David Brin’s Uplift series is one of the most beloved of science fiction series. The Uplift Saga is populated by an array of strange aliens, characters and worlds, set in a future universe where no species can reach full sentience without the help of a patron race.
The sequence began in 1979 with Sundiver, but it was Startide Rising which cemented Brin’s reputation as a writer. Startide was published in 1983 and won both Hugo and Nebula Awards. It was everything people wanted SF to be at that time: epic in scope, with lots of ideas, aliens, and a pace that propelled it forward.
Reading it now the most striking thing about Startide is that it hasn’t dated that much. Perhaps some of the technology doesn’t seem that different to what we have today (or especially alien), but everything in Startide Rising has a feeling of a history, a past, and that makes it work for the story. The characters also stand out. Creideki, the dolphin captain of Streaker, feels distinctly alien, while Tom Orley and Gillian’s romance is at the heart of their world. The story is very human, set in a strange universe – a level science fiction doesn’t often reach.
Startide begins with the ship Streaker, which has crashed on the world Kithrup and is being pursued by armadas of fierce alien races. Before it crashed Streaker had discovered a fleet of vessels, believed to be the remains of the famed Progenitors who began the Uplift process millennia ago. The Galactics want the location of the fleet and will stop at nothing to get it, leaving Streaker’s mix of human and dolphin crew to fend off their assaults (and a mutiny) as they try to make their escape.
I’d not read Startide previously, though I had read Sundiver, and the first thing that impressed me was how Brin goes straight into his story. He wastes no time with Streaker discovering the alien fleet, or even its crash on Kithrup; he uses this as a backdrop, while other authors might have made another novel out of it. I also liked the depictions of the aliens in the novel. The Galactics are primarily humanoid and their strangeness comes more from their rituals and culture than their physical appearance. In their own way it is the dolphins that are the true aliens; Brin describes them (their movements, battles, rescue fever) almost as another race, and their language of Trinary is unique, a haiku language which is both beautiful and sad. The overall sense I got from Startide Rising was, again, of a very human story, as much about the characters as the science… I found that refreshing compared to more contemporary space opera.
There were a couple of things I didn’t like as much. First, I didn’t think the pace was as full-on as other people have said; certainly the novel has a good pace, but there were sections where I found it dragged for 20 pages or so. Some of Streaker’s politics also weigh the story down from time to time. And for as well as Brin writes his characters, one of the more interesting characters, Dennie, is largely neglected during the novel. At times I would have like to have seen more of her point of view, rather than Toshio’s.
Still, these are fairly minor details. Startide Rising is space opera at its best and still holds up well so many years after it was first published. Highly recommended. Just don’t be put off by the fact that it’s book 2 in the series; Startide Rising is where the Uplift Saga truly begins.