Dolphins and Chimps and Aliens, Oh My! Startide Rising by David Brin

Everyone loves dolphins. And chimps. And everyone loves spaceships. And adventures. So, in the mid-1980s, when David Brin put dolphins, chimps, and humans in spaceships, and dropped them into the middle of a rip-snorting adventure, I (and a lot of other people) immediately jumped on board. And what a wonderful ride it was.

I have loved dolphins for a long time. My first encounter with them, outside of pictures in books, was on the TV show Flipper, which aired in the mid-1960s. My first real-life encounter with dolphins was at the Florida Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. And when I served in the Coast Guard, nothing made a day at sea better than when a pod of them would approach the cutter and dance on the bow wave. Dolphins often look like they are unfettered by gravity as they cut through the seas or launch themselves into the air—so picturing dolphins in space is not hard at all. I don’t know how or where David Brin first encountered dolphins (although I imagine, as a Californian, he had opportunities to do so). But his science fiction influences are clear. After reading Startide Rising, I suspected that Brin, like me, grew up reading all sorts of Golden Age science fiction, books by folks like Clarke, Asimov, Anderson, Bester, Wells, Blish, and Heinlein, something I recently confirmed by poking around on his website. Few books written in the 1980s did as good a job as Brin’s work of recreating the good old “sense of wonder” that I remember from my youth.

 

About the Author

David Brin (born Glen David Brin in 1950) is a California-based scientist and futurist, following in the footsteps of the many science fiction authors who not only speculate about the future, but help shape it. He works as a consultant for a wide variety of governmental and private organizations.

He burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1980s and was quickly seen as one of the leading voices in the field. Among his first, and most influential, works were the Uplift series, which started with Sundiver in 1980, Startide Rising in 1983, and The Uplift War in 1987. The latter two books won the Hugo Award. This was followed by a trilogy consisting of Brightness Reef in 1995, Infinity’s Shore in 1996, and Heaven’s Reach in 1998. His 1985 post-apocalyptic novel The Postman became widely known outside the science fiction field when Kevin Costner made a movie based on the book. The movie was not well received by the critics and was a financial failure, but was praised for its positive tone and uplifting message about people working together. One of my favorite Brin books is Earth (1990), which I remember kept me up most of the night in a barracks room during a reserve weekend. His output has become less prolific in recent years, which is our loss.

Brin was one of three writers popular in the latter decades of the 20th Century (the other two are Gregory Benford and Greg Bear) who because of their ubiquity and the first letters of their names gained the nickname “Killer B’s.” Since 2004, Brin has written a blog, Contrary Brin, where he shares information on scientific developments, and offers political commentary as well, some of it quite passionate.

 

The Uplift Universe

In Brin’s future history, as humans begin to reach beyond Earth, they also begin to experiment with other species on the planet to encourage them to sapience. This includes dolphins and chimpanzees. Mankind then finds that the stars are filled with sentient races, races whose histories sometimes stretch back billions of years. The human race, however, represents an immediate mystery to these Galactic aliens. Throughout history, senior patron races have been ‘uplifting’ other races to sapience, and those junior races then serve them through a kind of indenture system. This is similar to what humans have been doing with dolphins and chimpanzees, although while the humans try to treat their junior races as equals, some Galactics treat the junior races as little more than slaves. While uplifting other species confers the humans status as a patron race, there is no sign that the human race has a patron of its own. This makes humans a ‘wolfling’ race, and without patrons, the humans are at a disadvantage in the chaotic civilization that spans the stars.

The Galactic organization called the Five Galaxies makes the Earth’s somewhat ineffective United Nations look like a well-oiled machine by comparison. Its bureaucracies, or Institutes, set parameters for interaction between races, but war and other conflicts are common. As often as not, rather than laws guiding actions, might makes its own right. Many races rely upon the Library, a gigantic collection of ancient knowledge, rather than engaging in scientific research or experimentation. There are legends of a race called the Progenitors, who first developed the process of uplifting, but little is known about them. The emergence of humans has created new conflict among the Five Galaxies, with some races favoring the humans, while others see them either as an abomination or as liars who for some reason are concealing their true patrons. The challenges the races of Earth face are further complicated by the fact that extra-sensory powers are not only possible, but have been refined by some of the races that oppose them.

Partnering with dolphins and chimpanzees, humans are reaching out to the stars, and rather than depending on the Library, they are using research ships to explore the universe and verify the information they have been given. And there is some reason to believe that not all the information is accurate, or has been corrupted with malicious intent. The humans resist simply using existing technologies developed by others, and have made some new discoveries thanks to their efforts—which marks them as either creative innovators, or disruptors of the status quo, depending on the perspective of the races that are observing them.

Streaker, one of Earth’s research vessels, is a mix of Galactic and human technologies, modified with some interesting adaptations in order to best serve its various crewmembers. While dolphins normally live in water and breath air, because of the difficulties posed by keeping air and water separated in zero gravity, many compartments are filled with a highly oxygenated water that can be ‘breathed’ by the dolphins. And while gravity control is possible, the humans have also designed the ship with internal centrifugal wheels that can simulate gravity in a more low-tech manner. The ship is armed, as are most vessels in the anarchic Five Galaxies, but is not a military vessel.

 

Startide Rising

Omnibus cover art by Richard Powers

Like many of the best adventure stories, we enter the story in mid-stream, with our heroes in peril and the action in progress. The narrative also jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint, building tension as we wonder what is happening to characters who are offstage while we’re spending time with others. These viewpoints are numerous, as Brin throws a dizzying variety of characters and races into the mix. We meet the crew of Earth ship Streaker on the run and hiding in the seas of the planet Kithrup. The first character we meet is human Gillian Baskin, an agent of the human Terragens Council. She and her fellow human agent Thomas Orley are charged to provide advice and guidance to the dolphin crew, led by Captain Creideiki.

Streaker has sent out exploration crews, including one led by Keepiru, their best pilot, accompanied by Toshio, a human midshipman. This mission is intended to find out more about their hiding place, but also seems to an instinctive reaction of the explorers upon landing on a new world. Following the interactions of the team, we learn more about the dolphins, their language, their relationship with the humans, their attitudes and ways of thinking. We find that the humans have discovered an ancient lost fleet, which may have been the fabled Progenitors. When Streaker had sent word to Earth, the reply had been simple, “Go into hiding. Await orders. Do not reply.” But somehow, the Galactics found out about the discovery, and soon Streaker was ambushed, damaged, on the run, and in need of repairs. In orbit around Kithrup, Galactic forces are clashing and at the same time searching for the human ship—among them are Tandu forces, seething in their hatred of the humans and their junior races.

The reader is introduced to Takkata-Jim, newly promoted to Vice Captain after his predecessor was killed in action, and not quite up to the challenges of his new position. We learn that Tom Orley is able to consult with an artificial intelligence that was provided by the Tymbrimi, a Galactic race sympathetic to the humans. In contrast to the Tymbrimi, we meet the Soro, Jophur, Thennanin, other races that have no love for humans. We’re introduced to another human crew member, Doctor Metz, an arrogant geneticist who has helped breed many of the dolphin crew members, and who has been experimenting in ways that will have disastrous consequences. The explorers find that the planet, which is strange in ways they can’t explain, is inhabited by a species that has reached the hunter-gatherer state of developing, seemingly ripe for uplift by some patron race. We also meet Charles Dart, a chimpanzee member of Streaker’s crew so focused on his science that he wants to use nuclear charges to measure the seismic impacts, disregarding the fact that Streaker is in hiding.

The crew of Streaker, divided into exploration teams, is also riven by internal conflicts, and breaking into factions. Some want to support the Captain, who is determined to stay true to their orders, while others are willing to cut deals with some faction of the Galactics in order to survive. Humanity, eager not to treat the other races like slaves, has pushed the dolphins to think and act for themselves, but they had not counted on the incredible stresses Streaker’s crew is under, and not counted on the fact that Doctor Metz had been experimenting by mixing the genes of other species with those of dolphins. Captain Creideiki and Thomas Orley come up with a plan to encase Streaker in the shell of a downed Galactic ship, but this is a desperate stratagem with little chance of success.

Before the book ends, the crew of Streaker will have to uncover the mysteries of the planet Kithrup, fight the aliens trying to capture them, and overcome internal strife as well. They will need every bit of their skill and ingenuity, and will be lucky if even a few of them can survive the challenges that face them.

 

Final Thoughts 

Startide Rising is one of the books that I remember most fondly, out of all I have read, and rereading it thirty years later proved just as enjoyable as the first time. I remain amazed at how many different characters and subplots Brin juggles without a misstep, and the way he keeps the tension and suspense high throughout. His portrayal of dolphins not only fits our current knowledge of the species, but extrapolated their uplifted sentience in a believable and compelling manner. Their thought processes are portrayed as delightfully alien to our way of thinking, and I enjoyed seeing how those differences helps Streaker face its many challenges. Brin’s Uplift universe is a harsh and unforgiving place, full of danger and hostile aliens, but also an excellent setting for adventure.

And now, as always, it’s time for you to chime in. What are your thoughts on Startide Rising? I couldn’t find much to complain about in the book, but perhaps some of you don’t have as fond an opinion. And what are your thoughts on The Uplift War, Brightness Reef, Infinity’s Shore and Heaven’s Reach, the other books in the Uplift universe? Are you, like me, hoping that Brin will revisit the setting at some point?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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