Kevin's Reviews > Startide Rising

Startide Rising by David Brin
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's review
Jun 29, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: kaiju, space-opera, re-read
Read in July, 2009

I won't recant my love for "Sundiver", but upon rereading Brin's Uplift books I must admit that it has weaknesses that mark it as a first novel. It is perhaps a too-conventional detective story, right down to the parlor scene where our hero reveals the nature of the plot's going-on to the whole cast (were Brin a lesser writer, he might've unleashed upon us a slew of new "Jacob Demwa mysteries" in which our pseudo schizo sleuth foils more acts of sabotage, frauds, and the like. Fortunately this has not come to pass). Also, the characterizations are mostly thin, even in instances brazenly stereotypical (I could have done without the florid Frenchman myself) and we get much of our context from clumsy exposition. So yeah, there's all that, but what Brin does right more than makes up for any flaw. The idea of Uplift, in which intelligence is not evolved but handed down from a patron species to a client species by genetic engineering, is nothing less than brilliant: it's a concept that introduces a galactic society that is diverse, believable, and, as we come to realize, fraught with danger for us human outsiders, and one that dramatizes heady philosophical questions about the universe. And even if "Sundiver" were otherwise worthless (and if you think so your soul is puss) I would term it essential reading for the context it gives to "Startide Rising", easily a far better book.

The plot of "Startide" is largely character driven. As the crew of the hunted earth ship Streaker, marooned on a strange planet, try to escape from a vast armada of alien fanatics, they must contend with a mutinous element among the crew and solve the twin riddles of the discovery that has made them refugees and of the very planet beneath their feet. Smart and resourceful though many of these characters are, their plans tend to go awry. Nothing is resolved so easily as the parlor-room revelations of "Sundiver"; there are loose ends, complications, and tragedies that result from even the best-laid plans. Brin made the very sun a compelling setting in his first novel thanks to a convincing knowledge of astrophysics, and Kithrup, the planet he envisions here, is a world that is impeccably detailed and persistently mysterious, with a unique ecology and curious inhabitants.

I am happy to say that Brin does not skimp on those hallowed scifi essentials, the lasers and shit we love so dearly, but they do take a backseat to the drama onboard the ship. The battles that take place above the planet, as rival factions duke it out hoping to be sole claimant of Streaker's secrets, serve a theatrical sort of purpose; their Grand Guignol gruesomeness heightens the suspense and is frequently so over the top it becomes hilarious (Brin is plainly having no small amount of fun inventing new improbably named villains as fast as he can think up amusing ways of dispatching them). Also, their practices comment on the earthling society of our heroes. (I should have explained this in more detail earlier perhaps but) Humans and the leaders of the rival armadas are Patrons to younger species that they have Uplifted by genetic engineering. It is plain from the way that the villains act that they tend to abuse these Client species, who by law they can modify, breed, and mistreat as they see fit. To most Patrons their Clients are cannon fodder, sent to die in huge numbers as the Patrons command from the sidelines. Many Client species are bred to become weapons themselves, like the Tandu's Episarch, a soldier species that gives them huge tactical advantages but is too crazed to function on its own. Through the book we begin to see similar, more subtle abuses in the human relationships with their Clients, the dolphins, who have been modified over generations to become tool-users and soldiers, with no small psychological toll.
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