Sundiver by David Brin
Though written first of all the Uplift Saga, Sundiver actually serves more as a prequal than an opening book in its own right. The story is set in the mid-23rd century, a good 150 years before the rest of the series, only a few decades after humanity’s first contact with galactic civilization and shortly after the establishment of a branch of the galactic library on earth. While it was quite possible to start with the Uplift War not having read Sundiver, I find Brin’s world fascinating and the idea to look at a little of that world's’ history definitely appealed to me, so when the opportunity came to read the book of course I grabbed it with both hands.
Sundiver is set in Brin’s Uplift universe; a complex galaxy-wide society of many species formed into clans where one patron species “uplifts” a client race to sentience through eugenics and training, a client race who must serve their patrons for a hundred millennia before being able to foster and uplift clients of their own. Humanity is however unique in this galaxy since unlike other races, humanity has no patron, making it a source of considerable interest and controversy, especially since humanity is working to uplift neo chimpanzees and neo dolphins as their own clients.
Where the later Uplift books had a large cast of characters across a sprawling narrative and setting Sundiver is definitely a book with a single protagonist and a more conventional structure. Jacob Demwa is a scientific investigator working with the uplift of Neo Dolphins as he mourns the loss of his wife. An old friend of his, the cheerful and polite Fagin, a member of the plant like Kantin race requests Jacob to join him on Mercury and assist with the Sundiver project. This is a multispecies effort to fly modified ships into the chromosphere of the sun where living creatures have been discovered, creatures who might be the mythical patrons of humanity. What complicates matters from the perspective of galactic politics is the eons old galactic library has no record of stellar life, and to have that life discovered by the upstart humans is definitely not something that sits well with more conservative elements. When Jacob arrives on Mercury however, matters start to spiral out of control as the Sundiver project is plagued by technical failures, murderous sabotage and ghostly appearances within the sun itself meaning Jacob must take up his old investigative skills, finding love and battling his own inner demons along the way.
Sundiver is in a lot of ways a rather more predictable setup for a story than either of the other two Uplift books I have read. A scientific whodunit (or possibly whatdunit), in an alien environment with a delicate web of interspecies politics hanging in the balance. This is a style of plot which in other hands (such as in some of Isaac Asimov’s books), I confess I have not always found interested me, mostly because so called “hard sf” writers who most often employed this type of plot tended to expect the puzzle alone to be of interest to the reader, thus meaning they gave only small nods to such things as environment, atmosphere or characters.
Despite being definitely of the “hard sf” school (he is after all a professor of astrophysics), Brin has always been an atmospheric writer, and he does not disappoint here. From an Earth where space elevators rise to orbit to the gleaming liquid metal mines of Mercury, the alien beauty and glorious sweeping landscapes of the book are just as colourful as those I have come to expect from Brin’s work. In particular, the way he depicts the blazing world of the sun itself and the creatures who live there is simply glorious. His artistic touches here are especially notable considering that Brin’s technology is definitely understandable from a scientific rather than fantastic basis; there are few sf writers who could at the same time discuss the need to cut out various spectra of light to see the sun’s topography of different ionising gases, and also give us gorgeously described landscapes into the bargain. I do not know if another 40 or so years of stellar research have changed what we know about the sun from when Brin was writing, but either way I definitely appreciated being able to follow both the science and the poetry in equal measure, plus of course the presence of the poetry does mean that even if the science off the book is out Sundiver will still be far from invalid.
Brin is also one of the best writers I know for depicting very alien aliens, and he does not disappoint here. There are definitely fewer aliens than in later Uplift books, though equally what aliens there are, are extremely distinct characters and written with Brin’s usual sense of the bizarre. In particular I was very amused by the alien Librarian Bubbacub, a small, cute teddy bear-like alien who also happens to be officious, proud and pompous, a characterisation which likely became even funnier three years after Sundiver’s initial publication when the Ewoks put in an appearance.
Speaking of humour, Sundiver also showcases another strength of Brin’s writing, his ability to change styles and atmosphere in an evolving story, giving us moments of comedy, tragedy and beauty throughout the course of the narrative.
For all the trademark Brin humour, big ideas and landscapes however, there is one clear aspect in which Sundiver is very much a first novel, and that is character and plot development. Despite seemingly a unique history Jacob is simply not an appealing character. What few hints of character we get show him as cold and somewhat abrasive, though for the most part he simply is the usual analytic engineer type so common in hard sf stories simply focused on the problem at hand, indeed in many ways I found myself more attached to the supporting players than Jacob. This is quite surprising given that someone who reads like the mythical son of Jane Goodall and Hercule Poirot with a little of Mr. Hyde thrown in should be a fascinating protagonist, but unfortunately with Jacob it seems Brin’s ideas were better than his execution.
While Brin is too skilled a writer to let the supporting cast simply be cut-outs, at the same time I did notice he tends to present characters and leave them fairly static as events occur around them, indeed in many ways the characterisation suffers from the mystery type structure since it often felt as if characters were presented like suspects with a defining trait e.g. the friendly secretary, the polite ambassador or the odious journalist and then left to sit around until everyone meets in the accusing parlour for the big reveal. That being said, Brin does play these characters with more than enough sincerity to make me care about who was the culprit, indeed it surprised me when the reveal came out how strongly I felt about the character in question, particularly since Brin is careful enough with his revelations to make us suspect multiple characters throughout the story and not cop out with a one suspect “the butler did it” type of solution.
It is also to Brin’s credit that the accusation scene (the chapter is even called in the parlour), occurs two thirds through the novel rather than at the end, and even when matters are revealed time is taken to deal with the revelations and the motivations of the characters involved.
Unfortunately, where things fall down badly is the book’s attempt at romance. It was fairly obvious that in Sundiver’s captain Helene deSilva, Brin was consciously trying to create a competent female character. What results however, is a character who seems to alternate between being unerringly competent or typically feminine. This can be seen in both the speedy offhand way Helene decides that Jacob is attractive mid mission almost out of the blue, and one extremely problematic scene in which she breaks off her duties to pull Demwa into a cupboard so she can have a good cry on his manly shoulder, then immediately goes back to skilfully flying the ship through the sun as if nothing had happened. This is probably the only respect in which the book shows its age, especially when Helene explains pregnant women are required crew for starships since they are less likely to risk dangerous manoeuvres in space which is one reason she is interested in Jacob (one of the most wrongheaded attempts at justifying female equality I’ve ever heard).
Given that Jacob is less than likable, the rather arbitrary romance also failed in the purpose of helping Jacob over the death of his wife and letting us feel glad for him, which again is not what I would expect of Brin since unlike many hard sf writers he usually writes extremely realistic and genuinely well-developed romantic encounters.
Then again since Sundiver is definitely a book about the world and status as much as its characters, the gender inequality and lack of effort with the romance did not feel quite as egregious as it might have done in another setting, after all even if I did not care too much about Jacob himself, I definitely did appreciate the complex political stakes he was playing for, and undoubtedly Brin does vastly improve his characterisation of both female and male characters in later Uplift books.
It was also extremely nice having read the later Uplift novels to get a look at Earth and its history and here again Brin presents us with some wonderfully drawn ideas of how people might react to the discovery of galactic civilization. I particularly liked the two opposing political ideologies, the Skins who believed humanity evolved on their own and wanted as little to do with extraterrestrials (Eetees as they call them), as possible, and the Shirts who welcomed all aliens in hopes of finding humanity’s absent patron race. Uniquely both factions cause issues for Sundiver since the Skins hate the idea of using Eetee technology while the Shirts see attempts at human scientific research as laughable beside the millennia of knowledge stored in the galactic library.
One aspect of Brin’s world building which did not receive as much attention here is humanity’s two client races, since we only briefly see a Neo Dolphin and Neo Chimp in the book, and while both are highly engaging for their short appearances I can well understand why Brin chose to set the other Uplift books considerably later when both Neo Dolphins and Neo Chimps had made it into space and formed societies of their own which we could then explore.
Being only around ten hours long, Sundiver is also far shorter than the other Uplift books. To an extent this is a good thing given that Jacob was just not half as interesting to be around as compared to some of Brin’s other characters and given the mystery structure we didn’t have to wait too long between developments, however equally it did seem that in Sundiver Brin has presented us with a vast and shining galaxy, and has most of the action occur on a rather small spaceship stuck inside the sun. In some ways Sundiver feels like a typical small country house detective story set in Middle Earth, where it’s a little hard to care about what Colonel Mustard might have been doing in the kitchen with the wrench because we’d much rather he was off on a long journey to Gondor exploring the world along the way.
Then again while I do wish we could’ve explored more of Brin’s universe in the book, the power play and political currents around Sundiver are very well highlighted and do give a sense of matters on a galactic scale, especially because Brin manages to keep the politics quite easy to understand despite juggling several factions and sets of interests.
Though very much a first novel Sundiver still has a lot to recommend it. There are some quite likable if slightly under used secondary characters, the interplay of its various human and alien political factions and above all some wonderfully alien aliens and gorgeously described landscapes. Despite rather flat characterization and a little dated take on gender, the book was more than satisfying enough, especially for someone like me who has a love of things unearthly. That being said, if you’re new to the Uplift universe, I would not recommend Sundiver as an introduction, simply because both the work, and its world is rather rougher and less well formed than we would expect, however if you’ve already read other Uplift books and wanted to see a little of how that world came about diving into the sun might still be a good experience.
This Sundiver book review was written by Dark
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