown patrons, seems to be the exception. The social-status-sensitive Galactics would have ignored Earth, except that humans had already uplifted two species on their own: dolphins and chimpanzees. The three books of the first Uplift trilogy each explore slightly different aspects of this universe; the rough emphasis is on humans (Sundiver), dolphins (Startide Rising) and chimpanzees (Uplift War). Of these three, the latter two won Hugos, in 1984 and 1988, respectively, and they are clearly better-written novels, but in some ways Sundiver is still my favorite.

The Uplift trilogy is not like, say, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy - there are no common characters (beside a few cameos) or even planets between the three novels. You could read these out of order and not spoil much, but I don't recommend it - each individual book is well worth your time.

Sundiver, Brin's first novel, is framed as a mystery story. Its protagonist, broken-down "scientific detective" Jacob Demwa, is a sort of cross between Sam Spade and the problem-solvers Powell and Donovan of Asimov's robot stories. Demwa is called in as a consultant to an alien-human mission to untangle a mystery in an experiment designed to travel into the Sun. This is clearly the least polished of the three, and some of Brin's explorations of human culture's relation to aliens ("shirts" and "skins") is a little clichéd, but a lot of flaws are swept under the compelling story and the interesting development of Demwa's fractured character.

Startide Rising covers the flight of the first dolphin-captained starship, Streaker. In the process of routine exploration, they discover something that may have deep religious significance for (pretty much) the rest of the universe, setting a massive fleet on their tail. Startide Rising is my least favorite of the three, and I think it's partially because the threat feels a little contrived - the story of the dolphins and the story of intergalactic war don't touch as closely as I'd like, except near the end. However, Brin puts a great deal of effort into developing an interesting dolphin society, and manages to make them both understandable, and more than humans with flippers and fins.

Uplift War covers a small consequence of Streaker's discovery - one of Earth's colonies, populated mostly by humans and neo-chimpanzees, is held hostage. Though the chimpanzees are the supposed stars, I felt like they were upstaged by one of Earth's ally species, the Tymbrimi, who are inveterate practical jokers. The Tymbrimi are a species with a sense of dramatic irony, and Brin spends a lot of the book trying to cultivate the same taste in the reader - with some success. Like in To Say Nothing of the Dog, you have a little idea of what's coming - just enough to season your expectations - but the whole kick in the pants will probably come as some surprise.

Having read all three books back-to-back, there are a few common compliments and complaints. The romantic pairings are fairly blah, with Brin not putting much tension or interest into the relationships - it came off as a fairly predictable pro forma attempt to include a love story in each novel. The strength of all of these books is the depth of portrayal of alien species (and our own aliens, the dolphins and chimps). Each species is given a unique (and actually interesting) culture, without letting those characteristics overwhelm the characters (commonly known as Klingon syndrome). I'm particularly fond of the somewhat daring way that Brin uses the patron/client dynamic to explore race and class distinctions in our society. Uplifted species are by long-standing tradition indentured to their patrons for thousands of years, something humanity has declined to pursue in the case of chimps and dolphins, but even in the absence of this larger sin, condescension and misunderstanding run both ways. One particularly sly moment in Sundiver has Demwa discuss the benefits of assimilation into the galactic culture in an oblique, parabolic story of his Amerindian ancestors; Brin trusts the readers to understand Demwa's true feelings, even though his sarcasm is well-disguised.


  • Apparently David Brin had words with his publisher, because the Uplift books are almost unique in that the covers actually represent something from the story (and do so reasonably well). Also, there's a chimp with a gun.
  • Startide Rising has another Speaker for the Dead-like ending, which doesn't actually resolve the plot but still doesn't feel like a cop-out (a la Hyperion or any Neal Stephenson book).

Hugo-worthy? I pretty much agree with the voters - I'm personally fond of Sundiver, but I'm not sure it's a better novel than The Snow Queen or Ringworld Engineers, two of its competitors. The other two deserve their prizes.

  • Sundiver - A-
  • Startide Rising - A-
  • Uplift War - A-