Startide Rising by David Brin

Rating 9.1/10
Have you ever thought, how would the Enterprise do, if crewed by dolphins?

After The Uplift War, it was natural for my lady and I to read Startide Rising, particularly since the mentions of Neodolphins very much intrigued me, and of course because Brin's Uplift universe, where one sentient race "uplifts" another to be an intelligent species in their turn, thus forming "clans" or collections of patron races and their uplifted clients with political and ideological unions, is a truly unique and fantastic one.

One thing I found intriguing about Startide Rising is that the very background details and bare setup of the story could've made a novel in themselves. The book concerns the star ship Streaker; humanity's first ship crewed almost entirely by Phen, as Neo dolphins are called. As the book opens, Streaker has made an astounding discovery, a collection of million year old spaceships and one preserved alien corpse, supposed relics of the mythical progenitors, the first race ever to begin the process of uplift. Unfortunately, this has brought the Streaker the unwelcome attention of several powerful galactic clans, who have sent large battle fleets to capture the Streaker and its crew.

As the story begins, The Streaker has set down on the ocean planet Kithrup to make repairs, while a number of fleets from diverse galactic races battle in space above them.

Rather in the way that The Uplift War was in some ways the classic conflict of a small group of heroes at war with an overbearing evil empire, Startide Rising is then the equally well known style of the small ship and its intrepid crew standing against the odds. Again though, Brin manages to take this standard setup and portray it in a profoundly unique way.

One of the most obviously unique aspects of the book is the fact that the majority of characters are dolphins. Brin has plainly put as much work into thinking about how uplifted dolphins would think and feel and even interact with the environment, as he puts into the niochimp society seen in The Uplift War, everything from their use of prosthetic hands and walking machines when on land, a significant portion of the ship being full of water, to more profound differences such as the dolphin's integration of human style logic into their more artistic and free form thought patterns. Indeed one extremely beautiful stylistic touch Brin includes is the fact that the dolphins have three languages, Anglic, (a slightly accented version of English spoken underwater), Trinary, their natural speech usually rendered by Brin as haiku or triplicate verse, and occasionally primal, a more animalistic dream like speech which Brin writes as free verse.

This use of dolphin perception and speech gives the book a real diversity in its writing style, particularly since Brin, like his Phen characters can blend ultra scientific logic and the view and history of a universe stretching back millennia, with mysticism and poetry, still more because these multiple styles and types of thought are woven intricately into the plot and for one character to actually spell a way to find help for the beleaguered Streaker. Despite this diversity in perception though, The Phen however do far more than sit around saying "oh look at the beautiful ocean", indeed it occurred to me that dolphins in fiction tend to be presented in a fairly uniform way, being either mystics or tricksters.

While there is no denying the Streaker's crew includes mystics and tricksters, (sometimes being one and the same character), there are so many perspectives and characterizations which it simply never occurred to me could belong to dolphins despite their intelligence. Here however are a wide variety of dolphin characters with various motivations and attitudes which, while all most definitely Phen, are not ones we'd normally think of. For example, one of the nastiest characters in the book is the brutal Boatswain Ktha-jaan, while a major conflict arises between those fen whose genetic heritage is Tersiops truncatus and those with genes from the Stenos variety of dolphin. Dolphin racism is definitely a new and rather frightening idea (as one character comments rather cynically, the Phen have been made a little too human).

Although the overall plot, especially in certain character terms is undeniably darker than that in The Uplift War, Brin however is too experienced an author for things to become too gloomy, and his trademark humour definitely is in force hear, as well as characters, Phen, human or alien with whom you can genuinely sympathise. Indeed the Streaker's captain, the wise and experienced Creydaiki might be described as Jean-Luc Picard with flippers, while a significant portion of the book's humour comes from the ship's one Neo chimp crewman, Charles Dart, a geologist who finds the whole warring space fleets business just an annoying distraction from his work and is only interested in investigating Kithrup's crust... even if it just takes a very small A bomb.

Startide Rising's large number of characters presents one of the books few problems, since while most are wonderfully drawn and far more than one note affairs, and several feature some extremely well executed and surprising turns of development, such as the young midshipman Toshio learning to grow up and take command in a difficult situation, a few characters stories are lost in the rush and one or two plot elements come to a surprising end. The story of Denny the ship's young biologist and her unease at attracting the lustful attention of a Phen stops rather abruptly when she falls for one of her fellow human crew members, and my wife and I were both rather sad at the couple of chapters which detailed the adventures of Bay, a heroic spy for the Synthian race (one of humanity's few allies), which came to an untimely, and rather abrupt finish.

Speaking of aliens, though written four years before The Uplift War, I would still recommend that people read Startide Rising second since the book does not serve as quite as obvious an introduction to Brin's world. Part of this is where The Uplift War had one main antagonist, the unpleasant Gubru (who also put in an appearance here), in Startide Rising we see views of a number of alien races, all wanting to get their hands (claws, tentacles, or other appendages), on the Streaker's information about the lost fleet for various rather egotistical reasons. While I loved some of the alien perspectives of these Galactics, and the interplay of the complex battle going on above Kithrup, at the same time the perspectives are all rather brief, and concepts like the universal library or the powers of the galactic institute, central ideas in Brin's universe here are mentioned only in passing. Even slightly more mundane details do not perhaps get quite as much attention as we would expect, for example in some cases I was a little disappointed that Brin didn't give us more detail on some of the alien races even down to their physical appearance.

The book's plot in general is beautifully executed, but at times runs at a rather odd pace. In what is I suspect typical of Brin's writing, Kithrup is a wonderfully alien place, an ocean world with metal mountains, seas of floating weeds  and trees that drill down to the planet's core. This means that though the action is mostly centred around the crashed Streaker, there is plenty to explore, however frequently just after a discovery is made it's simply left as a background element while the plot turns elsewhere. Indeed, while I love most of Brin's characterization I did at times wonder if either the book needed to be longer, or he should've cut a few of the more minor perspectives to make the pacing more streamlined and the turns of the plot a little sharper. This is likely why The Uplift War is a good few hours longer than Startide Rising is, since Brin probably realized that the world he has created is so huge, in order to give us as complete a view of it and all its weird, alien ecological politics as we would want, as well as a story with all the usual hallmarks of plot, character and humour that Brin is able to bring to the table he needed a little more space. Despite the alien environment, huge battle and unquestionably space opera theme, there is no denying that its character, the difficulties of a ship's crew under siege and the tensions and rivalries between different members as well as the preoccupations and relationships of certain characters that make things truly compelling, taking into account love and loss, bigotry, brutality, cowardice and bravery along the way, and though some characters are a little short changed in their perspectives, most are wonderfully drawn and undergo some extremely satisfying progressions we can applaud, indeed this is one of those rare instances where a book is able to present characters who are most definitely heroic or villainous, but in a completely realistic way with even the villainous having some redeeming qualities and the heroic appearing slightly flawed.

The ending to the book is astounding, particularly the way Brin weaves together a lot of different plot elements, the actions of various characters and details we found out about Kithrup and the Galactics. The only thing that slightly disappointed me is that the book ends without exploring any of the questions about the progenitors or their ships which have sparked both the conflict over Streaker and the invasion of Garth in The Uplift War. Then again, while regarded as a stand alone novel my lady assures me we'll be seeing the Streaker and its crew again in Brin's later new Uplift trilogy, so hopefully those elements will be resolved at that point. Another rather severe loose end is the fate of several characters. While what happens to them is implied, things are still left rather open, although again their appearance in the later trilogy does indicate even indirectly what happens to them here.

Though Startide Rising is not an easy book, it is at the same time a highly rewarding story, full of wit, action and suspense, indeed I can think of few novels that can so easily combine high concept science fiction, warm very human (or mostly) characterization, love of nature and our fellow species on earth plus a healthy serving of epic space opera on the side into one huge package.

All in all an awesome story and one I'd highly recommend (though my lady is very cross that I gave it one point more than The Uplift War).

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