Kara Babcock's Reviews > Startide Rising

Startide Rising by David Brin
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it was ok
bookshelves: own, 2010-read, science-fiction, hugo-winner, nebula-winner

At first, I couldn't decide if I liked Sundiver or this book better. The former has a superior mystery, and arguably a superior plot. Startide Rising, on the other hand, is more satisfying on the subject of "uplift" itself and better portrays the multitudinous horrors of Galactic society.

After considering my quandary further, I decided to throw in behind Sundiver. My fellow Goodreads reviewers seem split on this question, but the more I think about it, the more I'm certain. As much as I like what Startide Rising does to further the uplift concept central this series, its story and characters are muddled and dull.

We get a very sparse look at Galactic society in Sundiver, with singular representatives from a few species. Startide Rising rectifies this by showing us entire fleets from a variety of species, all of them pursuing the Streaker in attempt to take the information it has discovered. We get to meet the matriarchal Soro; the vicious Tandu and their reality-altering client species, the Episiarchs and the Acceptors; the Jophur, the Thennanin, etc. Brin's quite creative when it comes to species names and behaviours. But if Sundiver was a drought, then Startide Rising is a deluge: there are just too many aliens, and we don't spend enough time with any one of them. The results are thin, one-dimensional antagonists like Krat, fleet-mother of the Soro contingent. The Galactics are once again bogeyman instead of credible players.

This tendency of Brin's to overindulge is obvious planetside as well. There are just too many characters, too many points of view. At times this results in a total breakdown of the coherence of the story; I found myself unable to tell what was happening any more. Primal Delphin, Trinary, Anglic, whatever language the Karrank% spoke . . . too many symbols, and all very surreal. This is not an easy book to read, and while that's no disqualification on its own, it means the reward for reading it should be proportionally greater.

Yet I found Startide Rising lacklustre in its resolution. Once again, Brin explores what it means to be human by showing us how aliens (in this case, Uplifited dolphins) adopt human-like behaviour, including belligerence. Takkata-Jim's mutiny is a perfect example of this. The dolphins' journey toward sentience has been one away from the "Whale Dream" that prevents cetaceans from logical, abstract thought so critical for tool use (and thus spaceflight). While many of Takkata-Jim's mutineers revert to more primal instincts, Takkata-Jim himself behaves more and more human as the story progresses (not always to the benefit of our protagonists).

No matter how great its themes, however, Startide Rising is still burdened by its story. As with the antagonists, the main plot points begin multiplying until it's hard to tell what matters any more. There are metallic life-forms, pre-sentient aboriginals, voices telling Captain Credeiki what to do, etc. It just happens that after stumbling on a derelict fleet—setting off this great galactic chase—Streaker hides on a planet that has more mysteries than anyone could have imagined! Alas, we do not learn the ultimate fate of the Streaker crew or the inhabitants of Kithrup! This book provides many questions but precious few answers.

And so the moral of Startide Rising comes not from its themes but its execution: less is more! David Brin's "uplift" concept is so intriguing, so deliciously seductive in its shiny science fiction package, that it's enough to sell me on the series. But I'm finding the experience less fulfilling than expected, because the books just try too hard. Keep it simple Startide Rising does not.

My Reviews of the Uplift series:
Sundiver | The Uplift War
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Reading Progress

December 13, 2008 – Shelved
July 23, 2009 – Shelved as: own
April 27, 2010 – Started Reading
April 29, 2010 – Shelved as: 2010-read
April 29, 2010 – Shelved as: science-fiction
April 29, 2010 – Finished Reading
July 3, 2011 – Shelved as: hugo-winner
July 3, 2011 – Shelved as: nebula-winner

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Stuart I read Startide Rising as a teenager 20 years ago and enjoyed it a lot, but found the Uplift War to be tedious going and never read Sundiver, which is only loosely connected. I think the series features a great concept but could have been better executed by another writer perhaps.

So now I'm pretty sure I should avoid a re-read at all costs to avoid ruining a good childhood memory. I think I just really dug the cover art by Jim Burns and the convoluted, action-packed plot. Dolphin star pilots, really?!?


Kara Babcock I have the entire six books of the two trilogies still on my shelf, but I have no desire to re-read any of them and am pondering selling them back to the used bookstore from which I bought most of them. Maybe they’ll give someone else more joy…. I’m glad I read them, because the uplift concept is cool, and Brin is one of a few authors to really explore it as a core narrative idea. But as I’ve grown older and read more of his work, I’ve become less and less enamoured with his style and some of his characterization.


Stuart Ben, thanks to your very detailed and insightful reviews of the entire six book series, you have saved me an an enormous amount of precious reading time that can be devoted to other books. I often wish that some special expert rewriting service could be paid to slim down and improve all the overlong hard SF epics the genre is littered with. I always group Brin with his contemporaries Benford and Bear (all B's, strangely enough) as popular hard SF authors of the late 80s/early 90s, but now most readers are more interested in Hamilton, Reynolds, Vinge, Stross, Robinson, etc, so it would make more sense to read them instead. Would you agree?


Kara Babcock I think it depends where your interests lie…. The others you mention are all very well known for posthuman/far-future SF and space opera (though Stross has, of late, disavowed this subgenre and turned to focus on near-future SF and urban fantasy, and my own changing personal interests have largely mirrored his journey). If that’s what you enjoy, then you will have a fun time with it.

The term hard SF is slippery and ill-defined. All good SF needs to be about the human element—good SF is social SF. And the harder your hard SF gets, the more it actually starts to resemble fantasy—nanotechnology is basically magic—so at some point it wraps around and becomes soft SF again.

And then again, some people enjoy juxtaposing books from different eras to see how the genre and writing has changed.

I like to read as widely as possible, because you never know when something you’re sceptical about is going to open your eyes. But of course, I have certain hot-button interests that I tend to gravitate towards—AI and posthumanism used to be my favourites but have waned, as I mentioned above; lately I’m really interested in ramifications of networking and Big Data and what happens if we don’t go back into space….

There are probably some classics you should read regardless of your interests, but I’d argue that, by and large, you should program your reading schedule based on which books sound good rather than where they potentially fit in a pantheon, canon, or set of categories.


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