Book Review: Startide Rising by David Brin

So, I hope you didn’t think I just gave reading updates around here. I still review books, too.

I read this one late last year. What did I think of Startide Rising by David Brin? Let us dive into that question, into an off-world ocean filled with sentient dolphins, with unique spacecraft, and with what some have called bad poetry.

For starters, I don’t call it bad poetry. I don’t because I myself know little about crafting good poetry; Mister Brin at this moment is a finer poet than I, as I’m sure he was in 1983, before my birth.

True, the ‘trinary’ poems of characters like Hikahi and Creideiki are not on the level of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by S.T. Colridge or “Dover Beach” by Mathew Arnold, two of my favorite poems, but let’s not forget we’re talking about dolphins here. Dolphins who have not mastered sentience, let alone the finer points of iambic pentameter. Perhaps they’re not supposed to be good poets. But, to look at some of these goodreads reviews, you’d think these verses were crimes against humanity, making the book impossible to enjoy.

Actually, I appreciated a bit of trinary, especially some that came later in the novel from Keepiru, which served to reveal a side plot about secret genetic engineering:

* Cold water boils

               When you scream

* Red-jawed hunger

               Fills your dream

* Harpoons slew

               The whales,

* The nets of Iki

               Caught us,

* Yet you, alone

               We feared at night

* You alone—

               . . . Orca.

It made me a little frightened of killer whales.

Anyway, I guess this review has begun in the middle of a story. Let’s catch up.

Startide Rising is the second book in David Brin’s Uplift saga. ‘Uplift’ is the process of elevating other animal species to human-level sentience and intelligence. In the novel, species such as chimpanzees and dolphins have been uplifted by human beings through genetic manipulation. A number of these creatures form the crew of the deep space vessel, Streaker.

They are of course accompanied by a few respected humans, who are veterans of this sort of thing. However, technical rank belongs to the dolphins, and with a character I grew fond of, Captain Creideiki. He will bring much needed wisdom and Zen to the crew, as many of them show signs of succumbing to the Whale Dream, a primal state of madness brought on by the stresses of the mission.

Their mission? To report back to Earth about their discovery of an ancient fleet of alien vessels, which are rumored to belong to the species that uplifted humans.

What stresses could this mission bring on, you ask? Well, we’ve got a few.

  • Galactics hunting the dolphin/human crew, as they want the information for themselves.
  • A full-blown mutiny aboard Streaker, instigated by both human and dolphin collaborators.
  • Getting marooned on an ocean planet saturated with heavy metals.
  • Indigenous, pre-uplift creatures who are put in danger by these shenanigans.
  • One traitorous chimpanzee.

I believe I liked the dolphins best, especially Creideiki, Akki, and Keepiru. They are the finest examples of humanity in this novel, though Gillian and Toshio, the humans, are okay, too. Tomas Orley on the other hand struck me as very much a superman who could do everything well. While he undertook a dangerous mission, I did not ever really fear for his safety. I found him too perfect for me to like, and I could not really consider him the hero of the novel. To me, that will always be Akki, who, if you read his desperate underwater fight scene, might just make a believer out of you.

As for the galactics, while they could be entertaining, and they make great use of some unique psychic abilities, many of them come across as cheesy in their design and behavior. They are brutal in their beliefs and mentalities, making me wish I never run across one. To galactics, to provide uplift means getting indentured servitude in return. The humans are, well, more humanitarian.

The book’s habitual scene breaks, and just as many shifts in point of view, made reading sluggish for me, like other readers, but I cannot deny the payoffs, nor the unexpected mysticism, I was finally treated to. It may not be for everyone, but the concept alone for Startide Rising is so strong, and along with the story’s excitement, I can safely say it deserves respect.

Startide Rising won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for best novel in 1984. It is followed by The Uplift War, and preceded by Sundiver. I do wish the books were more connected than they appear to be—apart from the obvious connection of uplift—or that the characters I’ve gotten to know appear in the other books, as I would read the rest of this first trilogy.

There is a novel set in the Uplift universe that came out years later, Brightness Reef, that I’d like to check out, though. It would be interesting to see how Brin’s characters or writing style have changed.

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