Startide Rising by David Brin
Published by Spectra
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
At the close of Sundiver, humanity had made contact with the mysterious Sun Ghosts, beings of organized plasma that lived in the solar photosphere. They were lucid and had memories going back hundreds of millions of years, perhaps even to the time of the Progenitors themselves. On the surface, it looked as if humanity's problem was solved, that the place of the Terragens Clan would be secure at last.
As this novel begins, two centuries have passed, and humanity and its two client species are in no better circumstances. Apparently the hope at the end of Sundiver was overly optimistic, because humanity now finds itself facing an array of hostile alien alliances that view the very existence of this wolfling race as an affront to their quasi-religious beliefs about the Progenitors, the semi-legendary First Patrons who began the cycle of uplift by which pre-sapient species are nurtured and new minds brought into the culture of the Five Galaxies. Given that there are only fleeting mentions of the Sun Ghosts, it would appear that communication with them proved far more difficult than expected, and they not only were not humanity's lost Patrons, but also have proven unable to provide any clues to what species began the process of uplifting proto-humans to full sapience or why that species abandoned the project so early as to leave the impression that humans succeeded in the well-nigh impossible task of self-uplift.
The novel itself begins in media res, with the dolphin-crewed starship Streaker making an emergency stop at a beautiful but dangerous world called Kithrup in the micro-Library they carry with them. Streaker was on a routine exploratory voyage, a mission intended to prove the dolphins' progress toward full maturity as a spacefaring species, when it discovered a derelict fleet of starships of unknown design and extraordinary antiquity in a region of space known as the Shallow Cluster, where there is relatively little gravitational flexing. They also found an alien corpse of oddly human-like appearance. Being good scientists, they communicated their discovery to the wider scientific community, complete with images of the alien cadaver they've nicknamed "Herbie."
Suddenly Galactic society was in an uproar, and the hostility of many ancient and powerful lineages toward this upstart clan went from grumbling resentment to open aggression. Streaker has been fleeing from an armada for some time now, and is in desperate need of repair. Kithrup, with its biota that gather and excrete heavy metals, isn't the greatest place to lay by and make repairs, but it's a vacant planet, having been left on reserve status by the powerful Institute for Migration for over four hundred million years, a span immense to human minds but quite short to a galactic civilization that was flying between the stars when Earth life was still restricted to bacteria.
The only saving grace of their Galactic pursuers is these ancient species' tendency to expend as much time and energy fighting among themselves as pursuing the despised wolflings. The besiegers in orbit over Kithrup are divided among several Galactic traditions, quasi-religious views of what constitutes the obligations of contemporary species toward their patrons and toward the ancient, semi-mythical Progenitors.
Structurally speaking, Startide Rising is fundamentally the story of an isolated unit struggling to make repairs under duress and escape. Either they succeed or they fail. In the course of their efforts, they make various discoveries -- the existence of the native pre-sentients, the Kiqui, the horrific survival of the Karrank% as entities somehow enmeshed with the planetary crust itself -- which may help or hinder their efforts to get past the Galactic blockade and back to Earth with their discoveries. In a genre of Big Ideas, Brin delivers as many cool ones as he did with Sundiver, casually tossing off one after another technology by which the Galactics casually manipulate the very fabric of reality itself to travel and do battle on behalf of cultural imperatives as alien as their physical forms.
In discussing the significance of Sundiver, I noted the problem of how so many current readers and writers seem unaware of what has gone before. In their ignorance of the classics of science fiction, even works of a few decades earlier, they go reinventing the wheel and lauding one another on how revolutionary their works are, unaware that the themes have already been covered two or three times in past works.
By contrast, Startide Rising is a work profoundly in conversation with science fiction's history. For instance, there's the business with the uplifted dolphins having to struggle against the urge to return to more primitive, animalistic patterns of thought and behavior as the stress of working while effectively under siege becomes more and more intense. Within the framework of Brin's imagined world, it makes sense on its own terms -- the genetics and psychology of an uplifted species are a work in progress, and it should hardly be surprising that human efforts should be fumbling and imperfect when even Galactic species of unspeakable antiquity have blundered in the uplift process, sometimes with horrific results.
But it also reflects back on the roots of science fiction, and particularly one of the Founding Fathers of the genre. Although H. G. Wells is best remembered for The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man, he also wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau, a novel of biological speculation that occasionally veers into the horrific. In it, the titular character uses surgery and psycho-conditioning in an effort to transform animals into human beings. Yet his efforts are often less than satisfactory, so he has tried to create a society for them that will reinforce human behavior and prohibit reversions to the animal -- a Law that proves astonishingly frail when it is most needed.
However, Wells is not the only writer whose works echo through Brin's Uplift universe novels. In the question of the status of uplifted species and the degree to which they should owe their patrons for uplift we see echoes of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Man universe, and specifically the role of the Underpeople. They were animals that were transformed into human-like creatures in order to staff the lower levels of the almost utopian society of the future. However, their transformation to a fully sapient form was far more superficial than the Uplift technologies in Brin's universe (several Underpeople characters specifically mentioned that their children would also require the treatments or they would develop as ordinary animals of their root stock) and their lowly status was far more profound (even Galactic law provided that client species' would be released from their indentures after a hundred thousand years, but it is hinted that the Underpeople were effectively slaves, their subordinate status perpetual and inalterable by law).
And Brin even slips hints of that awareness into the novel itself. Gillian is a reader of pre-Contact science fiction, and in one scene thinks about how even the most grim of that era's works had not imagined what a constrained universe humanity would find beyond the boundaries of its own Solar System.
It's an awareness that seems to be missing in far too many current works, and quite honestly, I'd like to see more of it come back again.
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Review posted October 15, 2016.