I had never read a David Brin book before reading Startide Rising. Hearing his background was in math, physics, astronomy, etc., I went about buying one of his books with trepidation. Isaac Asimov, Vernor Vinge, Alastair Reynolds, and other popular science fiction authors may be good scientists, but they lack the touch and feel of an inborn writer and the style of their novels suffers. Though it’s prose is not glorious, Startide Rising was nevertheless a pleasant surprise.
A fun mix of hard SF and space opera, Startide Rising is a unique story that sets itself apart from derivative SF for its premise. A dolphin and human crew are hiding on a water planet, holed up in an attempt to escape a galaxy of species that want the relic tucked away in the hold of their damaged ship. While the various aliens war in space above, the crew spend their time trying to extrapolate metals and materials from the sea and land to repair their ship. The mysteries they uncover on the uncharted planet and the relationship problems that result from the cabin fever only make their escape all the more unlikely.
Dolphins in space? the average person blinks. Yes, it’s true. “Uplifted” from their primeval state to one on par with human sentience thanks to advances in technology, the majority of the story is told through human-dolphin and dolphin-dolphin interaction. If this idea seems implausible to the point of annoyance, don’t read Startide Rising. Readers with an open mind will quickly discover that Brin takes the concept seriously and does not cartoon-ify the water mammals like Vinge’s canines in A Fire Upon the Deep. Each dolphin is an individual and Brin portrays them as having a mindset not altogether different than humanity’s. The dolphins experience many of the same emotions and thoughts, anger, greed, pride, honor, etc. On the other hand, however, is speculation on what effect being raised in a water environment and communicating via sonar, squeaks, and whistles would have on culture, habits, and beliefs. Many of the Star Trek aliens have more in common with humanity than Brin’s dolphins do. Thinking of the finned creatures as sentient creatures requires little stretching of the imagination under his guidance.
The hard science aspects of Startide Rising are numerous. As mentioned, Brin takes the dolphin idea seriously and step by step imagines what a shared human-dolphin environment would require from a practical perspective. The accoutrements for each are well detailed, from airdomes and cyber-harnesses with manipulator arms for dolphins to underwater sleds and breathing apparati for humans. Their spaceship is designed for each to live in their natural environment, not to mention that its inter-galactic characteristics, hull design, gravity inducers, etc. show a basic understanding of astrophysics. Topping things off is the knowledge of planetary geology and biology Brin uses to motivate the plot. The physical and chemical properties of waters, metals, land masses, and all else the crew discover are taken into consideration, often creating difficulties the crew must overcome.
That being said, there are several unrealistic aspects of the story. Though occurring infrequently, the space opera elements of Startide Rising nevertheless have a major effect on plot, particularly the denouement. Certain moments fly in the face of common sense, while at other times the narrative wholly contradicts itself in order to develop tension in the moment. For example, the incredible racket the crew make while supposedly in hiding (bombs, land mass drilling, etc.) would seem to trigger any monitoring or tracking devices the aliens overhead would have in place. Yet, no consequences occur and the plot moves smoothly forward.
It would be remiss not to mention the anthropological side of Startide Rising. Along with the dolphins, Brin’s portrayal of the encounters with other species is not one divided by a line of good and evil. The cultural elements, particularly a few scenes where the humans interact with aliens, are dealt with in realistic rather than shoot-em dead fashion. Likewise, the linguistics of the novel show a considerable amount of preparatory work, human-dolphin interaction using more than one language. Thus, the backdrop of the story may be grand, but Brin does a good job of keeping things relatively realistic from a cultural perspective.
In the end, Startide Rising is unique amongst hard sci-fi/space opera novels for its dolphin premise. The writing style never interferes with the story and shows that Brin is more than just a scientist, he’s a storyteller, too. Characterization is realistic and the science is plausible. Only the space opera moments are unrealistic. The background story is revealed enticingly slowly and Brin builds to the climax well. Startide Rising is somewhat of a combination between Brian Aldiss (the hard and soft science aspects) and Alastair Reynolds (the grand scale and space opera elements), so fans of either author will want to check out Startide Rising. Those intrigued by Gibson’s inclusion of a sentient dolphin in “Johnny Mnemonic” will love the manner in which Brin has fleshed out the idea into a complete novel.