• Uplift (#1)
  • Published by Bantam
  • First published in 1980
  • Hard SF
  • 340 pages

Humanity is not alone. Having raised the intelligence of chimps and dolphins, we have caught the attention of the galactic community. Yet if all intelligent life has been uplifted by another, where are humanity’s guardians. Could the answer be contained within our own Sun . . ?

Like any reader, there are vast gaps in my collection. To an extent, that’s a good thing. It means I always have a long list of books to try out when my TBR runs dry. But it also means that there are things I’m missing out on. Great stories that I’ve overlooked. Wonderful ideas secreted away in parts of the genre I haven’t touched. This is why I read as broadly as I do, because you never know where something good is going to spring up from. I read a lot of modern science fiction, because it’s the stuff I like, but also because it’s a good idea to keep on top of the current conversation around the genre. I also read a lot of older works, because even if I don’t enjoy them as narratives, there’s an academic value in seeing where the genre came from. One of the larger gaps in my library is the period running from 1980-2010. I’ve read books from this period, but not as many as from the eras either side. In terms of science fictional history, this period saw the decline of the old names like Asimov and Heinlein, and eventually the rise of the space opera and military SF that dominates much of my reading today. But what about those big names that started in this era? Those ‘proper’ science fiction authors, writing ‘proper’ science fiction novels. Books that were about big ideas and new-fangled concepts like the internet or genetic engineering? What about authors like David Brin?

Brin first came to my attention through his work on the Asimov successor series The Second Foundation trilogy. Foundation’s Triumph was exactly that. A brilliant novel that immediately made me want to check out more of his work. However, reality got in the way and I simply didn’t see him on bookshelves as I went about my browsing. I did find a couple of online interviews with the man, and his thoughtfulness and enthusiasm only made me want to read more. Eventually, I found Earth, a vast novel that, while decent, was nowhere near the heights of what I had already read. Disappointed, I decided to give him another chance. His most famous series is the Uplift saga, which begins with Sundiver, so when I found a copy of that, I thought I was onto a winner. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the book that ended my enthusiasm for Brin’s work.

Sundiver is a big concept science fiction novel, make no mistake. We start off with an experiment to raise dolphins to the same intelligence level as a human, and that’s only the groundwork for where the story eventually goes. The science side of things is great. It’s accessible enough for me to get a grip of it, but complex enough to make me feel smarter for having read about it. You know, the good stuff. Brin is at his best when taking an innovate idea and giving it legs. The idea of uplifting animals is one thing, but he takes it a step further. What if, he asks, all major species in the galaxy were only sapient because they had been uplifted? That’s the kind of idea entire series are built around, and that is exactly what Brin has done here. Sundiver works fine as a standalone, but there’s clearly more going on here than one book can contain.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be sticking around for the rest of the series. Because while ideas are good, the execution is less satisfactory. This was Brin’s debut so I’m inclined to cut him a little slack, but even so large sections just fall flat. The characters are uniformly rather dull, the transcription of accents and speech impediments will almost always irk me, and the entire sabotage plotline just plods along rather monotonously. Even with a core good idea, the framework just isn’t there to make a compelling narrative. Ultimately, while Brin is definitely worth looking into in terms of his ideas, as far as actual storytelling goes, I’m finding it hard to recommend him based on his original works. If you want to read him at his best, I think The Second Foundation Trilogy remains the place to go.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

More by David Brin
The Second Foundation Trilogy #3: Foundation’s Triumph

More books about Uplifting
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Dogs of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

One response to “BOOK REVIEW: Sundiver, by David Brin”

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