Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review of "Startide Rising" by David Brin

I had never read a David Brin book.  Hearing his background was in math, physics, astronomy, etc., I went about buying one of his books with trepidation.  Isaac Asimov, Vernor Vinge, Alastair Reynolds, and other popular sci-fi authors may be good scientists, but they lack the touch and feel of an inborn writer, the style of their novels suffering for it.  Not written in glorious prose, Startide Rising was nevertheless a pleasant surprise.

A fun mix of hard sci-fi and space opera, Startide Rising is a unique story that sets itself apart from derivative sci-fi for its premise.  The story of a dolphin and human crew hiding on a water planet, they are holed up in an attempt to escape a galaxy of species that want the relic tucked away in the hold of their damaged ship.  While the various aliens war in space above, the crew spend their time trying to extrapolate metals and materials from the sea and land to repair their ship.  The mysteries they uncover on the uncharted planet and the relationship problems that result from the cabin fever only make their escape all the more unlikely.

Dolphins in space? the average person blinks.  Yes, it’s true.  “Uplifted” from their primeval state to one on par with human sentience thanks to advances in technology, the majority of the story is told through human-dolphin and dolphin-dolphin interaction.  If this idea seems implausible to the point of annoyance, don’t read the book.  Readers with an open mind will quickly discover that Brin takes the concept seriously and does not cartoon-ify the water mammals like Vinge’s canines in A Fire Upon the Deep.  Each an individual, on one hand Brin portrays the dolphins having a mindset not altogether different than humanity’s.  The dolphins experience many of the same emotions and thoughts, anger, greed, pride, honor, etc.  On the other hand, however, is speculation on what effect being raised in a water environment and communicating via sonar, squeaks, and whistles would have on culture, habits, and beliefs.  Star Trek aliens often having more in common with humanity than Brin’s dolphins, thinking of the finned creatures as sentient creatures requires little stretching of the imagination under his guidance.

The hard science aspects of Startide Rising are numerous.  As mentioned, Brin takes the dolphin idea seriously and step by step imagines what a shared human-dolphin environment would require from a practical perspective.  The accoutrements for each are well detailed, from airdomes and cyber-harnesses with manipulator arms for dolphins to underwater sleds and breathing apparati for humans.  Their space ship is designed for each to live in their natural environment, not to mention that its inter-galactic characteristics, hull design, gravity inducers, etc. show a basic understanding of astrophysics.  Topping things off is the knowledge of planetary geology and biology Brin uses to motivate the plot. The physical and chemical properties of waters, metals, land masses, and all else the crew discover are taken into consideration, often creating difficulties the crew must overcome. 

That being said, there are several unrealistic aspects of the story.  Though occurring infrequently, the space opera elements of Startide Rising nevertheless have a major effect on plot, particularly the denouement.  Certain moments fly in the face of common sense, while at other times the narrative wholly contradicts itself in order to develop tension in the moment.  For example, the incredible racket the crew make while supposedly in hiding (bombs, land mass drilling, etc.) would seem to trigger any monitoring or tracking devices the aliens overhead would have in place.  Yet, no consequences incur, the plot moving smoothly forward for it.  

It would be remiss not to mention the anthropological side of Startide Rising.  Along with the dolphins, Brin’s portrayal of the encounters with other species is not one divided by a line of good and evil.  The cultural elements, particularly a few scenes where the humans interact with aliens, are dealt with in realistic rather than shoot-em dead fashion.  Likewise, the linguistics of the novel show a considerable amount of preparatory work, human-dolphin interaction using more than one language.  Thus, the backdrop of the story may be grand, but Brin does a good job of keeping things relatively realistic from a cultural perspective.  

In the end, Startide Rising is unique amongst hard sci-fi/space opera novels for its dolphin premise.  Though not prosaic, the writing style never interrupts the story. Characterization black to white to gray and the science detailed to the point of plausibility, Brin insults his readers’ intelligence only with the space opera moments.  The background story revealed enticingly slowly (he builds to the climax well) and character interaction for the most part realistic, the novel also shows that Brin is more than just a scientist, the basic skills of a storyteller working in parallel.  Seeming a combination of Brian Aldiss (the hard and soft science aspects) and Alastair Reynolds (the grand scale and space opera elements), fans of either author will want to check out the book.  Those intrigued by Gibson’s inclusion of a sentient dolphin in “Johnny Mnemonic” will love the manner in which Brin has fleshed the idea into a complete novel.  

(This review has also been posted at

1 comment:

  1. I really liked your review, I just finished reading the novel and I think the autjor like you said did an excellent job writting the book, he gave us enough hard SF and great character development. Altough I whanted to know more about the derelict fleet, and about the bodie they found. Also I was not that cought up with the story about the % people that evolved into the crust of Kithrup; I did not like the fact that Akki died, he gave a heck of a run against the big dolphin who I had guessed wrong and though he had genes from great white sharks.