David Brin is a venerable writer of sci-fi, most famous for his uplift series. This novel, the first of this series, was entirely absent from my radar until it was designated as the latest book to be read in the book club that I have now attended all of twice.
The basic plot is: mysterious things are going on in the Sun’s chromosphere, an expedition gets sent to investigate, expedition gets sabotaged, it’s all very stressful.
That’s a good basic plot, and one that’s very similar to that of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (one of my favourite films of the year it came out). Indeed I was reminded of the film at a couple of points (though the particulars of the story are very different).
I’ll get back to the plot. First, the universe… In the uplift series, set a couple of hundred years in the future, Earth has recently figured out how to evoke intelligence in chimps and dolphins via a spot of genetic tinkering (a process that’s referred to as uplifting). We’ve also figured out superluminal travel. This has brought us to attention of the galactic community, which is made up of a diverse array of alien species. It turns out that all of these species have also been through the process of upliftage, in a chain going back to the mysterious progenitors. In a feudal kind of way, newly uplifted species (clients) must serve a period (many millenia long) indentured to their patrons. The fact that humans don’t seem to have a patron race (i.e., we just evolved naturally), and can thus avoid all of this feudal nonsense, doesn’t sit well with all the other races who had to be coaxed into intelligence. Some of the conflict in this novel is due to this issue, and I think it underpins a lot of the narrative through the rest of the series.
That’s an interesting universe. Hmmm…interesting universe, good plot. We should be onto a winner here, right?
Of course not. Sadly, the actual unfoldings of the story are just…messy. There’s far too much going on; much of it isn’t properly sketched out, or is confusing, or anachronistic, or just plain bad writing.
At an early point in the novel we are confronted with the sentence, ‘He brought a calloused hand to the side of his hooked, amerind nose’. That one made me shudder. It got better, but there were a few equally deep descents throughout the book, including one particularly painful scene where the usually capable female captain of the sundiver mission collapses in tears on the main character’s broad manly chest (or words to that effect). Feminism? Qu’est-ce que c’est? In its defence it was published in 1980. But then, The Dispossessed was published in 1974.
The sociopolitics of Earth are poorly explained. I’m okay with a bit of slow-rolling (keep ’em keen, etc.), but the little we learn is fairly unconvincing. It seems as though the dominant global political paradigm is now a form of confederate libertarianism, which ascended after the implosion of ‘The Bureaucracy’. I’m not sure that’s what’s going on, and if it is what’s going on, I don’t like it.
This ham-handed world building is an excellent example of what’s wrong with the book. You have a lovely and straightforward central plot, which is obscured and tarnished by unnecessary and inelegant details. Other examples include the existence of ‘psi’ powers (very poorly depicted, and seemingly introduced just to solve a plot problem late in the book) and a peculiar manifestation of personality disorder in the main character.
I’ll mention just one more problem (I’m starting to feel bad). Brin has a doctorate from Caltech, so he obviously knows his science. A lot of the action, and some of the solving of mysteries, hinges upon lasers (and masers, which wikipedia has just told me are like low-frequency lasers). There are complex descriptions of what’s going on with these lasers at critical junctures throughout the book. I believe that the physics involved are plausible and that the kinds of events and outcomes he describes could happen, but I have a much harder time believing that they would happen. I (generally) understood what he was talking about, but I’m afraid my suspension of disbelief slipped a couple of times…
So there are some minuses. Overall, though, the book was pretty enjoyable. The plot bounced along, there were some lovely descriptions, good galaxy building (if not world building), and an alien who evolved to shoot fricking laser beams out its eyes.
I hear that the following novels are a lot stronger (and there’s a heap of hugos, nebulae, and loci, or nominations therefor, to support that), but I’m afraid I don’t think I’ll be heading back for second helpings of David Brin any time soon (which is a shame ‘cos he seems like a lovely fellow)…
There’s a fairly minor character who represents one of the political angles in the novel and serves as a red herring for a while called laRoque. I wanted to make some (dated) pun about his cooking (‘can you smell what laRoque is cooking?’), but, since all the food comes out of squeezy tubes, I didn’t have an opportunity. Oh well…