Monday, January 21, 2008

Review - Startide Rising

Startide Rising
by David Brin
1984 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1983 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Though part of my reading goals in working through all of the Hugo award winners was that I would read any preceding novels in series. As it turns out Sundiver, the first book in Brin's Uplift series, costs more than my car payment in hard cover. In fact, the two Uplift books that did win the Hugos cost more than my car payment if I purchase them in hard cover. Now I'm an obsessive nerd (obviously) and I had my mind set on a collection but that's pushing things. The omnibus that's pictured here was my compromise so that I could afford the books in hard cover. It was something that I had to do quite a bit with the winners that were printed in the 1980's which says something pretty negative about the publishers with regard to these books.

So if I wanted to add Sundiver to my collection properly then it was very expensive. Fortunately checking around I found that Sundiver is not required at all to enjoy Startide Rising so I skipped it and moved right into this book.

The Uplift universe is the real star of this book. Brin took some of the standard space opera tropes and attempted to justify them. The result is a very interesting take on some very old ideas.

A few hundred years from now humans have begun "uplifting" other animals; a process that grants them human level intelligence and reasoning. Dolphins and chimpanzees are the first and uplifted members of those species are recognized as equals to humanity. We've also built our first faster-than-light space drive but our first trip out brings a host of surprises. We encounter a friendly species immediately and it turns out that the universe is packed to overflowing with intelligent life. The species that exist breed new species of sentience and uplift them but as part of their culture any uplifted species becomes the property of their creators for one hundred thousand years. Only one species developed sentience on their own, the mysterious progenitors, who have been gone close to a billion years. Civilization is completely stagnant as everyone is certain that everything there is to know has been written down in the libraries which are commonly available to everyone.

Humanity is a polarizing force in the universe. Not only do we have the audacity to claim that we weren't uplifted by anyone we also uplifted two more species without permission which is grounds for the elimination of a species. We also avoid the dependence on the library preferring to find things on our own. And finally, and worst of all for most other sentients in the universe, human beings do things on a time scale of dozens of years rather than thousands. So humanity is a weak newcomer facing overwhelming opposition from the rest of the universe.

In Startide Rising the first dolphin commanded exploration vessel has discovered a fleet of progenitor space craft and recovered one of their bodies. It's a prize that has value beyond measure in the Uplift universe and so they immediately find themselves pursued by vast fleets of warships. The dolphins intentionally crash onto a world where the majority of the surface is an ocean and find more mysteries as a month long battle for who gets to seize them rages over their heads.

The setting of Startide Rising is extremely interesting and that was a major problem for me. All of the action in the book takes place at the planet the dolphins crash on and in space around it. We never find out details about the exploration that finds the ship (it's not part of Sundiver) and the resolution to this conflict and the consequences for the humiliated forces is not given. I wanted to know about all of that stuff and Brin occasionally gave me a glimpse of it but then he turned away back to the weaker parts.

And it may be that those "weaker parts" aren't really that bad, they just weren't interesting compared to the big space opera stuff Brin did for half-pages at a time. The bulk of the book focuses on the dolphins which he gives some distinctive viewpoints. Those viewpoints made it impossible for me to connect with them, though. I never connected with any of the dolphins who comprise three-quarters of the cast of the book. Since they're the focus of the book this was a major problem for me.

And really that's what it's going to come down to. If you can connect with those uplifted dolphins then you'll probably enjoy the book. Brin's prose is pretty good (despite having a lot of haiku, a form of poetry that has made far too many people think that counting syllables is a perfectly acceptable form of art) and his ideas are neat. I just was bored out of my skull when the dolphins were there. In the end that makes me not recommend reading it but at the same time I recognize that if someone else can get over that mental hump then they'll probably like it a lot.

I'm going to cheat a bit here and say read The Uplift War instead. It's loosely connected to Startide Rising but the previous book is not necessary and you get the same concepts in a better package. Then if you really like it try going back to Startide Rising and maybe you'll find yourself liking the dolphins more than I did.