David Brin,
The Uplift Saga #2: Startide Rising
(Spectra, 1983)

I just read Startide Rising for the second time, and again I was blown away by how fantastic it really is. This book is full of the ideas that make science fiction what it is: Interesting characters who have actual personalities instead of cookie-cutter mannerisms, a premise whose most intriguing elements are revealed slowly, pulling the reader along (I hate books that read like a bad made-for-TV movie!) and oh, about a hundred other things that make Startide a compulsively readable joy, more than worthy of the awards it has won (in spite of what David Brin's detractors may say, they don't give Hugos and Nebulas to also-rans and bad writers).

The basic plot is this: The neo-dolphin-crewed Earthship, Streaker, has put down on the ocean world of Kithrup to make repairs. Streaker is being chased by a fractious, infighting consortium of galactics, who are after the potentially explosive cargo Streaker carries: possible evidence of the so-called Progenitors, who supposedly began the "Uplift" process that created all sapient beings in the known universe. (For those unfamiliar with Brin, Uplifting is the genetic engineering of presentient or near-sentient creatures, creating from basic root-stock intelligent, starfaring races. All starfaring races have uplift "patrons" -- except Terrans, which rankles the so-called galactics no end. For a more detailed explanation of all this, read the book!)

Kithrup is a hostile world; its seas contain heavy mineral salts that irritate the dolphins' skin. Worse, their situation is so tense that some of the dolphins are beginning to go primal -- that is, to revert to their wild state. It is up to Streaker's command crew, plus human assistants Gillian Baskin and Tom Orley and chimpanzee scientist Charles Dart, to effect repairs on the ship, somehow escape the vast armada battling for the right to their cargo and make it back to Earth.

That's the plot, and it seems kind of goofy on the face of it, doesn't it? Nothing could be futher from the truth, in fact! Brin is a writer of immense skill and artistry, and turns what could have been a farce in lesser hands into a grand, fantastic, idea-rich story, a space opera worthy of the name. Startide is complex, full of plots and subplots, motives and murder, humor and heroics, and I've rarely read a better book, in any genre, in my life.

As just one example, since my time is short and my space is limited, let me offer the character of Captain Creideiki, the dolphin leader of the Streaker crew. Creideiki is one of the most fascinating characters ever created in a science fiction novel. He is a strong leader, wise and brave, with a metaphysical bent that nevertheless does not interfere when practical matters need taking care of. He is as complex and well-rendered as any of the human characters in Startide -- such as the impressively-rendered Toshio, or the Terragens Council agent Tom Orley, on whose heroics everything hinges ... but back to Credeiki. It is his journey through the story that is the most compelling, and kept me flipping through page after page -- more than anything, almost more than Streaker's fate, I wanted to know what happened to Creideiki next! It is rare for me to care so much about the fate of a non-human character, and that Brin was able to pull this off speaks volumes for his abilities as a writer.

I could go on and on -- one of the problems with writing about Startide is that it's SO rich in events and ideas, that it's simply impossible to cover everything I want to cover. From the incredible secret of Kithrup to the secret hidden by a select few of the Streaker dolphins, Startide Rising contains surprise after astonishing surprise, and it is no less rich the second time around than it was the first. I have little doubt that in 50 years or so, Startide (as well as the rest of the Uplift Saga) will be mentioned in the same breath as the Foundation series, the Rama series and the Dune saga. It's that good -- no, strike that. It's that great.

(Postscript: I've learned from Brin's home page that Startide has been optioned for a film adaptation! I can't imagine how anybody could pull that off without turning it into a glorified version of Flipper -- but even though I'm sure nothing good will come of it, I'm hoping whoever makes the attempt will prove me wrong.)

book review by
Jay Whelan

5 February 2011

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