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?
It 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.
Brin 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.