The Uplift War

May 18, 2014
David Brin

The final entry in David Brin's original Uplift trilogy, The Uplift War is set at roughly the same time as Startide Rising. News about the exploits of the Streaker crew have reached far and wide - and obviously, warlike Galactic species are more than willing to use this as an excuse to attack Terran colonies all around the galaxy. The novel is set on one such colony (the planet Garth) during one such attack. I had high hopes for this one - given the abrupt leap in quality from Sundiver to Startide Rising, I hoped that this was going to be even better. Several friends of mine had also given it rave reviews.

While it was certainly better than Sundiver, I didn't find it very compelling. About on par with Startide Rising – cliché-filled, contrived and rather silly, but with its good sides as well. I find myself wondering about whether I should consider myself richer or poorer for now being able to cite a literary reference for the term "chimpanzee lap dance".

So, The Uplift War. Evil nasty aliens named the Gubru are attacking the human/chimpanzee colony of Garth (an ecologically damaged wasteland with no known presentients, given to the Terrans for settlement), both because they are offended by the un-Uplifted "wolfling" humans and because why not – they are (as most aliens in Uplift) simple comic book villains. Unlike the previous antagonists, we do get a more in-depth presentation of their culture (there are multiple Gubru POV characters) – for them, conquest serves both a societal, personal and sexual purpose, given that Gubru biological sex is only assigned in adulthood, depending on performance during planetary conquest - the most effective of the three Suzerains becomes queen, the two others become her consorts. They launch a massive battle fleet to Garth, destroying its space defenses, occupying its surface, and using chemical warfare to subdue the human population of Garth almost entirely: A creative poison gas that kills humans within roughly five days – unless, of course, they report to Gubru detention camps for the antidote. The chimpanzees are unaffected by the gas – largely because the Gubru consider the chimp population part of the spoils of war, rather than a military target. It's up to a plucky band of chimpanzees (plus a few lucky humans and one sympathetic alien) to form a resistance movement and drive the evil aliens off-planet.

There are two side plots. One is essentially a road-trip story involving two lost alien diplomats (a human-allied Tymbrimi and a human-hostile Thennanin) who crash in the wilderness and must find their way home. The other involves a clandestine Uplift project of gorillas. The road-trip story ended up in the unfortunate position of being 1) completely superfluous to the main plot, and 2) often more interesting than the main plot. I'm not sure if it was intentional that I found myself consistently liking the good guy (the arrogant, presumptuous, annoying, manipulative jerk Uthacalthing) much less than the bad guy (the sincere, honest, humble, direct Kault).

Now we're on the subject of aliens: Guess who's humanity's allies?

  1. The screeching, prancing, oddly-gendered flightless birds
  2. The grotesque, giant, gruff lizard monsters
  3. The exotic, handsome space elves

If your guess was "the ones that would best provide front page illustration fodder for a toe-curlingly awful romantic subplot for our human male lead", congratulations! You win a chimpanzee lap dance.

The ending managed to tie up all the subplots - but unfortunately, the nature of the big discovery made by the Streaker crew in Startide Rising is still left in mystery. I hope it'll get answered in Uplift Storm – although I need to read something else before I dive into that one.

I found that the strongest part was the chimpanzee characters. In Startide Rising, I found it odd that the psychological effects of the human Uplift practices (such as the repressive reproductive rights humanity allows its client races) on their client races were largely glossed over. I'm not sure if the in-universe explanation simply is that the neo-dolphins care less about it than the neo-chimps (or if it simply has to do with the fact that Brin decided to wait until The Uplift War to tell that side of the story), but in this book, we do get to see some of the effects it has on the clients. This turns many of the neo-chimpanzee characters into believable characters with believable motivations.

Unfortunately, it also makes it that much more jarring that humans are otherwise presented as so unambiguously good and right. Rather than fighting for independence, the chimps are essentially fighting for keeping the old masters around. Some people have suggested that The Uplift War should be read as an allegorical tale about racism and colonialism. I don't generally tend to read allegory into my science fiction, and in this case that's fortunate, because otherwise I'd probably end up concluding that David Brin was a raging, paternalistic colonialist asshat (and judging from his articles on various subjects around the Internet, he's not).

In fact, probably what I found most annoying was the clear-cut morality of the characters (and their political factions): There are entirely unambiguous good guys and entirely unambiguous bad guys. I can sort of live with that in fantasy (The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are the kinds of stories that need morally unambiguous characters) - but even in fantasy, I prefer a morally ambiguous character gallery. Despite its many extremely unpleasant elements, the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire tend to be much, much more compelling than those in, say, The Dragonlance Chronicles. The Watchmen cast is a more interesting bunch of comic book "heroes" than the Justice League. Unfortunately, all three Uplift novels land face-down at the unambiguous extreme. The good guys are always right, the bad guys are cartoon villains.

It's okay. I didn't dislike it as much as Sundiver, but I also didn't find it very compelling. I don't get why people consider it a masterpiece. Only recommended if you don't have anything better to read. At 660 pages, it takes a bit longer to slog through than its predecessors.

This concludes my look at the Uplift trilogy. Overall, I found the premise interesting and compelling, but the stories told within it poor to mediocre. Bad prose, boring characters, liberal use of clichés. They're all from the 1980's, and I haven't read any newer Brin novels, so perhaps he's grown as a writer since then. I have the Uplift Storm trilogy and Existence waiting for me on my bookshelf, so I'll find out soon enough.

First, though, I need to read something else - something that doesn't involve bizarre dolphin sex deviants or chimpanzee lap dances.

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