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David Brin: His Life and Work

Profiled by Eliza DoLots
Posted March 1, 2002

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David Brin is my favorite Science Fiction writer of this time (I would put in HUGE votes for Theodore Sturgeon for "Best Ever"). I was introduced to Brin by a good friend about 10 years ago. Since then I have been an avid fan. I confess that the last few years my life has been largely devoted to caring for my young daughter, so I have had little time to devote to reading.

His work is based on an extensive science background. Born in Los Angeles in 1950, he received his BS from Caltech in 1973. He earned his Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from UCSD while working as a Research Engineer at Hughes Aircraft’s Research Labs. He got his Master’s Degree (from UCSD) in 1977, and PhD (again, UCSD) in Space Physics in 1981. Brin consults regularly with NASA. An advance copy of his novel GLORY SEASON was the first Science Fiction novel brought into space.

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With this background, it would be natural to assume that his stories are full of scientific validation. That would be wrong. While the scientific theory behind his stories is always sound, his stories almost never become "proofs" of the possibility. He tells his story through the characters and events, letting the scientific “proof that it could happen” reside in postscripts and supplemental essays. I say "almost" because, when he worked with Gregory Benford in HEART OF THE COMET (1986), the science did tend to overwhelm the story some. Possibly the result of two scientists working together.

His first book, SUNDIVER (1980), introduced concepts that have provided the backbone for much of his work in the ensuing years: "Uplift" and "The Galactic Universe." "Uplift" is artificial evolution. An evolved species uses bioengineering to hasten evolution in a less evolved species. The specific definition is a Space-Faring race brings a "promising/ripe" race to the point of piloting Star Ships. "The Galactic Universe" is apparently everybody but US - a universe, previously unknown to humans, based on uplift. The more species a race has uplifted, the higher they are ranked in the Galactic Universe. Uplift has been going on so long that the Galactics have no understanding of the natural evolution. All they have known is uplift. Brin’s very evocative premise is that humans have existed outside the Galactic Universe. Humans have evolved naturally. More, humans have used bioengineering to enable chimpanzees and dolphins to use tools, communicate outside their species, and operate machines. So, when they DO encounter the Galactics, humans are both outsiders (they are referred to as wolflings) AND a species with status. They have uplifted two other species. The tension this creates drives all relations with the Galactics. Many Galactics - and some Earthlings - are obsessed with the idea that natural evolution is impossible. The search for the progenitor of the human race dominates the thoughts of many. SUNDIVER follows a crew exploring the deepest reaches of our Sun’s atmosphere. In it, they, apparently, find life. [EDIT: Recently reviewed by Galen Strickland.]

Brin's next book catapulted him to the forefront of Science Fiction Literature. STARTIDE RISING (1983) won the Nebula, Hugo and LOCUS Awards. The compelling story of a dolphin-led ship (with humans and a chimp on board). Having discovered a flotilla of ancient ships which may contain the secret to the beginnings of the Galactic Universe, the Earth ship must find a way home without revealing the location of the ships to a growing group of Galactic ships from many species seeking to gain station by laying claim to the archeological find. The basic simplicity of the story (find a way home) continues to capture the imagination of readers everywhere. While the science of uplift is explained, and the science of taking a water based species into space with crewmates who live on land is explained, it is the characters - dolphin, human, chimp - that make the story one that many of us reread with relish every year. While many people foresee a future divided along racial lines, with gang wars escalating into tribal wars, Brin’s vision of a world where even diverse species are united by common goals allies it closely with the vision Roddenberry presents in Star Trek. [EDIT: Also reviewed by Galen].

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He took a break from his Uplift saga to write two of his best novels: THE PRACTICE EFFECT (1984) and THE POSTMAN (1985). Both are stories of lone men thrown into unfamiliar circumstances trying to do what is right for the most people. Simple plot concept. That is probably why it works so well. In THE PRACTICE EFFECT, a young scientist gets trapped in an alternate universe where items become better as they are used (practiced). His goal, again a simple one: get home. In THE POSTMAN, a wanderer in post-apocalyptic America stumbles across a postman’s jacket. Pulling it on to keep warm, he is stunned by the reception he gets when he next encounter’s people. The IDEA of a postal service - a uniting organization that makes communication possible - galvanizes people who had become complacent. A revolution to return America to a governed body ensues. There is no simple goal in THE POSTMAN, but the characters are very simple: good people trying to lead the best life they can. THE POSTMAN was nominated for both the Nebula and the Hugo; it won the LOCUS and John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel for young adults (awarded by the American Library Association).

Brin returned to The Galactic Universe in 1987 for THE UPLIFT WAR. [EDIT: Also reviewed by Galen] To me, this is the best of the Uplift novels. Taking place in the same time frame as STARTIDE RISING, it follows a far-off human colony on a desperately abused planet as it tries to stave off the assault of the Galactics. The Galactics hope to force the dolphin ship followed in STARTIDE RISING to release their secret by laying siege to this far off earth outpost. On this planet, there are no dolphins. Chimpanzees and humans make up the contingent of humans trying to restore the environment to habitability while establishing an Earth presence as players in the Galactic Universe. The friendship between a human who does not fit with his species and a Chimpanzee who doesn’t fit in with his, drives the story. We learn to care about these characters as they recognize their strengths and learn to deal with females (and other problems). We are also introduced to the Tymbrimi, a race - friendly to humans, entrenched in Galactic tradition - with great telepathic powers. We grow to know both the Ambassador and the Ambassador’s daughter, another outcast who comes into her own while leading a guerilla uprising against the unfriendly Galactics. THE UPLIFT WAR won the Hugo and LOCUS awards and was nominated for the Nebula.

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In 1990, he produced what is perhaps his most prophetic work to date: EARTH. Not part of the Uplift series, EARTH details the efforts of a group of scientists to save the earth from a submicroscopic black hole that has been found in the earth’s core. As almost a side thought, Brin has EVERYONE connected to everyone else, continuously. Everyone carries a wireless computer and can hook up to the "net" at need. Senior citizens spy on everyone (it’s call observing...do YOU have the Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol in YOUR area?). Perhaps his best invention: Lawyers have been largely replaced with Lawyer Programs (we can hope). Computer enhanced entertainment has made movies and television archaic hobbies. Though there is considerable time devoted to explaining the science of “singularities” (such as a tiny black hole orbiting the earth’s core, wreaking havoc whenever it encounters an energy field), the characters caught in this struggle are what hold the reader’s interest.

GLORY SEASON (1993) is a departure of sorts. Set on a planet dominated by females, it is about cloning. Brin theorizes a procedure in which the male "sparks" the formation of the placenta, but the fetus is a clone of the mother. In this way a group of mostly female explorers have populated an entire world with their progeny. Clone families have specializations (banking, farming, transportation). The thing that makes GLORY SEASON different from other "clone" stories is that these people recognized that the mixing of genes is vital to the survival of a species. So, during the summer months, conceptions are more traditional. Man, Woman...VARIANT. The VARS are the children of summer. They are different. They are unique. If they are FEMALE then they have the chance of establishing a niche for themselves and being allowed to join the clone community. The story follows a set of twin VARS who are trapped in between; they are clones of each other, but not members of the clone community.

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Brin went once again to the Galactic Universe in BRIGHTNESS REEF (1995). In some ways a follow up to STARTIDE RISING, this book picks up the story of half the dolphin crew. They are submerged on a planet of renegades...descendants of outlaw members of Galactic races. These races have formed a peaceful, supportive community. The arrival of the Earth ship and the resultant attention it brings threatens to destroy the peaceable world. This branch of the uplift story is continued in INFINITY’S SHORE (1996) and HEAVEN'S REACH (1998). While I have read INFINITY’S SHORE once, I would not claim to be familiar with it. I have never read HEAVEN’S REACH. (Did I mention I had a child in 1995?)

Since then, he has written a closure novel for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH -1999) and KILN PEOPLE (reviewed here by Galen Strickland). Of KILN PEOPLE Brin says: “one of my most original concepts and stories in years." He has also published a collection of short stories, OTHERNESS (1994), and a DC Comics hardcover book, FORGIVENESS (2001), set in the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe.

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David Brin is a SCIENTIST who understands and values humanity. His love of humanity shines through all of his work. To read a Brin novel is to submerge one’s self in a world in which humanity and its strengths are celebrated. Reading a Brin novel never fails to leave one feeling good about our hope, our possibilities. Perhaps this is why I find him so appealing. In looking to the future, it would be very easy to paint a dark picture of humanity. While Brin does not shy from possible darkness, he focuses on the potential for good.


Related Links:
Brin's Official Website
Galen's review of Kiln People
Galen's reviews of the Uplift Trilogy
Brin's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com


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October 6, 1950
Glendale, California

Official Website

3 Hugos
1 Nebula
1 Campbell Memorial
5 Locus
1 Italia
2 Seiun