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-

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