Sundiver by David Brin was published in 1980 by Bantam Books, so it is a story with a correspondingly wide array of sweet 80’s sci-fi art on its various covers. If that isn’t motivating for you to take a look at this book then I don’t know what is wrong with you.
It’s the first in the Uplift trilogy and it’s a fairly easy to read science fiction novel in a decade of some pretty out there thoughts and writing (although I’m not qualified to say that it’s any more or less out there than the 60’s or 70’s so your mileage may vary).
One of the things that has always stood out to me about this particular writing is just how easily you slip in to the story even though the lead character makes constant mental references to, and observations of, some pretty far-out there alien descriptions.
A large portion of the book’s active characters are aliens and David Brin does a fantastic job describing them vividly without trying to over-humanize them. I especially appreciate how he gets away with this without making the reader feel overly explained to, which can be a fine line when describing something entirely imagined with no known reference point to any readers. It’s the type of thing that can make or break a suspension of disbelief in novels and easily ruins them. One of Brin’s strong points is his ability to edit himself well. Or perhaps it’s one of his editor’s strong points.
While the ETs in this book aren’t exactly green with bulbous heads and big black eyes the human characters are mostly tropes. The main character is the only one we get any emotional insight in to and the book itself isn’t what I would refer to as feminist concerning the female characters. Yes they are high-ranking and intelligent but one of the first things mentioned about either of the two of them are that they are both good looking.
With that said one of them is alluded to being a bit on the older side but exploring that would be introducing spoilers into this review so we won’t go there.
The main character, Jacob is a bit of a rogue with some PTSD and then there’s a stereotypical sleazy fellow who may or may not have a heart of gold. These tropes aren’t explored or subverted for the most part so I found it hard, if almost impossible, to really get attached to most of the characters.
We find out their political and frequently personal motives for their affairs during the journey but rarely did I find them emotionally relate-able. It brings an otherwise fascinating slew of ideas that you find in a well-written original world a yawn-factor that just shouldn’t be there.
One of the ideas that David Brin explores in the Uplift trilogy are the ideas of Uplift as a concept of bringing other life-forms into intelligent consciousness and sharing with them a “Library” of universal knowledge that can help bring them up to par with much further advanced species of the galaxy.
Culturally most status is gleaned from how old your life form is since it has been Uplifted, and how many other life forms you guys have Uplifted. Interesting creation idea.
Humanity is a “wolfling” race that some think evolved by themselves and others believe were abandoned by their Uplifters. One of my favorite parts of reading Brin is how deftly he addresses issues of cultural and communicative differences that would occue between completely different types of life-forms. The play of those aspects and how well the author weaves them into the story is worth reading Sundiver for on its own.
Brin is a writer that sticks in one’s mind long after reading, even if this wasn’t in my top three books I’ve ever enjoyed reading. This longevity of staying in the front of the mind is due to complicated ideas being presented with a charming simplicity.
I delight in the contrast and I recommend you give it a try because, if nothing else, it’s up there with a lot of science fiction classics.
In the future I will also be reviewing Startide Rising the sequel to Sundiver and winner of the prestigious Science Fiction writing awards (Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel).
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