This is the sort of novel that inspired me to do this project: I’ve always wanted to read the Uplift novels, but I’d never gotten around to them because so many other books took precedence. This project has forced me to read them, and I have to report that I am very glad I did.
The setting is a space opera universe where humanity has encountered an ancient Galactic Civilization full of different alien races with a clear hierarchy between them. Every known species was granted sentience through instruction and genetic manipulation – the process called “uplift” – by another species (except, of course, the original, mythical Progenitors). The oldest species that have uplifted more aliens have high status, and their “client” species also share some of that status. The thing is, no one knows who uplifted humanity…which would mean that they would have very low status as an abandoned, or “wolfling” race, except for the possibility that they are the first species since the Progenitors to uplift themselves.
The first Uplift novel is a book called Sundiver, basically a murder mystery set on a solar expedition with a cast of humans and odd aliens as the suspects. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to read Sundiver first, but it was a fun novel and a good introduction to the world of Uplift. The mystery does get a little byzantine by the end (there are several false resolutions and a very over-the-top climax), and I’d have to say that Startide Rising is the better constructed novel all around, which is probably why it racked up the awards and Sundiver did not.
Before they encountered aliens, humanity had begun to uplift a couple of species itself – both chimpanzees and dolphins have been taught (and genetically engineered) to reason, build, and speak English. Startide Rising follows the crew of the first dolphin starship, which makes a startling discovery that draws the wrath of several traditionalist aliens. As much as you want the fun and plucky dolphins to kick ass and save the galaxy, it turns out that they are in over the heads in several different respects. Their damaged ship, the Streaker, hides out on the water planet of Kithrup while the crew fights amongst istelf and aliens fight over them in the skies. Brin manages to play the tension of the situation very well, and he’s created a very convincing culture for dolphins, including a set of religious beliefs that stretch back to before they were uplifted. The characters are great, the novel moves at a fast-paced, and there’s an action sequence at the end that’s as exciting as any I’ve read in space opera.
My only complaint is that Brin seems to have a tendency to write moustache-twirling villains. His hateful aliens make sense, and they actually occupy a fairly believable and unique niche among sf aliens: they don’t want to help us be better people, and they don’t want to eat us or steal are water, they just don’t give a damn about us. So, the super-evil aliens I’ll accept, but there are actually some members of the crew who are just really dastardly. Some of them get fleshed out more by the end, but some remain two dimensional baddies throughout.
That complaint aside, I loved this book. Highly recommended.