Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Review: Startide Rising

David Brin
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

Startide Rising takes place in the future. The now regularly space-faring humans have made contact with the Galactics, an inter-galactic federation of alien species.

The Galactics are governed by the laws of “uplift.” Uplift is a process in which a “patron” race of advanced, sentient beings takes on the responsibility for educating, mentoring, and, on occasion, physically modifying “client” races of less advanced, pre-sentient beings. The goal is for the clients to become sentient and space-faring and, in turn, to become patrons for client races of their own.

Uplift is the polar opposite of the Prime Directive. What it means is that as soon as you find a promising pre-sentient race, you need to swoop in and declare them to be your clients before anyone else does.

Every single sentient Galactic species alive was uplifted by another, more advanced species. The chain of patrons and clients extends back millions of years to the revered, semi-mythical “Progenitors,” the first race and the only race to have ever uplifted themselves.

The only race to have uplifted themselves, that is, besides humans.

The apparently “orphan” humans are almost universally hated. They are seen as impudent upstarts. And, just by existing, they call the whole system of uplift into question; how could humans have uplifted themselves when no species more intelligent and sophisticated was able to?

Anyway, once exposed to the idea of uplift, the humans quickly took on two client races of their own – chimpanzees and dolphins.

The plot of Startide centers on the maiden voyage of the Earth spaceship Streaker, which is captained and primarily crewed by dolphins with a small contingent of humans and one chimpanzee.

Streaker’s original mission is to test the fitness of dolphins as a space-faring race. But that quickly changes when they stumble across a derelict ghost fleet abandoned in a remote corner of the universe – a fleet that may actually be related to the Progenitors. And they are able to retrieve a corpse from the wreckage.

As soon as the rest of the universe hears about the ghost fleet, they all rush in to fight the Earthlings and each other over what the Earthlings have found. Streaker is damaged in the conflict but is temporarily able to escape, limping away and crash-landing on a semi-hospitable planet nearby.

The rest of the book takes place on this planet, with the Earthlings trying to repair their ship and get back home with their discoveries before the Galactics finish fighting each other and catch up to them.

The story is basically okay, but it does feel a bit like a contrived vehicle for illustrating the uplift concept rather than a story that arose on its own because it was inherently riveting.

Uplift is an interesting idea, and Brin creates a coherent set of laws supporting it. The other client and patron races in the book are varied and show how different patron species treat their clients very differently; some see clients as servants while others genuinely do try to make them self-sufficient.

But uplift also makes me uncomfortable. For one thing, the genetic manipulation that patron races use to speed the process – altering a dolphin’s blowhole to make human language sounds, for example, or gradually turning fins into hands – seems wrong. It leaves a lot of room for error and evil (as is borne out in the story).

For another thing, I was skeptical of the overpowering awe in which clients hold their patrons. The dolphins and chimps are capable pilots, scientists, and doctors but they humble themselves to even the lowliest human. They drop everything to aid a human in distress, even over another chimp or dolphin or their own safety. If I was a member of a client species, I don’t know if I would be so universally deferential.

This is the second novel of six that Brin set in his Uplift universe. I generally enjoyed this one and the third, The Uplift War (which I read because it was also a Hugo winner), but feel no need to read the other four.

No comments:

Post a Comment

HTML Tag Instructions

Bold: To make text bold, tag it as follows:

<b>text you want to appear in bold</b>

Italic: To italicize text, tag it as follows:

<i>text you want to appear in italic</i>

Links: To add clickable links, like say to a Wikipedia article on baseball, tag it as follows:

<a href="">text you want to link from</a>

Related Posts with Thumbnails