Sundiver

by David Brin

Cover image

Series: Uplift #1
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: February 1980
Printing: September 1995
ISBN: 0-553-26982-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 340

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Sundiver is the first book of Brin's Uplift series, which I think it's fair to say are the books that made his reputation as an author. It's less well-known than the later sequels Startide Rising and The Uplift War for reasons that I'll get into in a moment. This was a re-read; I've read the first Uplift series before (and Startide Rising separately before that), but not in many years, and I wanted to re-read them and review them. I haven't finished doing that yet, several months after I re-read Sundiver, largely because this book wasn't as enjoyable as I remembered.

The Uplift series is set in a heavily populated galaxy with a multitude of alien races. It follows the SF alien life pattern where the galaxy was well-populated and fully developed long before humans discovered it. The Earth is a relatively obscure backwater, and humans are expected to adopt to and follow the rules and restrictions that the other races had long-since established. This primarily means a complex and very formal system of caste and patronage: species brought to sapience by the technology of their patrons are expected to serve their patron races for millennia, and one's status in the galaxy is determined by the length of those patronage chains and the number of species one has fostered in turn.

As is typical for stories of this sort, humans break the rules in unexpected ways. They have no known patrons, having apparently evolved sapience entirely on their own (although the galactic races are quite dubious of this theory). And they have uplifted two species to sapience (chimpanzees and dolphins) before their discovery by the rest of galactic civilization, although in fairly primitive ways and not properly by galactic standards.

Set against this background, Sundiver is a science fiction puzzle story of a fairly old style. The protagonist, Jacob Demwa, is a scientific investigator who retired after a tragedy that killed his love. He's recruited out of that retirement and into this plot by an alien who is sympathetic to humans. A human exploration mission into the chromosphere of the Sun, treated as ridiculous by most of the galactics since the shared Library Institute certainly contains more information about stars than human technology could possibly uncover, has found strange and apparently sapient creatures living there: flocks of cattle-like creatures that are apparently being herded. There is no reference to such star-dwellers in the Library, which raises the possibility that humans have discovered something novel. That would be quite a coup against the galactics. But after the destruction of one of the solar exploration ships, it starts looking like these creatures are hostile.

Jacob reminded me of a mix between a Larry Niven short story protagonist, working through the practical impact of a physics puzzle, and Isaac Asimov's Elijah Baley. What exactly is going on, both scientifically and politically, remains unclear for nearly the entire book. Both Jacob and the reader are constantly forming and then discarding hypotheses as events overtake them. The stakes are more interesting than a lot of science fiction novels: rather than survival or war, the stakes are prestige, influence, and status, with subtle but possibly vital effects on what position humans will take among the other species of the galaxy.

All this sounds promising, and is why I remembered this book fondly. Unfortunately, re-reading it was a disappointing experience on several fronts.

First, the characterization varies between trite and stereotyped. The aliens suffer from the standard alien characterization problem: each of them is an exemplar of their species, and all of the aliens feel like archetypes. While there are some twists in the inter-alien politics, one never gets a sense of the aliens as varied and complex societies in their own right.

The humans are more varied, but that primarily means varieties of irritating. The worst is Peter LaRoque, a journalist who is set up as a villain of the story, and who is such an unremitting and over-the-top stereotype of everything possibly bad about journalists (and French people) that every scene containing him felt like someone scraping fingernails on a chalkboard. The other characters are a bit better, but not by much. Jacob himself has a bizarre, semi-mystical psychological problem from trauma that seems to give his amoral subconscious a life of its own. Brin appears to be setting this up to have major plot significance, but it never made any sense to me, didn't matter much in the end, and seems to mostly be an excuse for Jacob's hypercompetence.

Sundiver's treatment of female characters also annoyed me enough to be worth a mention. The primary female character, Helene, is clearly intended to be a strong character with her own agency (she's both station commander and a starship captain), and Brin makes a lot of the humans switching to different words than male and female as a sign of a more egalitarian future. But this all feels skin-deep. The inevitable romance is all about Helene's attractiveness and ability to listen to Jacob, her logic is described as unscientific, and I got more and more annoyed by her portrayal as the book went along. She's not entirely without agency in the story, but she's much closer to a damsel in distress than the independent character Brin appeared to be trying for. It's hard to shake the feeling that she's being persistently belittled by the story.

But this is a scientific puzzle story more than a mystery; characterization would be nice, but isn't strictly required. On re-read, the part of Sundiver that annoyed me the most was how much of a letdown the plot resolution was. I'm going to avoid any specific spoilers here, but I found the ending of both quite disappointing and a sign of the major problem with this series as a whole. The setup over-promises and Brin fails to deliver, a pattern that will repeat itself in this series.

We get tantalizing hints of a new solar species, of revelations about the past of humanity, of deep galactic politics, and of vast knowledge contained in the Library that humans don't yet have access to. We get superficial archetypes for characters, politics that seem more like the bickering of children, plot twists that persistently take the story in more mundane and less interesting directions, and a sense of wonder, or lack thereof, that feels more like a Scooby Doo story than what I expect from science fiction. Some of the plot twists are unexpected and almost add some interest to the story, but don't make enough sense in the context of the story to be satisfying. And, of course, there's an climactic action sequence involving physical combat, as is required of all good Star Trek (original series) episodes. (I was waiting for Jacob's shirt to fall off.)

The problem I have always had with Brin as a writer is that his ideas are far better than his ability to write characters and plots. In the hands of a better author, the Uplift universe background has so much potential. And I think Brin is a better author a few years later; my recollection is that both Startide Rising and The Uplift War do a better job of delivering on their promises. But Sundiver is deservedly forgettable. The good ideas rarely go anywhere beyond the obvious, the characters are irritating and often don't make sense, and the story is disappointing. I can't say I'm sorry to have read it, since my memory edited it down into a much better story, but I can only recommend it as background for later, better books.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-03-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21