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Sundiver by David Brin

Published by Bantam

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When humanity went to the stars, we took with us the pioneer narrative that had been repeated In Space in so many works of speculative fiction. Namely, that humans would explore new worlds and establish colonies there.

Instead the would-be settlers discovered that every planet, even the seemingly vacant ones, were all owned by a Galactic culture that had been ancient when the Shang oracle bones were carved, when the first Sumerian clay tablets were incised with writing. A culture that dealt very severely with trespassers, even those who offended unwitting. A culture with a history measured not just in thousands, but in millions of years, such that all humanity's technological achievements, even the vessels by which it traversed the interstellar void, are naught but children's toys.

Not only is the society of the Five Galaxies ancient, it is also very hierarchical, and almost entirely centered on lineage. Not simple paternity, for they have almost no concept of the individual. Rather, their entire system of social connection is based upon the tradition of uplift, by which older sapient species use genetic and cultural intervention to raise particularly intelligent new species to full sapience, following the example set by the semi-mythical Progenitors who began the entire process. As a result, every species in Galactic society is a member of a clan of Patron and Client species, owing to their forebears and being owed by those they have uplifted. Because humanity belonged nowhere in this scheme, we came very close to being forcibly adopted by one or another of the powerful senior species -- and given that this would involve a lengthy period of indenture in which humanity would be effectively owned by the Patron species, this would have been unpleasant and quite possibly ugly.

It was only by chance that humanity escaped that fate, by another expression of the desire to amend the profound cosmic loneliness of being the only sapient species. While some humans sought alien minds in the stars, others tried to find kindred minds among the most intelligent of nonhuman species here on Earth. Efforts to establish communication with chimpanzees and dolphins grew into efforts to use newly developed genetic technologies to modify those species into something with more humanlike intelligence, into species with whom we could have a philosophical conversation. Without even realizing it, humanity had performed one of the most essential functions of Galactic society and become a Patron with two Client species.

However, that status is granted quite grudgingly by the ancient and established clans of Galactic society, who can trace their lineages through many illustrious and now extinct forebear species, in theory all the way back to the Progenitors themselves. Humans may have become Patrons to chimpanzees and dolphins, but where are their own Patrons? Without forebears to give them status, humanity is in a very precarious position indeed. Some people are so daring as to suggest that humanity has no Patron, that we rose to full sapience by natural evolution, just as we developed our technological civilization by our own efforts, first through trial and error and later by systematic application of scientific principles.

If that were true, it would make humanity extraordinarily rare -- and dangerously vulnerable. Galactic society is not kind to wolfling species, and most of the few who have been discovered and evaded forcible adoption instead ran afoul of some law or tradition and got themselves wiped out in a Holy War. Without a Patron species to provide status and look after your interests, your back is bare indeed.

The alternative possibility is that humanity originally had a Patron species, but something happened to them early in the process of transforming pre-sapient proto-humans into a fully sapient species, such that it only looks like humanity self-uplifted. However, that possibility raises the question of what happened to humanity's Patron species -- did they abandon humanity for some reason, in which case the entire Terragens clan would bear the well-nigh-ineraseable stigma of being descended from a feckless and irresponsible Patron? Or almost worse, did some disaster, whether natural or political overcome humanity's lost Patron?

Even before humanity headed for the stars, the Solar System had been searched thoroughly enough to say with confidence that there were no signs that technological aliens had left their works on the Moon, or on the other planets or their various moons. Nor were there any alien artifacts to be found in the Asteroid Belt or the Kuiper Belt, which would suggest that if humanity did have a Patron, either they had a minimal presence off Earth, or they did a damned good job of cleaning up after themselves. Or possibly they were of such an utterly different kind of being that they didn't leave the sort of traces humans would look for.

As the need for answers to the question of humanity's Patron become more intense as a result of political machinations within the Five Galaxies, humanity undertakes a most extraordinary and daring project -- to dive into the Sun itself in hopes that humanity's lost Patrons may be found there. And to do that, humans have built a vessel that uses human technology and human solutions as much as possible, resorting to Galactic technology only where there is literally no other way to accomplish something critical to the mission, such as timeflow controls to produce stasis.

The first several attempts were successful, and discovered a species of energy beings dubbed "magnetovores" because they derived energy by feeding on the magnetic lines of force within the Sun's upper layers. However, something has gone wrong. There is talk of mysterious and possibly hostile Sun Ghosts that troubled the Sunship. So our protagonist, Jacob Demwa, is to find out what is going on.

Accompanying him will be several Galactic observers. In creating his alien species, Brin avoids the trap of Bumpy Forehead Aliens, who are just humans with a few funky physical characteristics, and gives us some truly alien beings, including the sessile, treelike Kanten. And even the species who may seem superficially human-like, such as the Pil, have radically different biologies and mindsets, such that Jacob often isn't even sure what function some of their characteristics have, and doesn't dare ask when Library research fails to provide an answer.

On the human team is Dr. Jeffrey, the first uplifted chimpanzee to be admitted to a research team. As he and Culla, one of the aliens, interact, we get to see the very different way in which human and Galactic society handle the social side of uplift. Culla is quite scandalized when Dr. Jeffrey lips off to a human, while Dr. Jeffrey is astonished at the idea that Culla should personally owe deference to every member of his Patron species, even those who have no part in uplift work.

But we've hardly met this brilliant chimp before disaster befalls him. He's making a solo dive, examining some of those magnetovores and the second species that seems to be herding them, when something goes terribly wrong with his Sunship. He tries to correct, but things go out of control too fast. However, the last transmissions before his Sunship implodes suggest the possibility of an attack of some kind. Are these mysterious Sun Ghosts actively hostile to human investigations, even when human psi actives aren't aboard?

At once the party who believe these Sun Ghosts might be humanity's lost Patron take this disaster as punishment for presumption. Might a species ancient and powerful enough to have uplifted humanity take exception to having their territory intruded upon by such young and unfinished species? In which case, might they be more willing to treat with older, more respected peoples within the Five Galaxies?

Jacob isn't too sure of that logic, but he knows that he wants those two aliens with him next time. If nothing else, he's pretty sure they know things they aren't sharing with humanity, things that may well be critical to the mission and to humanity's future in an ancient and powerful galactic civilization that isn't exactly delighted to have them around.

The first part of the dive seems to go well enough, and Jacob gets to see firsthand some of the ecology of the magnetovores and the entities that shepherd them along the magnetic lines of force. He even gets to witness a calving, in which one of the big tori breaks up into dozens of tiny infant ones. Although the shepherd aliens try to keep all the babies in line, one of them gets loose and jets right in front of one of the adults, which devours it in a puff of ionized plasma. Apparently cannibalism is quite common in Solarian ecology.

Then things go really, truly strange. Except Jacob only gets the account second-hand, because he was out cold most of the time. One of the Sun Ghosts approached the Sunship, and when Bubbacub the Pil tried to communicate with it, put on a threat display. Bubbacub finally had to resort to using an ancient artifact almost nobody understands to drive off the Sun Ghost, and the Sunship returned to base for an after-action.

After some unproductive bickering that involves some interesting discourses into game theory and parallels some of the work of Carlo Cipolla on the "laws of stupidity" in economics and the human condition, the Sunship makes another dive. At this point the behavior of the Sun Ghosts changes. No longer flitting at the edge of perception, they come right to the window and use the color-changing abilities of their bodies to project written words, demanding that they be left alone.

Yet there's something peculiar enough that the crew decides not to depart, but to investigate further. And then all hell breaks loose. Critical systems begin to fail, and Jacob can tell that this is no accident, but deliberate sabotage. Thus begins a desperate fight to simultaneously stop the saboteur and save the ship.

It's interesting to re-read this novel in the light of recent talk in the sf critical community about "post-colonial narratives" as if this were a new and innovative thing. Sundiver was published in 1980, in a time when sf was supposedly a wasteland of works that simply presupposed that Of Course humanity would run roughshod across the galaxy, exterminating or enslaving every other sapient species out of there. Given that this novel was the beginning of a trilogy, and was later followed by a second trilogy, one can only wonder why there has been no acknowledgement that it presents a post-colonial narrative. One would think that it would be a perfect example.

For instance, Galactic society doesn't just ignore the individual and make the entire species the primary social unit. By ancient law, species aren't even allowed to permanently own planets, but must rent them from the Institute of Migration for periods of a few million years, and during that tenancy are required to conserve and develop the biological resources of the world, including identifying uplift candidates and raising them to full sapience under the supervision of the Institute for Uplift. There are several meditations on the terrible crimes of humanity in causing mass extinctions, and how they had to be covered up to prevent Galactic society from exterminating humanity root and branch. Not to mention that the protagonist is a Cherokee and offers a history of the sufferings of his people.

Is it just that this novel came out before most of our Bright Young Things were even born and thus has slipped under their radar? Or is there a darker, more ideological reason for them passing it over? Is it because David Brin is a straight white male, and being Jewish just doesn't make one sufficiently marginalized these days, with the pogroms and the Shoah all ancient history to the gatekeepers of such matters? Is it because Jacob Demwa isn't portrayed as a Poor Oppressed Minority, but a successful scientist whose problems are his own, and whose discussion of Cherokee history focuses on their struggle to come to terms with the modern world while retaining the core of their identity, rather than an endless whine about oppression? One has to wonder, since this novel would certainly appear by any logical criteria to qualify as a post-colonial narrative in science fiction, but it's not appearing on any of their recommendation lists.

Review posted January 17, 2015.

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