David Brin
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Startide Rising

Bantam, PB, © 1982, 460 pp, ISBN #0-553-23495-1
Reviewed December 1997

"Much ado about nothing" would be a good capsule description of Startide Rising. A small Terran survey ship crewed by dolphins, humans and a monkey has discovered an ancient derelict fleet that just might be a clue to the fate of the first sentient species in the Five Galaxies, but the news of this discovery sends the other, older sentients into a frenzied effort to capture the Terran Streaker for themselves. Damaged and hunted, Streaker lands on the water world of Kithrup to hide and make repairs. Startide Rising is the story of their time there, and their efforts to escape from the armadas of aliens battling above them for the right to capture them.

And what's truly frustrating is that that's it! Despite the teaser of the ancient fleet, we never learn what they are! Talk about a reason to throw the book across the room!

Startide Rising is also filled with considerable background about the nature of the Five Galaxies: With the possible exception of humanity, no species is known to have become sentient on its own; rather, one species will "uplift" another into sentience, and then keep the new race as servitors (i.e., slaves) for a hundred thousand years as payment for the debt. Naturally, this leads to certain profound abuses, and the intergalactic milieu is filled with corrupt, self-absorbed aliens (or so we see here). But though some time is spent examining these interesting concepts, this is a side issue.

The basic story being told here is just of the Streaker's attempted escape, which is hampered by strange beings living in Kithrup's geological mantle, and a revolt by certain dolphin members of the crew. But essentially the story is an exceedingly simple adventure - which just happens to take 460 pages to tell. And the first 200 or so of those pages are quite tedious indeed.

Brin does play around with writing style extensively here, especially in the speech and thought patterns of the dolphins, but without much of a story to hang it on, the stylistic efforts fell flat for me. Moreover, the characters are truly some of the least memorable in science fiction; a legion of figures about whom I cared very little. Most of them are ciphers with sketchy pasts and more-or-less uniform personalities.

Startide Rising does eventually become a fairly lively action piece somewhere around page 300, but overall I found this book deathly languid. It's hard to believe this book won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

The Practice Effect

Bantam Spectra, PB, © 1984, 277 pp, ISBN #0-553-26981-X
Reviewed June 2000

This book is an example of a neat idea carried off weakly. Here's the scoop: Dennis Nuel is a physicist in the near-future who's working on a device to cross dimensions. It appears to have worked - animals very similar to Earth creatures but slightly peculiar have been retrieved through the "zievatron", and robots have sent back some information about an Earth-like world. But suddenly contact with the other side is broken off, and Nuel goes through to find out what happened and hopefully fix the device on the far side.

What he finds is the receiver in pieces, all but one of the robots dismantled, and a human civilization living with mostly late Middle Age technology. There's one important catch, though: Some of the tools Dennis finds are considerably more advanced than the general level of technology might indicate.

Okay, there's no meaningful way to discuss the book without revealing the secret (which is revealed fairly early on anyway).

In this world, inanimate objects get "better" with use ("practice"): An axe becomes harder, and eventually changes its composition to be optimized for chopping things. Clothes get more comfortable and more attractive. And dragged objects have developed a frictionless substance which allows them to be pulled by pack animals like carts.

The flip side of this is that the Practice Effect has dissuaded the inhabitants of Coylia from inventing more complicated devices - they don't even have the wheel, for instance. So when someone happens to stumble upon a more advanced principle, this can give them a big leg up on the competition. In this case, the rather nasty Baron Kremer has happened upon the secret of hang-gliding, which has given his troops a tremendous edge over his rivals, and he's plotting to unseat the distant king of the land. Dennis takes an instant dislike to the man - especially when Kremer takes away his advanced technology, including his needle gun - and secretly plots against him, with the help of a few other detractors to Kremer's reign.

The Practice Effect is a slightly quirky low-tech adventure yarn. The first third of the book involves Dennis trying to figure out what's going on around him, the second third deals with his repeated attempts (and failures) to escape from Kremer's clutches, and the final part involves the struggle against Kremer's ambitions. The Effect itself is pretty neat, but it takes hold so slowly (a lot of practice has to go into something to improve it) that it apparently dampened the drama enough that Brin had to come up with a way to speed the Effect up when necessary for the plot. The overall impact of the book seems far less than it could have been, if - for instance - the impact of Dennis' presence on Coylia were examined over a longer period of time. As it is, the book is basically lighthearted.

Brin also basically cops out at the end by presenting a completely unexpected - and entirely unsatisfying - explanation for what the Effect really is. It's very disappointing.

In sum, The Practice Effect is a light read, but it really could have been a lot better than it is.

The Postman

Bantam Spectra, PB, © 1985, 321 pp, ISBN #0-553-27874-6
Reviewed September 1997

Thirty years after World War III, Gordon Krantz is making his way westward from Minnesota when he is ambushed by bandits, and barely escapes with his skin. He stumbles on the jeep and body of an old, dead US postman, and takes his clothing for his own, and keeps some of the mail to entertain himself. In the next town he visits, however, some folks take him for a real postman, and they are filled with nostalgia for the grand deeds of these pre-war civil servants; Krantz thinks cynically that they probably didn't give these folks the time of day before the war, but goes along with the joke.

It soon proves to be no joke, as he find that claiming to be a representative of the "Restored United States" out east gives him entry to many of Oregon's towns. And the myth grows as Gordon invests others with the responsibility of postal carrier to create a small network of mail routes in the state. Gordon soon finds that he cannot escape his own lies, and that as much as he would like to settle down at any of the towns through which he passes, he is unable to due to the imagined responsibilities people saddle him with.

The Postman is an excellent book whose main theme is responsibility. Gordon has been searching for one small corner of the world to live in, a place which isn't overrun with "survivalists" who want to claim everything for themselves to the exclusion of all others. But Gordon learns that he can't expect other people to take that responsibility unless he is willing to, himself. And when he finds himself in a position to genuinely change things for the better, he learns that he can't simply put the responsibility down, either; to refuse to wield that power is, well, irresponsible.

In his travels, Gordon encounters the Cyclops, an old supercomputer which benevolently governs a valley community - and he learns that the Cyclops died years ago, and the myth of its power and wisdom are perpetuated by the scientists who created it. In such extreme circumstances, Gordon chooses to allow them to continue their charade, since exposing them would simply throw a relatively peaceful and civilized valley into chaos for no good reason. Difficult value judgments like this, which might seem wrong were they made in today's advanced society, are the stock-in-trade of The Postman. As Brin pulls no punches in his depiction of the brutal post-war world, and since Gordon is always shown to value survival and quality of life when it comes to individuals, his decisions seem eminently believable.

The final section of the book pits Krantz and the valley of the Cyclops against the descendants of today's "survivalists", who believe that the weak should be governed by the strong. It's a powerful caution against the dangers of this sort of extremism and, again, the responsibility to fight against it.

The book takes a bit of a wrong turn near the end, when it introduces a theme of women taking responsibility for the men, and not allowing the bad men to overwhelm the good. Although there's probably the germ of a good idea in there, it's presented in a very muddled fashion, and on top of the several other thematic explorations in the novel, it comes off as weak and unnecessary.

But overall The Postman is an outstanding book, very inspirational, sometimes frustrating, but quite thought-provoking.

The Uplift War

Bantam Spectra, PB, © 1987, 636 pp, ISBN #0-553-25121-X
Reviewed December 1997

The Uplift War is a much more successful book than its predecessor in Brin's Uplift universe, Startide Rising, simply because it sets goals for itself which it attains. Although it doesn't have the tantalizing, larger-than-life glimpses of the earlier parts of Startide, it also doesn't throw away its best ideas to tell a simple adventure story.

The events of Startide Rising form the backdrop of The Uplift War: Following the chaos into which the Five Galaxies are thrown by the Streaker's discovery, a force of avian Gubru aliens invade the planet Garth, an outer colony of Earth, in an effort to force the humans and their neo-dolphin and neo-chimp clients to give up the Streaker's information. The Gubru make short work of most humans on the planet, using biological warfare and force most humans to give themselves up. The only free Terrans on Garth are the chimp population, a handful of humans, and a few other aliens' ambassadors.

The Uplift War is a complex dance among these various forces: The Gubru attempting to win the affections of the chimps en route to a total defeat of humanity; the interactions between chimps of differing classes; the interaction between Robert Oneagle - one of the few free humans - and Athaclena, the daughter of the Timbrimi ambassador, one of the few races friendly to Earth; and the machinations of her father Unthacalthing with regard to Kault, a representative of the fanatic Thennanin race.

Uplift does a much better job of exploring the galactic milieu than did Startide. The ideosyncracies of the uplift process - by which one race moves another into sentience - are examined in some detail, through the relatively benign attitudes of the humans towards the chimps, and the more paternalistic attitudes of the Gubru and other aliens. And the characterization of the aliens rises above the heavy-handed approach of Startide, as the distinctions between Tymbrimi, Gubru, Thennanin, human and chimp are more vividly drawn: The Tymbrimi are complex, physically-adaptable tricksters; the Thenannin are hard-headed, but not the hostile sorts they at first appear; the Gubru have a complex culture involving an intricate maturation and mating cycle.

Best of all, the characterizations in Uplift are much more exciting than the assortment of drab and colorless folk from Startide. A big part of this is due to the excitable, emotional neo-chimpanzees, who in the form of Lieutenant Fiben largely steal the stage from the rest of the cast. Fiben is involved in the rebels' strikes against the Gubru, is captured by them, and is made part of an elaborate Uplift ceremony by which the Gubru hope to put their own claim on the chimp species.

Still, Uplift is primarily an adventure story, and a lot of emphasis is put on the mechanics of guerrilla warfare, and many interesting elements of galactic culture and history are viewed only obliquely. As with Startide, here we're viewing Brin's universe from one of its fringes, despite the near-cataclysmic events going on elsewhere. Although there are many satisfying climactic moments involving the various characters, the book still feels somewhat thin given the vastness of its backdrop.

It's a good book, but I don't know if it's really six-hundred-plus pages worth of good.

hits since 13 August 2000.

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