I’ve always been a voracious reader, particularly of grand science fiction. While in 2016 I do most of my reading by listening using my Audible.com subscription, in the 1980s the “books on tape” thing was just beginning to catch on. So I, like everyone else, was almost entirely dependent on what my Uncle Walt now refers to as “treeware”—paper books. I rabidly scooped up science fiction paperbacks at every visit to the then-still-ubiquitous book stores, and had multiple book store memberships to discount my reading habit.
David Brin's "Uplift" universe thrilled me from the start. It had everything: great mysteries, epic scale, very alien aliens, clever humor, and immense personal depth. Startide Rising is still a favorite to this day.
Of course, the great “establishment” authors of science fiction amazed me: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and many others. Some of their stories were more dark than I liked, though, whether they were cautionary or just meant to make you think on a serious subject. I mostly preferred books that had great hope as well as great, epic scale. Alan Dean Foster was therefore one such favorite because of the unending optimism that seemed to leap from every page he wrote.
While I was in high school in the mid 1980s, I happened upon a book by an author, David Brin, who I hadn’t seen before. Reading the book summary, the novel Startide Rising looked to be everything I liked. It had already won the Nebula Award when I had found it, so there was extra validation to add it to my growing paperback collection.
I was NOT disappointed.
I’ll sum up the universe in Startide Rising as quickly as I possibly can while still being relatively clear. These books take place in a future in which the “people” of Earth—who now count among their number both dolphins and chimpanzees—have discovered that they are now part of a vast, politically complex galactic civilization. A significant element of that civilization is the rule that an established alien species can “uplift” another promising species to sapience and thus “own” that species as “clients”—essentially as slaves—for millions of years. Earth’s humans are alone in the galaxy in having no known patron race of their own; but having uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees on their own, humans are technically a patron race themselves, despite many of the galaxy’s other races wanting to claim Earth’s people as clients for themselves.
Boom: instant epic conflict on a galactic scale. Brin does much in Startide Rising to make this immense, galaxy-scale conflict even more compelling, but he also grounds the book in the struggles of the crew of one small ship caught in the focus of an ancient galactic mystery. His characters are both varied and comlex, and his chapters are broken up into short scenes that cut back and forth between action happening in different places (a technique I love and enjoy for how it keeps you hanging on almost every page).
Brin pulls of a couple of challenges very well in this book. First, he gives very realistic motivations—and in many cases creates great empathy—to the most alien of aliens. Second, he creates a very believable perspective and culture for the dolphin characters, who outnumber the human characters in the book. I recall realizing at the time that he had made a very alien species that is on our very own planet into a group of people that I related to, loved, and admired.
As the book progresses deeper and deeper into its drama, even when the universe seems to be falling apart and trouble is just around every planetary horizon, Brin infuses the story with wit, heart, and immeasurable hope.
Startide Rising remains, to this day (more than three decades later), one of my favorite reads. Considering how many reads this voracious reader has been through in all that time, that’s saying quite a lot!
Arthur Breur is a composer and web developer currently living in the Portland suburb of Durham, Oregon. He recently completed a commission to compose a military "theme" march for the US Army's 44th Air Defense Artillery. His web development company, FireSpike LLC has been in business since 2001.