In my recent post on dissecting influences, I mentioned the Uplift double-trilogy by David Brin. At the time I wrote that, I was looking for another book to read with my kids at bedtime, and decided that this would be a good time to revisit the series.
Now we’ve finished the first book, Sundiver, and the kids enjoyed it enough to want to keep going. It had been more than a decade since I last read the book, so my memory of it was vague and tinged with nostalgia. It’s a good book, but maybe not quite as good as I remembered. The world-building is solid and the diverse alien species are a highlight (although that all gets much further developed as the series goes on). The dialogue and characterization are sometimes a little clumsy. The main character is honestly a bit of a weirdo. But weak characterization is nothing new in plot-driven sci-fi, and I think Brin still does a better job than someone like Asimov.
The book is structured as a mystery, centered around the discovery of two new species of aliens living in the upper layers of Earth’s sun. This mystery turns out to be the focus of conspiracies and alien politics. The main character, Jacob Demwa, is a Sherlock-esque genius who is dealing with the psychological fallout of his traumatic past, and it falls to him to figure out what’s really going on.
1 – Great Clues Are Memorable, Not Obvious
As the story progresses, we see more and more of the behavior of the aliens on the Sundiver ship. Some things come off as strange, but most of it is fairly mundane. Some of the human characters parse these actions much as they would for other humans. The more savvy among them understand that an action doesn’t necessarily correlate to the same emotions or motives in aliens that it might among humans.
This serves as worldbuilding, but these alien actions are also clues. To the reader, the aliens are already a little mysterious, so it’s easy to chalk up any of their behavior as “alienness” unless it’s really clearly suspicious. Focusing on their actions, and even describing the same things repeatedly, ensures that the reader will remember these incidents. However, the significance will only become clear later in the story, as Jacob begins to understand what’s going on and as more is revealed about the alien species.
For some veteran mystery readers, this may be irritating. If you are trying to solve the mystery before the answers are all revealed by the book, it’s going to be frustrating to discover that you didn’t have all of the context and information about these aliens that would allow you to fully understand what their behavior meant.
I think speculative fiction readers may be more open to this kind of storyline, because they’re used to the exercise of discovering the details of the world as the story progresses. However, I’m more of a sci-fi enthusiast than a mystery reader, so I may be biased.
2 – Clues Should Point to Multiple Possibilities
This may seem obvious to readers and writers who have thought a lot about mysteries, but it’s an important lesson on effective mystery structure. A clue that points to multiple possibilities broadens the scope of the mystery, while a clue that only has one explanation narrows the scope.
Many of the clues laid down in Sundiver could be explained by several different characters acting with different motives. There are at least two humans and two aliens who seem somewhat suspicious, and many of the clues could point to each of them.
The initial mystery of Sundiver is set up fairly early on, although it morphs and changes a few times before the end. At the same time, the suspicious characters are all introduced early on as well. Some of them have more obvious motives, but some of them are suspicious simply because of their interactions with the other characters. Some are just irritating, causing trouble for the nicer main characters, and that’s enough to seed at least a little suspicion in the reader’s mind.
This cast of potential scoundrels is already nicely established when problems appear and things begin to go wrong.
3 – The Detective Can Be Wrong…For a While
The main mystery of Sundiver is solved about 2/3 of the way through the book. There is a classic reveal scene where Jacob Demwa gathers the characters and spells it all out. The villain is taken into custody. At this point, my son asked if we were almost done, and he was shocked when I told him that we still had over a hundred pages left.
This is a dangerous play. Brin purposely defuses the main source of tension in the story, with a lot of the story still to be told. He only keeps a few loose threads dangling: the personal problems of the main character (which has been a B-plot for most of the book) and some concerns around those freshly discovered aliens living on the outskirts of the sun.
The book then has to reveal the true villain and lead into a suspenseful finale. This knocks the “detective” character down a peg: he was wrong about the most critical thing in the story. It also pays off all that work into clues that point to multiple possibilities, and ideally even clears up one or two things that a clever reader may have noticed not fitting neatly with the first, false resolution.
An Interesting Crossover
Sci-fi/Mystery strikes me as a challenging mix of genres to write. The difficulties of creating a believable future world and the difficulties of crafting an intricate puzzle only seem to further complicate each other. I appreciate Brin’s offering, even if there were one or two places where it didn’t quite work for me.
This is also one of his earliest works. I’m partway through the second book in the series now, and it manages to be cleaner and more tightly written, despite a much larger cast of characters. So, we’ll keep reading, and may be pulling more lessons from the rest of the series.