I recently read the 1983 science-fiction novel, Startide Rising, with my kids. It’s the second book in David Brin’s first “uplift trilogy,” a series of loosely-related books that take place in a shared universe. I haven’t read these books since I was a teenager, and I didn’t remember too much about them before re-reading.
The previous book in the series was Sundiver, which I also wrote about.
1 – Unlimited Points of View
These books are very plot-heavy science-fiction, and Startide Rising has an expansive cast of characters. If it were me, I would look for a small number of main characters, and follow their points of view, adjusting the plot so that all the important action happens on their watch. That would be challenging in this story, because there are so many characters, in different locations and constantly shifting groups.
Brin sidesteps that problem by not really focusing on main characters at all. Some characters get more “screen time” than others, but it’s hard to say that this is a story about the dolphin starship captain Creideiki or midshipman Toshio or the genetically-modified couple of Gillian Baskin and Tom Orley. The story is about the Earth ship Streaker and its entire crew as they try to escape the galactic armada that’s bearing down on them.
Brin uses some tricks to make this constant switching between viewpoints less confusing. Most chapters are labelled with the name of the viewpoint character, so the reader doesn’t have to guess and the author doesn’t have to use narrative tricks to make sure it’s clear. There are a few chapters where there is no viewpoint character, or the story follows a group from an omniscient point of view. In those cases, the chapters are labelled with the setting. This might feel very heavy-handed, but it’s a simple and clear way to make the reader’s experience better.
Of course, there is still a notable cost that Brin has to pay for this wide-ranging story with so many point-of-view characters. As a reader, it’s hard to feel extremely close to any of these characters. The story focuses on the plot because there is less focus on the specific characters.
2 – Flat Characters are not Always Bad
This is something I’ve felt for a while, but this book certainly emphasizes the point. Because the cast is so big, it is already inevitable that some characters will be more fleshed-out than others. Because there is an intricate plot, some of the characters may be vital because of a few specific actions they take at key moments, while others are core drivers of the story from start to finish.
For those less important characters, they only need to be fleshed out enough that their actions make sense. They are mostly there to serve as cogs in the story machine. They make the thing keep moving. That doesn’t mean they can be free from any development—readers are still going to be annoyed by “plot robots” who do things that make no sense—but the development only needs to go just far enough that the character’s actions are believable.
Deep, rounded-out characters with complex motivations are important (and a lot of fun to write), but in a book like this, making every character like that would result in an overblown, muddled mess.
3 – Don’t Ignore the Ethics of the Future
The main conceit of the Uplift series is that humanity embarks on a project of genetic modification for dolphins and chimpanzees shortly before making contact with a vast multi-species extraterrestrial civilization where this exact sort of “uplift” is normal and codified into a form of species-wide indentured servitude.
Brin contrasts a kind, enlightened humanity, who treat their uplifted “client” species more or less as equals; with the often-cruel galactic species, some of whom treat their clients as disposable slaves. Unfortunately, this simple, black-and-white presentation of morality sidesteps all sorts of ethical dilemmas.
At the start of the first book, Sundiver, there are hints that Brin is interested in exploring challenging ethical situations. In his imagined future, there is an advanced personality test that can accurately predict violent and antisocial tendencies in people. The test Is mandatory, and the basis for a class system that limits the rights of those who fail it.
Unfortunately, the idea seems to be included mostly as setup for a red herring in the overarching mystery of the book. Sundiver does, at least, admit that this sort of policy would be highly controversial, even though it never gets into arguments of whether it is right or not.
By the time Brin gets to Startide Rising, there are even higher stakes. The book follows the first spaceship crewed by newly-sentient dolphins, and it puts the ideas of genetic “uplift” front-and-center. It is made clear that humans are trying to make dolphins their equals, but they are still in the midst of genetic manipulation, and it seems that the primary mechanism of this manipulation is through breeding rights. Individuals who show positive traits are encouraged to have as many offspring as possible, while those with negative traits are not allowed to procreate.
This is plainly a species-wide eugenics program in the name of “improving” intelligent animals into sophisticated people. Yet Brin shows barely any awareness that there are moral depths to be explored here. The “client” species accept this, even if individuals with fewer rights don’t like it, and no human ever shows qualms about the idea. When some of the dolphins eventually succumb to primal instincts under extreme stress, it is presented only as justification for these policies.
We live in a world where tech startups are making daily advances in AI, robotics, facial recognition, and dozens of other fields that could have a profound impact on society, but most of those companies are, in the classic words of Ian Malcom, “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they don’t stop to think if they should.”
Science fiction has a long history of considering ethical concerns around technology and culture that doesn’t actually exist yet. Sci-fi is a playground for exploring future ideas before they invade our real lives. It’s an opportunity for due diligence and to anticipate issues that may need to be addressed. More than ever, this seems like something we need.
It’s also only going to make your story better. As an author, you never want to be in a situation where the reader expects you to address something and you just let it go. If you’re writing a mystery and ignore an obvious clue, the reader will get irritated. If you’re writing science-fiction and you gloss over the ethical minefield of the technology you’ve invented, you should expect the reader to be just as annoyed!
Next: The Uplift War?
This first Uplift Trilogy finishes with The Uplift War, where the Terran inhabitants of a colony planet have to deal with the fallout of the galactic conflict started by the starship Streaker in Startide Rising. We’re halfway through it, and I’ll write a follow-up when we’ve finished.