How long would it take you to read a book about spacefaring Dolphins, and Chimpanzees at war with giant birds? A week, maybe two? It took me eight months.
But that’s because I’m a slow reader.
Some time last year I picked up David Brin’s ‘The Postman‘. I was in full swing of my post-apoc one man hype train and I was choo-choosing a classic that I’d heard good things about. I loved it, and David Brin went straight to my ‘keep an eye on this chap’ list. I then picked up ‘Sundiver’, also by Brin, and the good scientist-come-author had cemented his place on my ‘I’m watching you’ list.
I was about a third way through Sundiver when Christmas reared its jolly head. My girlfriend’s parents had gotten me (on top of a bitching Superman onesie) the Uplift Trilogy. So, Sundiver, Startide Rising, and The Uplift War all rolled into a mammoth 1205 page monster. It’s big. I’ve seen smaller toddlers. This thing could kill a pensioner.
I’m not sure how to approach this review really. There were aspects I liked of all three books, and things I didn’t like. I mean…Startide Rising and The Uplift War are Hugo and Locus & Nebula award winning, whilst Sundiver (my favourite of the three) received no awards.
The scope and the concept are fantastically large. Brin does a spectacular job of making his universe feel dauntingly huge, and then–somehow–manages to make it feel claustrophobic too!
The concept, whilst simple at its core, is built brilliantly and remains, throughout the whole series, as the central conflict. That concept? Uplift. Uplift is the act of dragging an animal kicking and screaming into intelligence whether they want it or not. Because misery loves company, and why be content with only arrogant humans when we can surround ourself with a Noah’s Ark of wise-crakin’ know-it-alls?
In Brin’s universe the only way for a species to achieve sapience is to be ‘Uplifted’ by an intelligent species. The Uplifted species become Clients (read: slaves) to their Patrons (read: masters) for a few millennia until they get to spread the joy of intelligence to their very own Clients (read: salves)! Humans (the Wolfling Clan) are special because we don’t have a Patron race. We allegedly stumbled and fumbled our way into intelligence by evolution–a process thought impossible–so every other race in the five galaxies hates us. The rest are indifferent. Only a handful actually like us. Sounds about right, I only like a handful of humans myself. The leading theory in-universe is that we were half Uplifted and our would be Patrons cut and ran. Can’t blame ’em really.
The stories themselves are also pretty basic at their core (the best ones always are).
Sundiver details a mission to the Sun (hence the name) where funky lifeforms have been discovered. Our hero, Jacob Demwa: a marine biologist/ astronaut/ political mastermind/ Private eye/ human swiss army knife, finds himself caught in a mysterious conspiracy to debunk humanities’ competence on the Galactic stage.
Startide Rising focuses on a mostly Dolphin crew hiding out in the waters of an alien world whilst a huge, intergalactic war wages overhead. What are the powerful galactics fighting over? The Streaker, the Dolphin crewed ship. They made a discovery and now everyone wants a piece’a that sweet, sweet sushi. The crew need to work out a way to escape the star system in one piece, whilst keeping their findings close to chest…close to fin?
The Uplift War takes place towards the end of Startide Rising and then just after. This time we’re on the planet Garth during an invasion of the terrifying, brutal, Gubru. A race of super intimidating bird folk…We’re sans Dolphin this time, as Garth is a human/ Chimp planet. All across the five galaxies, war is waging over the Streaker’s mysterious discovery. Earth and her colonies are under siege, and the Gubru, religious fanatics, decided to roost on good ol’ Garth…Bloody Dolphins ruining everything.
There’s no suggested reading order (if you get all three books separately that is, and are a shameless anarchist) but in a chronological sense the order is as seen above. The stories, however, are all so independent, and the concepts so throughly explored in each book, that you could, in theory, read them whichever way you’d ruddy well like (in theory I could scream whilst I’m on the bus, but I don’t…some things are just wrong). Sundiver takes place a good century before the events of the next two, but only affects Startide Rising in the sense that one of the protagonists is a mentee of Jacob Demwa, the protagonist of Sundiver. So he’s mentioned maybe twice? If you read Uplift War before Startide you’ll hear mention of Streaker and a bunch a cowboy Dolphins, but it doesn’t affect the plot of Uplift War. Startide does provide some context though, as you’ll understand why Garth is under siege. I’d recommend reading them in order, because why not?
I enjoyed Sundiver immensely, even with Demwa’s almost God like abilities. It’s a fun read from a (at the time) new author with really big ideas. The concept of Uplift is fascinating, and I found the creatures living in earth’s sun to be really well imagined. I’d hoped, however, that Brin would focus more on the life forms in the sun and less on the crime/ mystery plot. But that’s Brin’s business. Good book, very enjoyable read.
Startide Rising I didn’t enjoy quite as much as Sundiver, but it’s still a solid read. It’s tense in all the right places, tragic and exciting. Brin imagines the nature of intelligent (neo)Dolphins very well, and does his best to flaunt them. To that end we only have four or five human characters against a whole crew of Dolphins (and one Chimp–what a lad). Truthfully, I fond my suspension of disbelief wavering somewhat; there were moments that made me put the book down, but there were also plenty of moments where I couldn’t stop reading, too. For me though, Startide Rising shows Brin’s ambition. The novel is saturated with perspective characters, all of whom have complicated names, a lot of the time it’s a struggle to remember who’s who.
An issue that’s made significantly worse in The Uplift War.
My least favourite of the three, The Uplift War has long, confusing names like Uthacalthing, Athaclena and Prathachulthorn. Only two of these names belong to aliens, the other is human. Bet’cha can’t guess which one. I kinda just made a noise when Prathachulthorn reared it’s ugly head…It really destroyed my flow.
The saving grace of this book is Fiben. Your classic anti-hero action type who just happens to be a Neo-Chimpanzee. I lived for his chapters, and (surprisingly) the Gubru chapters. With the exception of perhaps Unthacalhing, I found a lot of the other perspective characters borderline boring. None more so than Athaclena. A member of the Tymbrimi, Earth’s closest (read: only) allies, the Tymbrimi are galactic pranksters, hilarious rogues. Yet Brin decided not to show us your typical Tymbrimi prankster, instead we got Athaclena. She’s brash, stubborn and almost completely humourless. I don’t understand the purpose of introducing a race of jokers if the only two you show us are considered ‘boring’ to their own people!
I didn’t dislike The Uplift War, not at all. I only felt it was…flat compared to the other two books. It fizzled. I can’t recall a climatic scene, only a slow pattering away, and then the end. A shame really.
There are more books in this series, and I might get around to them one day. But for now I need smaller books. I need books that don’t double the weight of my bag every time I head out for the day.
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David Brin is a multi-award winning novelist and scientist. He’s a ruddy good author, so check him out!
Links to his website: www.davidbrin.com