Startide Rising

May 9, 2014
David Brin

So, given what an abominable turd Sundiver turned out to be, I went into the sequel, Startide Rising (also by David Brin), half-expecting another stupid installment of The Astonishing Mystery-Solving, Adventures & Sexual Conquests of Captain Übermensch, Ph.D. Fortunately, it turned out to be … well, okay. Not a masterpiece by a long shot, but definitely in the better end of the spectrum.

It's also very much a product of its time. Only in the glorious carnival of absurdities that was the 1980s could someone decide that Dolphins… IN SPACE! would be a great hook for a science fiction novel. The original concept for Star Trek: The Next Generation actually mentioned giant water tanks in the Enterprise, to serve as habitats for the dolphin and whale navigators. That franchise also sent a time-travelling William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy to go swim with whales in order to save humanity.

Also, people liked neon spandex and Mötley Crüe. The 80's were weird.

So. Startide Rising. The story takes place about 200 years after the events of Sundiver. The human Uplifting projects have made progress, and both chimpanzees and dolphins are now capable of both advanced technology use and scientific thought. The first dolphin-crewed starship, Streaker, has been sent on a mission of scientific exploration - the purpose of the mission being (aside from the exploration itself) to test the viability of dolphin starship crews, and to instill self-sufficiency in the Uplifted neo-dolphins. In contrast, most of the Galactic patron races keep their Uplifted clients in a state of indentured servitude for a period of 100.000 years, and humanity's practice of fostering self-sufficiency in its clients (and even giving seats to Uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees in its highest political offices) is regarded with suspicion (and outright hostility) by many older Galactic patron races. They're probably worried that their own clients might start making all sorts of annoying demands.

Humanity's egalitarian relations with their clients only goes so far, though. Humans get to decide which dolphins and chimpanzees get to reproduce. One of the lead characters (a neo-chimpanzee) regards the client representation in the political process as simple tokenism, and resents the anti-chimpanzee sentiment some humans hold. The dolphins don't seem to think quite as much about it.

During their mission, the crew of Streaker (150 dolphins, one chimpanzee and eight humans) found a derelict alien fleet, which might have belonged to the near-mythical Progenitors. They even find a mummified corpse, who might have been a Progenitor, inside. Unfortunately, their message to Earth is intercepted by a variety of unsympathetic aliens, who would rather not have such a find in the hands of upstart humans (and their dolphin and chimpanzee clients), and launch an attack. Streaker crash lands on a water world, trying to hide until the Galactics finish fighting it out over who gets to kill the Earthlings. They then discover that the planet has a few mysteries of its own. Specifically, not only does it have a prime pre-sentient race just ready to become someone's clients, it apparently once housed an advanced species which built cities and high-tech gadgets, cleverly placed so that they'd get destroyed by geological processes before any Galactic surveyors showed up.

It's a passable sf mystery story, with a neat psychological aspect as crew morale starts breaking up. Since most of the crew are creatures who must continually will themselves to not descend into animalistic proto-thought, this leads to a rather tense situation. Also, quite a lot of the dolphin crew members are, well, assholes. I liked this. Dolphins are assholes. There's racial tension (some of the dolphins are of Tursiops ancestry, others of Steno - and there are also a chimpanzee and several humans on board), shipboard political intrigue - and even a good side plot involving the (dolphin) captain having to cope with brain damage.

There's still some of what I disliked in Sundiver. Brin still likes him some gratuitous exclamation marks! The dialogue is forced and annoying! Most of the human characters are rather generic - to the point that I kept forgetting who was whom! There is still a Heinlein-style omnicompetent übermensch in there, but unlike Sundiver, he wasn't the sole POV character. He still annoyed me. The sexism has also been toned down quite a lot since Sundiver. There was a side plot involving one of the dolphin crewmembers repeatedly sexually harassing a human woman (sorry, a fem, in keeping with Brin's terminology), but that particular dolphin is pretty much portrayed as an arrogant asshole and creepy sexual predator, not as someone we're expected to root for (and, as people who know about cetacean sexual habits can tell you, this is not exactly unrealistic behaviour for a dolphin). He even thinks in terms of "breaking down" said woman. Had this been Sundiver, she'd probably consider herself honoured for his interest.

Startide Rising also has some weaknesses of its own, though. Unlike the single-POV narration of Sundiver, Brin instead adopts a model with many POV characters, jumping back and forth between them. This sometimes works well - but here, there are dozens of characters. Some sequences give us all of 2-3 lines of prose before the next POV character takes over. It gets incredibly confusing. A lot of the dolphin-related material is clearly a product of the 80's, and seems about as dated as … well, Mötley Crüe.

The alien characters mostly seem … cartoonish. They're evil caricatures in much the same way as the Ilwrath in Star Control II: Cartoonish, over-the-top villainy, with no redeeming characteristics to speak of. I liked the little details we got about their biology and societies, but they didn't seem like cultures with literally hundreds of thousands of years of culture behind them. They were just space orcs. I disliked how humans are presented as so much better in nearly all ways than the Galactics.

Humans are apparently more curious, more driven, more intrepid, more egalitarian and more enlightened, than all the other species in the Five Galaxies. This does not bode well for the Five Galaxies.

It's a passable book. I don't think it's as good as everybody pretends it is, but it's definitely not Sundiver-level bad. It did showcase much more of the interesting Uplift universe, though, and I'm actually looking forward to The Uplift War.

For that last reason, recommended.

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