Startide Rising (1983) by David Brin

StartideRising(1stEd)An aircraft crashes on an unknown deserted land, where danger and mystery lurk in every shadow. The survivors are tested by their surroundings, their enemies, and each other as intrigue and drama unfold. Disagreements over strategy split the group, and one faction plots betrayal and murder to gain control of their fate. Meanwhile, unexplainable events suggest that their crash site isn’t exactly uninhabited, and some survivors risk their lives to discover the truth about this mysterious land’s history. As relationships among the characters evolve, the pasts of the more complex characters are revealed through flashbacks.

Sounds a lot like that TV show, Lost, right?

But did I mention that the crash survivors are sapient, talking, spacefaring dolphins? (And one obsessive chimpanzee geologist with mild Asperger’s syndrome?)

Startide Rising is David Brin’s second work* in the Uplift Saga, which follows Earth’s dramas soon after contact with other life forms in space, and during an era in which humanity plays evolutionary designer to the more intelligent of Earth’s species by “uplifting” chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins from sentience to sapience byway of genetic manipulation. Both species are now capable of critical, scientific thought, and share influence and responsibility with humans as they guide Earthling expeditions throughout the galaxy. Dolphins and chimps can now communicate complex ideas, often through a variety of styles, such as the dolphin languages of the screeching Primal, to the clicky, Haiku-esque Trinary, to the English-based Anglic. Humans in leadership positions are also expected to maintain fluency in these “client” languages.

It sounds awesome, but it also sounds like a children’s book. But Brin is an astrophysicist, so we must assume that a galactic crew of 150 dolphins, seven humans, and one chimp is inspired by more than just whimsy. So, why so many dolphins?

startiderising2It turns out, dolphins excel at space travel, far better than humans or chimps, thanks to their 3-D piloting instincts and their biological design for maneuvering in low-to-no grav. In fact, for the oxygen-breathing cetacean crew, space is preferable to the watery world of their crash site, where the metal-rich water irritates sensitive dolphin hides. The water in the ship must be replaced with the uncomfortable to breathe “oxy water,” and few dolphins leave the ship to explore the hive-inducing surroundings. Even on the aquatic planet of Kithrup, the humans and the chimp fare better than the distressed dolphins who are eager to return to space.

Like Lost, Startide Rising is more than just a story about survival. Mysticism and pseudoscience abound as Brin speculates upon cetacean religious beliefs, the transcendent whale song of dolphin meditation, and the psychic abilities of genetically designed humans. Among humans, dolphins, and other alien races, psychic abilities are described in many forms: psi-messages, psi-poetry, psi-storms, and even psi-bombs. Yes, psi-bombs.

The dolphin religion is particularly interesting, based upon the Earthling food chain, which forgives the carnivorous whales and humans at the top for murdering out of need and not spite, and permits a peaceful, working relationship between the sapient races. And, like the current state of human religion, hundreds of years of sapience has demoted dolphin religion to a status of superstition, with some holdovers for spirituality and unexplained mysticism, wherein the great whale god, K-K-Kph-kree, appears in dolphin dreams to offer riddles and advice.

Evolution is an obvious theme, where humanity’s current controversy regarding the topic is reflected among the alien species who accuse humanity of heresy for claiming natural evolution in a galaxy where every race has an uplift patron, with the exception of the ancient and godlike Progenitors. Manipulated genetic sapience is the norm for most races, and even humanity is puzzled by its own enigmatic rise to wisdom and awareness. Still, Brin shares some strange ideas about evolution, particularly de-evolution, wherein the newest uplifted species’ tend to revert to atavistic, primal behaviors when under stress, or as a result of misguided genetic modifications. Sure, we’ve all seen that primitive-looking dude on the street, but he’s just having a bad hair day. Evolution can’t possibly be that unstable.

Other important themes include racism and race relations, as resentment from the indentured uplifted species builds and chafes between characters of differing statuses. Uplifted species must work as “client” species to the “patron” race, until full sapience is achieved within several centuries. The Streaker may be led by a dolphin captain and a dolphin crew, but rumors of “secret orders” from Earth’s human leaders dwell in the subtext of all work-related interchanges. Dissatisfaction and mutinous threats rumble beneath the context, embedding the tale with a savagery usually reserved for horror novels. (The most riveting and vicious fight scene I’ve read in ages occurred in the latter half of this novel—between dolphins, of course.)

That savagery, along with the sexuality in Startide might be problematic for young readers. Nothing is explicit or gratuitous, and Brin stays true to his world by exploring all natural potentialities, including what might happen when Earth is populated by more than one sapient species— interspecies sex, of course. Sex scenes go no further than foreplay, but occur between two dolphins, two human clones with psi-ability (psi-sex!), a cringe-inducing flirtation between a dolphin and a human, and (egads!) a threesome between a human male, human female, and a male dolphin. In actuality, I think adults may struggle with these scenes more than children, who are likely to find it perfectly natural for a human to feel attracted to a talking dolphin.

startiderising3Brin demonstrates world-building artistry as Earth’s induction into the great Milky Way of 2489 C.E. is fully-fleshed, but well-parsed. There are no infodumps here, and an impatient reader may give up before Brin answers the many questions his world inspires. But don’t despair! Brin saves his clarifications for when they best serve the story, so that psi-bomb may not be fully elaborated until the very end. Still, fuzzy corners remain, particularly where other alien races are concerned, but one can expect that many of these races are revisited in other books of the series.

On the surface, Startide Rising may seem like a children’s space opera starring anthropomorphic dolphins, but it’s much deeper than that. It’s a classic, character-driven space opera that posits compelling scientific advances, overlaid with commentary about the human (and chimp, and dolphin) condition. Like a good character drama, it has a slow hook, designed to introduce characters slowly, then expose their raw nerves through interactions with one another. Like the aqua-metallic plantlife of Kithrup, it won’t grip you until the very end, but then it might not let go.

That said, I didn’t fall in love with the book. Despite the sex and savagery, this book would be best enjoyed by the tween crowd, or as a parceled bedtime story for the younger kiddos.

*Startide Rising is book #2 of Brin’s Uplift series. A cursory glance at reviews suggests the first novel, 1980’s Sundiver to be a weak and unnecessary prologue to its acclaimed sequel.

Singularity Sky (2003) by Charles Stross


SingularitySky(1stEd)This 2003 nuclear-steampunk space opera is crammed full of SF tropes and wink-and-nudge political satire. And in case you aren’t intelligent enough to sniff out the satire, Stross will bruise your ribs from his incessant elbowing of belabored musings and contrived character debates.

In the future, a mysterious force called the Eschaton has punished Earth for violating time-travel causality laws and relocates most of humanity to colonies throughout the galaxy. By the 23rd century, most of humanity has been rediscovered and efforts are made to reestablish relations. On neo-Victorian Rochard’s World, ruled by a technophobic regime, another mysterious presence called the Festival rains cell phones down from space, promising anything in exchange for entertainment. The reactionary government of Rochard’s World pursues war with the Festival, while the disenfranchised citizens demand revolution. At the same time, the mysterious employer of Martin Springfield, an engineer from Old Earth, plants him as a mole within the New Republic navy, and UN diplomat Rachel Mansour is sent to spy on the New Republic war tactics in order to prevent causality violations that might further upset the Eschaton. Martin and Rachel spend their time on the ship playing double-agent on board, playing doctor with each other, and then agonizing about getting caught. Continue reading

Mission of Gravity (1953) by Hal Clement

MissionOfGravity(1stEd)Clement’s acclaimed 1953 novel Mission of Gravity reminds me of a song we used to sing in my Girl Scouts Brownie troupe:

Goin on a squeegie hunt…
Oh, no, it’s a tall tree!
Can’t go over it…
can’t go under it…
have to go through it…

(Repeat the verse with a new obstacle… and it goes on and on and on. I dropped out soon after. The song may or may not have had something to do with it.)

And thus it’s the same for our missioneers, human and alien alike, who encounter new obstacles in each chapter, but overcome those obstacles with sensible, pragmatic solutions, talking out every detail in a calm, relaxed manner that may be just a wee bit boring to witness. Reading this book is like eavesdropping on a housing development planning committee, with the engineer and the architect doing most of the talking. I would totally go on an adventure with these people because I know I would be safe, but I don’t think anyone would want to read about it afterward. Continue reading

The Dervish House (2010) by Ian McDonald

Check out my Dervish House bloggersation with blogbuddy Matt from Books, Brains, and Beer.

TheDervishHouseWe choose our friends, not our family… but what of our neighbors? Those non-blood non-friends with whom we share geography and often nothing more, who force awkward small talk at the mailbox, whose kids’ bike tires streak the driveway, who happen to be there when the ambulance arrives. We hold them in an arms-length intimacy– ‘I hate cleaning after your messy pine tree, but I might need you if I sprain my ankle on my jog.’ (But how many ugly pickups do you really need?)

The Dervish House is a story about neighbors: a small, diverse Istanbul community, which populates an aging, neglected plaza that once housed an order of dervishes. Its inhabitants are as varied and complex as the city itself, where a cataclysm of worlds, cultures, and ideas collide and spill over the Bosphorus strait. At Adem Dede, the dervish house, rival tea houses stare each other down, old Greek immigrants gossip and argue, an art dealer prowls for religious artifacts, a pothead hides from his family, and a precocious nine-year-old with a heart condition explores the world through his bitbots (the coolest toy ever!). Continue reading

The Man Who Folded Himself (1973) by David Gerrold

TheManWhoFoldedHimself(1stEd)The man best known for giving us tribble troubles also gave us this fun but disquieting 1973 Hugo-nominated story about the technicalities and repercussions of time travel. In the space of 100 pages, The Man Who Folded Himself explores every nuance and angle of time travel, both amusing and troubling at times. I imagine Gerrold had to sit on the cover just to get the pages to close from all that he stuffed in, but the moment it’s unlatched– WHOOSH! Springy snakes everywhere.

It’s like no other time travel novel you’ve read– the ultimate Pandora’s box of time travel fiction. And it just may make you reevaluate that childhood wish for a time machine. Continue reading

2014 Arthur C. Clarke Nominees Announced!

How timely that I just read Childhood’s EndThe 2014 Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist was announced today and it contains a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar names:

Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)
The Machine by James Smythe (Blue Door)
Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie (Orbit)
The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann (Gollancz)
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

Seriously, why do people watch sports when there’s this going on? Click here to see the rest of the 2014 SF shortlists.

Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke

ChildhoodsEnd(1stEd)To my continued bafflement, it seems like every SF recommendation list and message board suggests Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama as a highly enjoyable and critical must read. My experience with that novel was less than satisfactory, so I thought I might have hit an overall author dud in terms of taste. But its twenty-year predecessor, Childhood’s End, has always niggled me as something I would like to read, and the experience was far more entertaining than I expected. I’m surprised Rama gets more online discussion.

Thirty years after the end of WWII, alien ships fill the skies of the world’s biggest cities. The aliens will not reveal themselves, but lead Overlord Karellen communicates his expectations through one perplexed bureaucrat, Rikki Stormgren. Over the next eighty years, the world changes due to the Overlords’ indirect peaceful, yet intrusive rule, but their interest in Earth’s affairs remains a mystery. Continue reading