A little while back I finished reading David Brin’s first Uplift Trilogy with my kids. It was an interesting experience for a few reasons:
- It was published in 1987, which is a period that (to me, at least) doesn’t feel old enough to qualify as “classic” sci-fi, but is certainly old enough to see how the genre has changed and compare to more modern stuff.
- I originally read it when I was in my early teens, possibly before I even had an inkling that I wanted to be a writer. Now I’m a middle-aged dad writing my own sci-fi. It gives me a very different perspective.
- I read it out loud. This is something I pretty much never did before I had kids, but now I’ve been doing it for more than a decade. Reading aloud is slower, and different in ways that are a little difficult to quantify.
1. Life Goes On
The Uplift Trilogy encompasses three stories that take place in the same universe, but are only very loosely related. Interestingly, The Uplift War doesn’t even resolve the loose plot that ties the last two books together: the scout ship Streaker fleeing from alien armadas with secret information that may upend the galaxy-spanning pseudo-religion.
Each story in the series is wrapped up by the end of the book, but the backdrop is a galaxy in flux, and the larger picture is left unresolved. Startide Rising follows Streaker as it crash-lands on an inhospitable planet, and the crew fights mutiny and the threat of the aliens giving chase. They escape, but they’re still on the run.
The Uplift War is about the invasion of Garth, a small and battered Earthling colony world, invaded by one of Earth’s most dangerous enemies. By the end, the invasion is foiled and the Earth gains some new allies, but the outcome of the war is far from certain.
For some readers, I have no doubt that this lack of resolution on a grand scale would be frustrating (especially before Brin wrote a second trilogy in the same universe). For me, it makes the setting feel more grounded, more real. The story of this particular place and time may have a beginning and an ending, but the galaxy keeps on turning. Just like in real life, there are always loose threads and uncertainties.
2. Don’t Use Difficult-to-Pronounce Names
Okay, this might be a little petty, and it was admittedly influenced by the fact that I was reading out loud.
Here are some character names from the book: Uthacalthing, Athaclena, Mathicluanna, Prathachulthorn. Oh, and also Robert, Megan and Benjamin. Can you guess which ones are aliens and which ones are Earthlings? Well, you’re probably right about everyone except for Major Prachachulthorn, the most shallow and under-utilized villain of the series, and decidedly human.
Oddly, I am perfectly willing to deal with names that are difficult to pronounce when they come from a real culture and are just unfamiliar. And I have little doubt that if we ever make contact with real aliens, they’ll have impossible-to-pronounce names, if they have names at all. But made-up alien names composed entirely of X’s, Z’s and punctuation are deeply irritating to me. I’d much rather sacrifice a tiny bit of verisimilitude for a heaping helping of readability.
On the other hand, I’m a firm believer that it’s an effective and easy aid to the reader to make all your important character names very different, especially in books with huge casts of characters like these. These unpronounceable names are pretty good in that regard. You’re not likely to confuse Uthacalthing with Prathachulthorn. Or Benjamin.
3. Appendices Suck
Okay, The Uplift War doesn’t actually have appendices. It has a glossary and cast of characters and two different maps. I’m talking about pretty much everything that takes up pages before or after the story itself.
Don’t get me wrong, I love maps. Maps can be art. I play TTRPGs, and let me tell you, you’re going to see some maps when you play those games. In fact, I think maps are much more suited to something like that. The maps in The Uplift War aren’t art. They’re bare-bones representations whose purpose is clearly just to show you the basic lay of the land.
The glossary and cast of characters read like reference material. Because they are.
All of these things solve the same problem: what if the reader gets confused? The answer to that question should be fixing the story so that they don’t get confused. If the reader can’t remember which character is which, that means you have too many characters or they aren’t interesting enough to remember. If the reader is confused about the lay of the land, it means you haven’t described it very well. And if the reader doesn’t understand how to conjugate verbs in elvish…well, then your name is probably J.R.R. Tolkien and you should have just written a separate linguistics study for your made-up languages.
World-building should happen in the story, not in appendices.
4. Don’t Write Sexy Alien Girls
This trope was worn out before Captain Kirk started seducing every green-skinned babe in the galaxy. It feels like adolescent wish-fulfillment. Which is fine, I guess, if that’s what you’re going for. But it’s out of place in otherwise serious sci-fi.
If your hunky main character absolutely has to fall in love with a hot alien, at least have the good sense to make them a sentient cloud of nuclear plasma or fire-breathing kaiju.