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WesternSFA


Sundiver
The Uplift Sage #1
by David Brin
Bantam, 340pp
Published: February 1980

Next up on my runthrough of Hugo Award-winners for Best Novel is David Brin's 'The Uplift War', which prompted me to pause for a moment. You see, 'The Uplift War' is the third in a trilogy that's focused on a pivotal point in the history of the human race. The previous book in that trilogy was 'Startide Rising', which won the Hugo four years earlier and which I reviewed in April. However, I haven't read the first of them, 'Sundiver', and I felt that I probably should, to see how a concept as fascinating as uplift was first introduced, even though it unfolds earlier enough within the series chronology to share no characters. So here I am!

And, while I enjoyed 'Sundiver' immensely and not only because of its central concept, it's not difficult to see why Brin's Hugo wins began with 'Startide Rising'. This is very traditional in outlook, feeling like it could have been written decades earlier, and it also loses track of what genre it wants to be, shifting oddly from science fiction to mystery and back again, against a backdrop that's so bright and wild that it's hard to acknowledge anything else. In the end, it succeeds because of its ideas, because uplift is a fascinating concept to begin with and it's explored in a fascinating way by placing the human race into an anomalous place in the universe that's just opened up in front of it.

Put simply, uplift is the raising through scientific means, primarily genetic manipulation, of a species to sapience. In the terminology of the series, the species doing this uplifting is a patron species, while the one they uplift is a client species. We know that because, in this near future, we're a newly spacefaring race and we've bumped into a galactic civilisation that's been doing this for millions of years. It's now a standard routine: an uplifted client species spends a hundred thousand years indentured to its patron, after which it can proceed to uplift client species of its own. It's the old childhood/adult cycle expanded onto the grandest scale.

Usually, in novels where first contact happens or is recent, humanity competes on an equal footing, an unimaginative conceit that makes little sense. Brin solves that by finding it an unusual social position that gives it something of a bye. When first contact happens, we've already uplifted two species of our own choice—chimpanzees and dolphins—and, because we've done that, we're considered by the galaxy to be a patron species, which offers protections against another swooping in and adopting us into their indentured servitude. And that's not just lucky, it's almost unheard of.

So, how did we do that? Well, while most humans believe that we just evolved on our own without need for a patron, the galaxy at large takes a very different view. They suggest that we were indeed uplifted but by a species who vanished, for mysterious reasons of their own, somewhere in our dim and distant past, late enough to have made all the difference but early enough that we have zero memory of them. And, naturally, that spawns further questions. Who were they? Why did they leave us to effectively fend for ourselves? And where did they go? Oh, and those questions are both from us and from the galaxy at large, who have the Library Institute to record this sort of thing and which apparently can provide no answers.

The core thrust of 'Sundiver' follows a scientific look for our patron race within our own sun, where it's suggested that they've pretty much retired for the quiet life to raise energy cows. This look happens in a grand old science fiction style, namely combining technology that we've conjured up ourselves, with a freedom of imagination that comes from not having been taught that everything known is documented in the Library, and technology far advanced from our own to which we're introduced by the galaxy from Library records. The result is a ship, or a small set of them, which can funnel away heat by use of a laser, control gravity inside and out to maintain integrity and filter light so effectively that we not only don't blind ourselves but can observe the strange creatures living in the sun.

This is fascinating stuff, told in hard science fiction terms from a very carefully imagined starting point that makes it all viable. Had that been the entire story here, it would remain an important book. Brin, however, doesn't just look at this from our point of view. He starts to consider our sudden appearance on the galactic scene as a blot on the galaxy's copy book and a whole slew of opportunities for species willing to do something about it. The tension that creates manifests in the competing actions of a cast of alien characters whose motivations we have little knowledge of because Brin's only just introduced us to them.

And so, Jacob Demwa, whose name I've deliberately left until this point in my review, finds himself the detective having to solve mysteries both easily defined—why did uplifted chimp scientist Dr. Jeffrey die during a solo mission into the sun—and not so much, because he's a functioning schizophrenic and thus can't even rule himself out of whatever's going on. Part VI is especially space mystery, right down to the traditional Agatha Christie-esque revelatory gathering. This shift in approach took me aback and, even a couple of weeks later, still seems odd.

After all, the initial setting of ground rules is magnificently explored in what seems like no-time-flat. I was aware of a lot of this, having read 'Startide Rising' first, but it seems solid anyway. We're given an effective grounding in the concept of uplift, exploration of the vast changes prompted by first contact, an introduction to many alien species, Jacob's work with uplifted dolphins and the Sundiver project, in a measly thirty-nine pages. That's impressive. Then we follow a journalist called LaRoque as he makes an important transition from Poirot-esque annoyance to Dr. Smith danger. Or maybe not. By this point, we can't take anything for granted and have to read on to figure out what's really going on.

And I can't help but wonder if Brin, who seems like he ought to be a plotter, is really a pantser and this novel ran away from him. It feels like he wanted it to be a hard science fiction novel exploring our place in the galaxy against a spectacular backdrop, but it decided that it wanted to be a mystery and, by part six, he grudgingly agreed and let it play itself out, reworking pretty much everything we've seen up to that point in whatever new direction it wants. The result is fascinating but flawed, an impressive debut novel but not something worthy of a Hugo Award for Best Novel. That waited for his second novel. And, as I'll find out next month, his sixth overall and third in the Uplift trilogy. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by David Brin click here

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