The Uplift Trilogy
by David Brin
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 18, 2019
Edits & Addenda on May 26 & May 31
Sundiver / Startide Rising / The Uplift War
David Brin's Uplift series is a highly regarded and awarded group of books. The first one, Sundiver, did not win any awards, but it was a finalist in the 1981 Locus poll as Best First Novel. It is currently out of print, but used copies are available from amazon through that link, or you can check bookfinder.com or ebay. I guess I was mistaken that I had read this before. I know I read the second and third parts of the trilogy in an SFBC omnibus volume titled Earthclan sometime in the late '80s. I'll get to them soon, since they won Hugo and/or Nebula awards, among others, but nothing in Sundiver sparked any memories, other than the concept of Uplift.
There is a millions-, possibly billions-year-old consortium of galactic civilizations. "The Five Galaxies" actually. They speak of the original creators as the Progenitors, who uplifted other species to higher intelligence levels, but then disappeared to an unknown region of space, or else to another plane of reality. Now there is a heirarchy of civilizations, at the top of which are those who have uplifted the most other species. All of this is thrown into chaos when humanity has its first alien encounter. The confusion stems from the idea that no one else uplifted humans, we did it all on our own, although factions on Earth disagree on that point. Some think an alien race did uplift us in our distant past, but then disappeared themselves before the job was complete, leaving no record of it in the Galactic Library. To add to the confusion, the aliens are surprised that humans have already uplifted at least two species on their own, dolphins and chimpanzees.
The novel opens a few decades after Contact. We're introduced to Jacob Demwa, who has been working with dolphins at Earth's Uplift Center, directly communicating with them and training them to operate aquatic craft. Previously he had done other scientific investigations, including into problems with the Vanilla Needle, a space elevator in Ecuador. Various alien dignitaries had already visited Earth, some are at least semi-permanent residents. Jacob had previously become friends with Fagin, a Kanten, who invites him to a conference at the alien compound in Baja California. The Sundiver project has encountered problems, and for some reason Fagin thinks Demwa is qualified to investigate it. Sundiver, based on Mercury, sends probes into the chromosphere of the sun, in which they believe they have discovered sentient beings. That's a concept best considered through a gigantic suspension of disbelief. Some probes are manned by humans, some by chimpanzees. One of the latter is destroyed shortly after Demwa arrives on Mercury. What was the cause? Retaliation from the chromosphere beings, or was it sabotage? If sabotage, was it at the hands of humans or aliens, and for what purpose?
Bearing in mind this is a first novel, there are some remarkable concepts introduced, but it is not without its faults. There are quite a few plot elements introduced that were not fully developed, foremost among them the different religious or secular groups on Earth arguing over humanity's rise to intelligence. Then there are the hints at past political movements, the realignment of governments and nation states, along with the Probationers, people who have been tested and deemed too prone to violence, so their social prospects are severely limited. Another is the constant reminders of the tragedy that befell Demwa in Ecuador, but with insufficient explanation of what he actually did there, what the problem with the Needle had been. Also, the notion that Demwa is schizophrenic, with an alter-ego he calls Hyde, when it might be he's just good at mind games when confronted with mysteries and obstacles in his path. The less said about Jacob's relationship with Sundiver's Captain Helene da Silva the better. I could also have done without the slightly politically incorrect story of the Cherokee, whom Demwa claims as ancestors. The book should have been either longer to more fully explore some of these plots, or else shorter to concentrate on what was happening within the sun's atmosphere and on Mercury. What we do get on that reads like a mystery, replete with several macguffins and red herrings, along with dialog lifted straight out of a detective movie. The Sundiver craft initially sounds preposterous, considering we've come no closer that 15 million miles with any of our probes, but that is mitigated by the fact alien technologies were used for many of its features. Now that Earth has access to the Galactic Library, there may not be any limit to what we could accomplish.
I'm rating this just 3 stars (out of 5) on Goodreads, although certain portions would warrant a slightly higher score. I'm not sorry I read it, since I do like to explore an author from the beginnings of their career, plus it leads into the rest of the Uplift Trilogy. I just hope my memory of them is not mistaken, that Brin improved on his characterizations, dialog, and plotting skills. I'll be updating this page soon with thoughts on Startide Rising, but first there's another ARC I need to read ahead of that. Stay tuned.
As mentioned above, I first read Startide Rising, winner of Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, in an omnibus edition from the Science Fiction Book Club, which included the conclusion to the original trilogy, The Uplift War. I no longer have that book. My current copy of Startide is also an SFBC edition, from their 50th Anniversary Collection, with the third title in paperback. It is possible the omnibus was an abridged version of the two novels, since both are much longer than the first book, with Uplift War at least twice as long. Also, I read somewhere that Startide had been revised sometime in the '90s. I'm confused about the timeline of the series. Sundiver is supposedly set mid-23rd Century, with the second possibly more than two hundred years later, yet a character in Startide mentions meeting Jacob Demwa. Either Demwa was much younger than I assumed, Tom Orley much older, or life expectancy had been greatly increased, possibly all three of those being true. Less puzzling is Helene da Silva also being mentioned in the second book, since her timeline would take into account the paradoxes of her various space voyages through wormholes. There have been many technological advancements since the first book, with humans undergoing both genetic and mechanical enhancements, along with comparable experiments on their uplifted client species.
Streaker is an Earth survey ship crewed by eight humans, one uplifted chimpanzee, more than a hundred-and-fifty neo-dolphins, and captained by another dolphin. They discover a swarm of derelict space ships which had apparently long escaped detection by the rest of the Galactics. They also recover a mummified alien body. When they message Earth they are told to go into hiding and not to communicate again until further notice. Many other Galactic fleets get word of their message, and believing the derelict fleet is of Progenitor origin, they pursue Streaker to the water world of Kithrup. While Streaker hides under the waves to work on repairs, the Galactics battle it out in orbit, with the eventual victor hopeful of reaping the spoils Streaker has found. One alien craft is damaged and crashes into the ocean nearby. A contingent of the Earth crew examines it, hoping for usable parts for their own repairs, and Tom Orley, the lead human crewmember, concocts a scheme for escape. Tom is revered by most all of the neo-dolphins, including Captain Creideiki, but there is a contingent of dolphins controlled by phsychologist Ignacio Metz, who has his own agenda. The crew is separated into various groups, some working on Streaker's repairs, another exploring the crashed alien ship, while a smaller group investigates a nearby island which has a strange tectonic nature, and is home to a pre-sentient amphibian species that may be ripe for Uplift. Tom Orley ventures towards volcanoes to the north in preparation for tactics against the Galactics.
This is a much better book than the first, but still not without a few weaknesses. The characters are more clearly defined, and the action is better described, but the narrative is scattered and fractured due to very short chapters that switch the perspective too often, leaving scenes without resolution, sometimes even back-tracking the timeline to what's happening in another area. It would have worked better with longer chapters following certain actions to a relative conclusion before the shifts. To be fair, that style worked best toward the end in the build-up to the climax, but frustrating before that. The various dolphin personalites are described in such a way it was easy tracking their actions and their loyalties. Just as the Galactics had their heirarchies of patron and client species, a similar dynamic is evident in Streaker's crew. Most of the dolphins are proud of their accomplishments, confident they will one day graduate to crewing their own ships without human supervision, but some are impatient and distrustful of humans, assuming men would always consider them inferior. That fear would have only grown stronger if they had been aware that Tom Orley, and his partner Gillian Baskin, kept secrets from the other humans, and from Captain Creideiki, and most all of other the dolphins too.
Brin continually kept secrets from the reader as well, with only hints about some things, but leaving a scene before the characters could impart certain information, even though in some instances it seemed they were adamant about not doing so. Since it had been more than thirty years since I first read this I had little memory of the conclusion, and also can't recall which characters will return in the third book. Some men die, some dolphins die, and many aliens die. However, the eventual survival of a few was serendipitous and anti-climactic, since there was every indication they would not survive, from either tragically being left behind, or else sacrificing themselves so that others could escape. Otherwise well done, with intriguing insight into how man could communicate with "lower" animals, as well as assert how our unique evolution might eventually impress other Galactics. I'll hopefully follow up with thoughts on the third book before the end of the month.
The Uplift War won Hugo and Locus awards in 1988, and then a Seiun a few years later when it was translated into Japanese. It was also a Nebula and Prometheus finalist. It's a more complex novel than the previous two, again alternating chapters with different characters' perspectives, but in this case the plot was fleshed out more in each section before switching to another locale. With one exception, the most important characters are non-human. The previous book was populated mostly by neo-dolphins, with just one neo-chimpanzee in the Streaker crew, but here the chimps take center stage, dolphins not brought to the planet Garth due to ocean chemicals toxic to the cetaceans. Garth is an Earth colony, one of several granted to humans after others had damaged their ecosystems. In the case of Garth, many of its native species had been wiped out in what was referred to as the Bururalli Holocaust. The action is limited to a small portion of the planet, so it can be assumed the restoration of the planet has been, and will continue to be, a very long ordeal, with many other areas yet unexplored.
The beginning of the novel overlaps the end of the previous book, with the fate of Streaker still unresolved. The patron race of the Gooksyu-Gubru, along with some of their allies, invades Garth hoping to force information from humanity about what Streaker had found. A siege of Earth and other colonies is mentioned, but never detailed. The structure of Galactic civilizations is highly ritualized, with the invasion of Garth legitimized because the Gubru followed all the protocols as required by the Institute for Civilized Warfare. Allies of Earth, primarily the Tymbrimi, aid the humans in responding, both diplomatically and militarily, in the proper manner. Robert Oneagle, son of Garth's Planetary Coordinator, is sent into the jungle with Athaclena, daughter of the Tybrimmi amabassador, shortly before the invasion. Robert is injured in an accident, but they encounter a group of humans and chimps working on a clandestine operation. They constitute the beginnings of a guerilla (and gorilla) resistance to the Gubru occupation. The most prominent neo-chimp is Fiben Bolger, a naval pilot, and long-time friend of Robert's. He works with both the guerilla group in the mountains, as well as traveling on several occasions to the capital city Port Helenia, where he forms an alliance with Gailet Jones, a highly educated chimmie (female neo-chimp). Even though Robert is military, Athaclena does more to direct the resistance, and she is dubbed the General by the neo-chimps. Almost all the other humans are incarcerated on islands just off the coast near Port Helenia.
The book was much longer than it needed to be. More character descriptions and world building information, but there are too many back and forth actions that don't do much to propel the plot. Rather than Uplift War, this could have easily been titled The Uplift Quarrel (or Negotiation). There are a few skirmishes, but mostly diplomatic posturings. And at the end of more than 600 pages, still no details of Streaker's discoveries. For now I'll say The Uplift War is the best of the original trilogy, but no less frustrating than the previous two. Brin's at his best when he's describing how man interacts with nature, with other species, both his uplifted clients and aliens, but getting to the point often eluded him. I've never read the three books that followed, generally referred to as the Uplift Storm trilogy, so I don't know when that mystery is revealed. There are also prequel stories and others set within the timelines of the novels, which I may get to one of these days, but that will have to wait. My ratings of the books at this time is a solid three stars for Sundiver, and four stars each for the other two, but technically a bit less than that for Startide and slightly higher for War.
David Brin: His Life and Work - profile article by Eliza DoLots
Brin's Official Website
Brin's bibliography at FantasticFiction.com
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