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Startide Rising
The Uplift Saga #2
by David Brin
Bantam Spectra, 458pp
Published: September 1983

While the main reason for me to embark on my runthrough of Hugo Award-winning novels was to introduce me to a bunch of books that I had little excuse not to have read before (and to reacquaint me with a bunch that I had read), a secondary reason was to see how science fiction changed over the decades. I knew it did and I've read at some depth from all its eras, but I've never deliberately tried to see how it changed. It's been fascinating to see how the genre was affected by the counter-culture in the sixties and the rise of female authors who owned their gender in the seventies. With 'Startide Rising', I realise that acclaim was rising for sequels.

If I'm not very much mistaken, many winners of the Hugo for Best Novel belong to series but only looking back at them, because books like 'Dune', 'Ringworld' and 'Gateway' were all the first in their respective series. The first example of a sequel winning that Hugo seems to be C. J. Cherryh's 'Downbelow Station' in 1982, followed quickly by Isaac Asimov's 'Foundation's Edge' in 1983 and David Brin's 'Startide Rising' in 1984. While the next two Hugo winners would be original works, the decade's roll of honour would end with three more sequels.

David Brin introduced his uplift concept in his debut novel, 'Sundiver', which was the first in a trilogy continued by this book and 'The Uplift War', which also won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1988. While I haven't read the other two books yet, I believe these are each standalone novels within a single universe rather than a continuation of story from one book to the next. The characters and locations are certainly different, but they all contribute to a broader story. So does a second trilogy, known as the Uplift or Uplift Storm trilogy, that also serves as the direct sequel to 'Startide Rising', continuing the story of its lead characters after this book ends.

Those lead characters are the crew of the 'Streaker', an Earth spaceship mostly crewed by bottlenose dolphins, a handful of humans and a single chimp fleshing-out the roster. It accidentally stumbles upon a graveyard of moon-sized spaceships that appear to be millions of years old. After retrieving some artifacts and a mummified body, at the cost of ten of their crew members, they let Earth know and are promptly advised to hide themselves with immediate effect. That's because these may be ships of the Progenitors, perhaps the first spacefaring species in the Five Galaxies, making this a massively important religious discovery to many of the insanely varied races of the present. Within a breath of the beginning of the novel, the 'Streaker' is secreted underwater on Kithrup, as a massive battle unfolds in its skies over access to them.

And here's where I need to backtrack and explain the concept of uplift, which Brin named if not invented. It's an idea that goes back at least to H. G. Wells in 'The Island of Dr. Moreau' but it is given a very different approach here, because it's generally seen as a Good Thing. Uplift is the process by which one species genetically alters a different species to bring them up to their level intellectually. Beyond the various obvious ways this is a glorious science fiction concept, I particularly appreciate it as a way out of the "every technological society is doomed to destroy itself" mindset. Every spacefaring species in the galaxy was uplifted by another species, who indenture them for the next hundred thousand years, before they become patrons too and get to uplift their own species in turn. Mankind is an odd anomaly because, if we were uplifted, our patrons mysteriously vanished.

In Brin's universe, which spans five galaxies, humans are seen as a wolfling species, one that evolved far enough to become spacefaring on its own, and that's not seen as a positive. We don't think like the Galactics and that's a negative in their various eyes. What's more, because we've already uplifted dolphins and chimps, we hold the status of patron to them, so preventing them and their millions of years of superior technology from just taking us over and making us one of their client species. There seems to be much play between the inflexibility of these advanced species and the innovation of a wolfling, all of which makes me eager to dive into 'Sundiver' before I'll get to 'The Uplift War' anyway in a few months for my Hugo runthrough.

Brin does a heck of a lot here for a man on his second novel. This runs well over four hundred pages and seems a busy read for a while. Chapter 1 covers a lot of ground and chapter 2 likewise. The uplift concept is enough for an entire novel of this size, but Brin plays with ecosystems, language and religion too. The ecosystems are handled mostly through Kithrup, the water world onto which the 'Streaker' lands in search of metals to make repairs and a solid hiding place. Language is mostly addressed through the dolphins, who speak three languages: Primal, as they do today; Trinary, which is a form of poetry; and Anglic, a middle ground language near enough to English to allow easy communication. Of course, we're modified too, so some of us understand Trinary or even Primal.

For religion, Brin introduces a stunning variety of alien species, all in their ships in battle above Kithrup. They're wild and wonderful, varied in every way, thoroughly and agreeably alien. Brin understands full well that it's not as simple as sticking a tentacle or a bug eye onto a creature, you have to make them unique and intellectually as much as any other aspect. These alien races don't look like us but they sure don't think like us either and that's more of the point. They subscribe to various religions that frame their responses to events, especially ones that have the ramifications of the discovery of 50,000 potentially Progenitor vessels.

Oh, and there's some good old-fashioned adventure here. Brin gives us space battles, underwater chase scenes, an imaginatively framed escape attempt, first contact with a new race, even a well-handled mutiny. Add to that the mystery that seems to lurk under the waters of Kithrup and there isn't a dull moment to be found within an expansive page count. The 'Streaker' may have gone out on a research mission as an experiment to see how the approach might work with a primarily dolphin crew and an entirely dolphin command structure, but it found an emphatic McGuffin and much more.

It's worth mentioning here that some of the other Hugo winners with expansive page counts have been among my least favourite thus far. I appreciated 'Lord of Light' and 'Stand on Zanzibar' but I didn't enjoy them. I found myself struggling through 'The Snow Queen' and 'Downbelow Station'. 'Dune' was magnificent but overblown. Even 'Foundation's Edge', as smooth as it was, started to drag a little by the end. This, on the other hand, kept me enthralled from moment first to moment last and I devoured it in three days, not three weeks. And, I ought to add, that bodes really well, given how many unread books by David Brin I have on my shelf right now. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by David Brin click here
For more Hugo winners click here

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