I read David Brin’s 1980 novel Sundiver because the two other novels of the Uplift Trilogy won Hugos in 1984 and 1988. Reading Sundiver was an interesting experience: the world was fascinating, the mystery was intriguing, but nothing I have read for this project has riled up my inner writing teacher so. David Brin in 1980 did not know how to use a paragraph break properly to save his life, and his mixed metaphors were both ridiculous and hilarious — at one point he compared the computer system in the Sundiver ship to both the heart and the bowels, which are, admittedly, both body metaphors, but very incompatible ones. However, I’m willing to forgive Brin his terrible writing since he paints such an interesting picture of Marxism and evolution.
The World: Sundiver takes place in a universe with many, many intelligent alien species (collectively called “sophonts”) which are divided into oxygen and hydrogen breathers. This two groups do not mix, and when they do meet, bloodshed generally follows. All races in this universe have been “uplifted” into intelligence via genetic manipulation and technological aid by “Patrons,” older, already established races. The oldest races in the galaxy were uplifted by the Progenitors, an ancient race that disappeared to another plan of existence. Because any world might one day be the home world of an intelligent race, the rules governing the ecological impact a race may have on a colony world are extremely strict, while the social mores governing the relationship between Patrons and their uplifted Clients are equally strict. Patrons may expect both manual labor, servitude, and social deference from their Clients for many centuries, until the Client race is determined to be mature enough to enter into Galactic matters on their own. The genealogy of ulpift is extremely important in the social structure of Galactic society, with formal introductions of individuals including the uplift genealogy of their own race along with a listing of any Client races. Furthermore, some ancient uplift ancestors count for more than others in the Galactic social structure. What we have, then, is an aristocratic class that essentially creates its own peasants as needed.
The humans on Earth have an interesting place in this structure: no one knows who uplifted them. There are two possible scenarios, each with its own extremist human adherents. The first possibility is that humans uplifted themselves, making them unique among all the races in the galaxy; proponents of this theory are frequently called “Skins” because of their frequent depiction and glorification of human cavemen. The second theory — and the one held by most sophonts — is that a Patron race began the process of uplifting human, then for some reason or another abandoned them, leaving them to make the long journey to space flight on their own. Human adherents to this theory are called “Shirts” and exhibit a marked xenophilia toward non-human sophonts. Humans are looked down upon by a large number of the Galactics as a poorly trained “wolfling” race, young and naïve as a race.
The Plot: Human Jacob Demwa works at the Center for Uplift, where humans have been working to uplift chimps and dolphins for decades before meeting the Galactics. He is asked to come work with the Sundiver project when scientists and pilots encounter beings living in the Sun. Jacob travels to Mercury with Laroque, a human journalist and Shirt convinced that these Sun Ghosts are humanity’s long-lost Patron; Fagin, a Kant and particular friend of Jacob and humanity; Bubbacub, a Pil and the representative of the Galactic Library branch on Earth as well as skeptic of humans’ ability to do research without Galactic intervention; and Culla, a Pring and Client to Bubbacub. Once at the Sundiver Base, Jacob becomes embroiled a number of mysteries: Why do some Sun Ghosts seem hostile and others merely curious? How do the hostile Sun Ghosts replicate human form and gestures without ever having met a human? Did the Sun Ghosts kill chimp scientist Jeffrey and if so, why? Laroque comes under suspicion for Jeffrey’s murder, and in an attempt to appease the Sun Ghosts, Bubbacub and Fagin, as elder sophonts, agree to accompany the human and Culla on a trip to the Sun. On this trip, Bubbacub claims to communicate with the Sun Ghosts via his superb psi helmet. According to him, the Sun Ghosts have ordered humans to never visit the Sun again, and at their next confrontation with the Sun Ghosts, Bubbacub chases them away with another Galactic artifact. Jacob appears to suffer some kind of mental breakdown and makes a suicide attempt. Upon their return to Mercury, Jacob begins to debate his own sanity against the possibility that Bubbacub engineered the whole affair to make humans look silly. Jacob’s sanity is safe though, and he proves that Bubbacub did not chase away the Sun Ghosts; rather he spread a dust through the cabin of the ship that prevented anyone from seeing out the windows, and upon their return to Mercury he stole the recordings showing that the Sun Ghosts were still present. After Bubbacub is discredited, the crew returns to the Sun, where the real perpetrator behind events is revealed.
As I mentioned earlier, this novel really redeems itself with the complex social structures that we glimpse as Jacob works his way through the mystery plot. The Patrons have in place a huge number of ideological state apparatus before Client races even become sentient, such as the Library, which was handed down by the Progenitors and is considered infallible, tradition and institutions to protect it, and those offices that determine when a Client race is sufficiently mature to begin uplifting races of their own. This conditional evolution strikes me as being not unlike the relationship between first and third world countries, though there is the added insult of being evolved in order to be subservient for some period of time.
There are several interesting language issues that pop-up throughout the novel as well. For example, English seems to be the official language of Earth, though in recent history there was a “accent” movement in which people took up traditional ethnic accents (Jacob was opposed). Galactics who take up residence on Earth learn English, though some need technological devices to aid them (Bubbacub, for example, cannot speak within human’s hearing range and therefore uses a small device in order to be heard). Chimps and dolphins have been genetically manipulated in order to speak English, though chimps continue to find it very painful and generally use a keyboard and screen that they wear on their chests. At one point, Jacob reminisces about the difficulty the Galactics had translating the Library into English because the language is too imprecise and full of metaphors, a criticism that has been frequently leveled against English.
All in all, I’m looking forward to the other novels in the trilogy, though I am hoping that Brin’s writing improves. I don’t know if I can go through a whole other novel fighting the desire to put little red marks all over it.