The Uplift War by David Brin

uplift.jpgThe Uplift War is the third of David Brin’s Uplift sequence of novels. It’s not a direct sequel to Startide Rising, although it does follow on from events raised in Startide; none of the previous characters return, but the backdrop is of a galaxy still obsessed with finding the ancient fleet of the Progenitors. Published in 1987 The Uplift War won the Hugo Award for Best Novel and was the most successful of Brin’s early Uplift novels, appearing on the New York Times Bestsellers List.

All of Brin’s Uplift novels are much loved because of the kind of fiction they are: huge, epic space opera, with exciting characters, alien worlds and a frantic pace. I hadn’t read The Uplift War previously and finally read it after reading Startide Rising. I enjoyed Uplift, but now I think I shouldn’t have read it so soon after reading Startide as it created some undeserved comparisons.

The story of The Uplift War takes place just after the conclusion of Startide Rising. Galactic armadas continue to clash as they seek the Progenitor fleet. But now some of the Galactics have turned their attention to the colony worlds of Earth, hoping to ransom their worlds for the location of the fleet. When Garth is invaded by the Gubru, the Terran resistance must find a way to resist the aliens or face certain extinction. But Garth itself holds many secrets that are yet to be revealed…

The first thing I noticed about Uplift was its length; it’s long, more than 600 pages. A lot of books of similar length often suffer because of that; they feel too drawn out, long-winded. Uplift is not like that. Brin’s scope in the novel is huge: alien invasion, a jungle odyssey, strange cultures, a love story, guerilla warfare. And yet, for how epic the novel is, it’s still very human. Brin’s characters drive the narrative while his science creates the world and that’s a real strength of the novel. Equally impressive is the history Brin gives to his worlds. The Five Galaxies is steeped in the past of its races, and Garth itself has its own history; a world nearly destroyed by another race, now resurrected by humans trying to repair its biosphere. It’s that kind of detail, the sense of what’s come before, that makes the story believable.

The aliens in Uplift are likewise well-depicted. The Tymbrimi, allies to the humans, are vaguely humanoid, but their language has evolved to include emotion-glyphs, allowing them to create and experience a feeling rather than describing it. Their bodies also undergo rapid changes, allowing them to adapt quickly to their environment, but for a price; the process leaves them weak and vulnerable afterward. By contrast the invading Gubru are a brutal avian race. The Gubru are cunning and their culture is truly alien, their leaders jostling for position in a union that will result in a new Queen. Similarly one of the more interesting elements in Uplift is the romance between Robert and Athaclena. It’s not often that an interspecies romance is believable in SF (different anatomies being just one hurdle), but Brin handles it well, offering intimacy amongst the scope of the rest of the novel.

The means by which the Gubru invade Garth is also an interesting point. They use a gas which infects humans, leaving them to die or surrender. It’s a good way of getting rid of organised resistance so the novel can be based on more amateur means of warfare, but also shows how the Gubru don’t care for Garth’s vulnerable ecosphere. It’s an extension of this, though, that creates my main problem with Uplift. Unlike with Startide Rising there is much more of an ecological message in The Uplift War. There’s nothing preachy, but the pace slows slightly when Brin makes his point, enough to be noticeable.

I also had a different reaction to the human clients in Uplift than in Startide. In Startide the dolphins were brilliant creatures, more alien than the Galactics; in Uplift Brin uses chims instead of dolphins. The chimpanzees are interesting, but because they’re so close to humans they don’t seem as different as the dolphins did. The thunder dance would be an exception (almost a cultural rite for the chims), but on the whole they felt more human than I might have expected. And while the rest of the characters are well-written, the military leader, Major Prathachulthorn, comes across as more of a caricature than a character at times.

Still, none of these details impact that much on Uplift, and again could purely be a comparison to Startide Rising. The Uplift War is a solid, enjoyable novel that still stands up well today – and an excellent continuation to one of science fiction’s great sagas.

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