Startide Rising Review

15:20 Tue 13 Oct 2009
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Startide Rising is the second novel in David Brin’s Uplift Universe series, and it won the Nebula in 1983 and the Hugo and Locus in 1984. I read its predecessor Sundiver first, and it nearly stopped me from going on to Startide Rising. I didn’t like the writing style at all, and it felt unpolished. It must be said that its ideas and setting were interesting: it’s “big universe” science fiction, with a multitude of alien races. The unique concept Brin came up with was that every alien race was raised to technological advancement (or even sentience) by some other race acting as “patron”—except for humanity, which reached a high degree of advancement, and raised dolphins and chimpanzees to higher-level sentience, without a patron.

Startide Rising concerns a dolphin-/human-/chimpanzee-crewed starship that comes across a significant secret, one that causes them to be pursued by many hostile (and competing) alien races in pursuit of it. Much of the novel focuses on the internal politics (both inter- and intra-species) on the Earth ship, and the conflicts between the alien species, with the thread of Earth’s place in the universe and the fairness (or lack thereof) of the political system in place for galactic civilization.

Brin handles all of that far better than he did in Sundiver, and it’s a far more accomplished novel. That being said, it still didn’t really work for me, particularly in terms of characterization. I thought that the sentient dolphins and chimp were handled quite well, but found the humans less convincing. The immediate plot, e.g. that of how the protagonists would extricate themselves from their predicament, wasn’t particularly compelling. The most interesting thing about it was the background plot, which concerned the larger milieu.

This larger milieu is why I think that Startide Rising won the triple crown. For all that I wasn’t convinced by the plot or characterization, and despite my not being that fond of the writing style, Brin nevertheless had me believing in his universe.

This is a phenomenon mostly confined to fantasy and science fiction works, the creation of a world (or more) that entrances the audience despite other flaws in the writing. For science fiction of this style, it’s critically important. The “big universe” has to be believable.

Note, however, the “believable” and “realistic” are very different things. I’m not at all convinced that Brin’s universe is realistic. The same applies to other fictional universes that I’m much more fond of, like Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe, Niven’s Ringworld universe, or the “Zones of Thought” setting of Vernor Vinge. It’s not that they’re realistic, necessarily, it’s that they somehow make sense to me (and lots of other readers). Even while reading Brin and thinking that individual pieces were unrealistic, I had already accepted the larger framework, and was analyzing the plot in its context.

I think this may be one of the most important skills of the “big universe” science fiction author: creating a setting that the reader, regardless of how realistic it is, accepts as making sense, accepts as a perfectly plausible way for the universe of the future to turn out to be. Brin got that right, and it was enough to snag him the triple crown despite what he got wrong.

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