Three Things I Learned From Sundiver

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.

Dissecting Influences — Sci-Fi From My Childhood

If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember that my favorite writing podcast is Writing Excuses. In Episode 17.7, the team discussed dissecting your influences.

We all have stories we love, whether they be books, shows or movies. The idea of this episode was that it can be useful to take apart our favorite things and figure out why we like them, because it guides us toward things that matter to us. The themes and ideas that draw us to these works will often be fertile ground for our own writing. And while it may seem obvious that we all know exactly what we like in media, the truth is that we often leave those stones unturned. It might even be surprising to dig into what really brings us joy in a favorite movie or book.

After listening to this episode, I started compiling a list of my own favorite media. It wasn’t hard to start. In fact, it was hard to stop. The things closest to mind were mostly books I had read recently or old favorites that I’ve been re-reading with my kids. But I soon started to remember books from childhood, poetry, and even influences outside fiction altogether.

With this list in hand, and continuing to add to it, I thought it might be fun to dissect my own writer brain in public. I have to limit myself to a reasonable size for a blog post, so I’m going to pick a somewhat arbitrary classification to pull out a handful of entries.

The Grown-Up Sci-Fi of My Childhood

That’s right, it’s some of my first loves in science fiction, way back when I was still in school. The actual dates of publication vary quite a bit, from 1965 to 1994, and these are all novels aimed at adults. One of the things that drew me into these books was the faintly illicit idea that I, as a child, could read stories intended for grown-ups. It felt like a window into ideas and worlds I wasn’t yet allowed to enter. Going from “Choose Your Own Adventure” and Goosebumps to heady books like Dune is a real shock to the system.

On that note, let’s start with Herbert’s masterpiece.

Dune

Having read this book at least three times—and one of those times quite recently—I have a hard time going back to the headspace I was in when I read it originally. I think I was in high school, and I’m pretty sure the reason I started reading it was because I saw a mention of it where someone said it was as influential in science-fiction as Lord of the Rings was in fantasy.

I think Dune is a pretty great book for young people who are starting to get into science fiction. On the one hand, it reduces the many political and economic complexities of the far future into a feudal culture where the only thing that matters are the machinations of a handful of powerful factions. The protagonist, Paul, is a ducal heir with adult responsibilities, but he’s still not quite an adult. Interestingly, the whole feudal system and it’s quasi-European royalty end up falling apart by the end of the book, with young Paul engineering their downfall at the hands of colonized people.

I remember this book being interesting because it sets up a world where people and decisions hundreds of years previous can have profound and complicated effects on the present. It’s a world of complex, interrelated systems that nobody can completely understand, and even a single person putting a wrench in the gears in just the right way can totally change the universe.

I also genuinely love Paul’s relationship with his own psychic powers. He hates them. He is constantly vacillating between seeing the future and being unable to steer it, or losing that sight and the fear of not knowing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that handled that kind of power in quite the same way.

I have to at least mention the other books in the (original) Dune series. I read them all, although not right away. I don’t think any of them quite measure up to the original, but I appreciate how strange they are, and Herbert’s audacity in choosing to set them thousands of years apart in far-flung futures that are less and less similar to our own modern lives.

Ender’s Game

Another book with a child protagonist? Possibly a theme. Ender in this book is much younger than Paul is at the beginning of Dune, but he deals with some comparable drama. This is another book that I re-read recently with my kids.

This book was astounding in a few different ways. Firstly, while it’s not exactly dystopic fiction, it does depict a world where war with aliens has resulted in hardship for average people and a government with dictatorial power. We learn early on that Ender is special because he’s a “third.” In a world where the government limits how many children each couple can have, he is a rarity.

All of the main characters are children: Ender and his siblings, and all of the kids at the battle school. Parents and adults are present, but they have little time “on-screen.” Like the dictatorial government, they show up periodically and force some seemingly arbitrary and often cruel new rules onto the children, but it’s the children and their relationships that matter. This is a book that understands what it feels like to be a child, to feel like adults don’t give you all the information and many decisions are left completely out of your hands.

Ender is bred to be a soldier and a leader. He’s trained for it. He is subjected to insane cruelty, to the point where he ends up having to kill other children to defend himself, all because it’s part of the program. But the ultimate cruelty happens at the end of the book, when he discovers that the supposedly wise adults who forced this horrible life on him didn’t even understand the enemy that they trained him to kill. The entire war is nothing more than an interspecies miscommunication, and he finds out by accident.

And then he leaves. He finds the one person he loves and who loves him: his sister. They get on a spaceship and fly away. He leaves behind all the systems of abuse and control that defined his entire life. Maybe a metaphor for growing up.

The “Ender” series continues on. Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind are all great books, but again I feel like the original is still the best. The series is similar to Dune in the way it jumps large spans of time in a wildly changing galaxy. The Dune series eventually had a bunch of new books written much later, by Herbert’s son. I heard they were terrible and I never read them. The “Ender” series, on the other hand, had more and more books still written by Orson Scott Card, but I got to the point where I just wasn’t that interested by yet another rehash of the same story from a different secondary character’s perspective.

Before we move on, it’s worth mentioning that I’m still disappointed that Orson Scott Card turned out to be a homophobe and the sort of person who politely states their deeply held and hateful beliefs. Card was one of my early writing heroes, and I still hold his books on writing in high esteem, but as a person, he really bums me out. He kind of did the whole “J.K. Rowling” thing before Rowling.

The Uplift Saga

While the above two entries are the first (and I would argue, most important) books in a series, David Brin’s “Uplift” books are inseparable in my mind. There are six of them, in a pair of trilogies:

  • Sundiver
  • Startide Rising
  • The Uplift War

…and…

  • Heaven’s Reach
  • Brightness Reef
  • Infinity’s Shore

I suspect this series might be the most influential set of books in my childhood, but I came at them in a very weird way. I’m honestly not sure if I even remember it correctly. I know I read them out of order, because I bought one of these books at a garage sale, completely unaware that it was part of a series. I can’t be sure, but I think it was The Uplift War, the third book in the first trilogy.

That might sound a little insane to some readers, but it’s something I did multiple times as a kid. I even read through the fifth book in a series once, and didn’t realize it was part of a series until the ending completely failed to resolve the plot. One of the crazy things about being a child is that the world makes no sense. Every time you open a “grown-up” book, it’s like being transported into a completely new universe. Of course it’s confusing. Everything is confusing when you’re a child. It’s the ultimate introduction to the concept of “in media res.”

While Dune imagines a sci-fi future with no aliens whatsoever, and Ender’s Game has only the buggers, who seem to be mindless insectoid killing machines, the Uplift books are absolutely chockablock with all sorts of aliens. They are not your usual little green men. They are crabby things with 360° vision or energy creatures that live in the corona of the sun. They are varied and logical for the environment they came from.

The Uplift books depict a humanity that has just made contact with a galaxy full of aliens. There is a galactic culture. It is full of aliens who are much more advanced and powerful than humans, and we are forced to very abruptly change our own assessment of how awesome we are.

Humanity has started the process of advancing the intelligence of chimpanzees, dogs, gorillas and dolphins through genetic manipulation and technology. It turns out this is a pretty damn important concept to all the aliens, who call it “Uplift.” In fact, it’s the glue that binds all these different cultures together, as the uplifted races are forced into millennia-long servitude to the race that gave them the gift of sentience, and the races providing “Uplift” have a higher social position. Of course, the top dogs of the galaxy aren’t excited to see the newcomers, humanity, get that kind of respect, let alone the servitude of multiple freshly uplifted species.

Again, we have a fictional world that is too big for its characters. Hell, even the entire human race (and super-dogs/chimps/gorillas) is just trying to keep from drowning in a galaxy where almost everything is out of their control. I think, as a child, I was fascinated by the idea that everything we know and have ever known on planet Earth might be utterly inconsequential in the wider universe.

Overtime?

I have to admit, when I started writing this article I thought I might not have that much to say. Now I’m almost 2,000 words into this, everyone has probably stopped reading, and I only made it through half the books I intended.

I’m going to call it here. I found this to be a really fun exercise, but I’m curious if anyone else will be interested. I got more out of it than I thought I would, not the least of which is the desire to go and re-read the entire Uplift series. If anyone enjoys this, I might make it a regular feature. I have a lot of books, shows, and movies on my list.