Wordy Wednesday – Startide Rising by David Brin

Two-hundred fifty years after the events in Sundiver, we find the spaceship Streaker in hiding. The crew, mostly dolphins with a few humans and a chimp scientist, had been on an exploratory mission when they found an abandoned fleet of huge spaceships left adrift. They get some artifacts from the ships after losing some of the crew, and retrieve a preserved corpse. Then, they (stupidly) send back pictures of some of the things they’ve found to Earth and ask what to do.

Many alien species aren’t too keen on humans, and when some of these races inevitably eavesdrop on the transmission and see what the humans and dolphins have found, they set out to capture the crew of the Streaker. Could those ships have belonged to the Progenitors, the legendary race that began the process of uplift – the race that can theoretically be credited with giving sentience to all the members of Galactic society? And this corpse – a Progenitor?

It’s a big prize. It’s a big story. It’s not a great book.



Oh, and there’s this dolphin who wants to fuck a human woman.

Startide Rising, everyone. In the future, humans and dolphins will fuck and it’s totally cool, as long as the dolphin is intelligent I guess.

It gets much, much worse though. The dolphin is Sah’ot. The woman is Dennie. Dennie keeps telling the dolphin to back off – she isn’t interested. But Sah’ot continually brushes up against her, or comes up behind her and touches her shoulder with a fin, or makes suggestive remarks. Everyone treats it as a joke. And, look, I know this is a sci-fi book with dolphins flying spaceships, but everything Sah’ot does is categorically consistent with sexual harassment. And the rest of the crew just laughs it off. I don’t even know. Was this vital to the narrative? (It wasn’t).

Look at this fucking deviant.

Worse, one character even wonders something along the lines of “I wonder if Dennie is aware of the ways in which she is encouraging Sah’ot.” Ohh, okay, I get it now. It’s cool if this dolphin harasses her. She was asking for it. Naturally. No disgusting sexism here, just dolphins in space. Move along. Of course, we also get a chapter or two from Sah’ots point of view, where we get this delightful sentence: “Sah’ot realized that, for all of his previous efforts to break her down […]” and we’ll just stop there. Awesome. And it isn’t like we’re supposed to think of Sah’ot as a bad dolphin. He’s presented as being average, a bit of a coward, but otherwise decent. I guess the sexual harassment and attempts to “break down” Dennie are supposed to be humorous? It’s sick.

But it’s all fine! Sah’ot is a good guy (well, dolphin). Even Dennie comes around, apparently forgetting all the sexual harassment that took place. Of the many problems I have with the “this dolphin is a sex pervert” subplot – and oh, I have so many problems with it – the worst part is that it has nothing to do with the story. Nothing comes of it, it’s just a distraction. Ha ha, silly dolphin, forcing sexual attention on that woman! You little rascal!


“My blowhole brings all the boys to the sea, and they’re like…”

Bonus: we are also expected to care that the Captain, a dolphin, wants to fuck another dolphin. I understand the desire to put sexuality into a sci-fi novel. Many good sci-fi novels tackle the issue of sexuality. But, you know. With humans. Not dolphins.

A discussion on sexuality in sci-fi novels is a post for another time.


 Dolphin Speech

There are references to the dolphins’ “speech-mouth” but no indication of where it is exactly. I guess it’s near the blowhole? I think it is, because the dolphins have these ‘breathers’ that allow them to stay underwater and still have oxygen to breath. The breathers go over the blowhole, and apparently interfere with the dolphins’ attempts to speak human languages. It’s just that…we’re told that the dolphins have been genetically modified. They can make facial expressions, one of them waves a fin in a way that made me think it isn’t similar to the dolphins that exist now, and they can talk. Even a brief description of the dolphins, and how they differ from the non-English-speaking ones we have today, would go a long way towards personalizing these space-faring dolphins.

About a quarter of the way into the novel, the dolphins’ blowhole is called a ‘blowmouth.’ Okay, so that’s how they talk. Is…is there a tongue in there? You know, to make human speech sounds. If so, does it interfere with the dolphins’ breathing? Can they kiss with it? I mean, if Brin is going to spend time talking about dolphin-fucking, I have to wonder if dolphins have weird sex moves with their blowmouth.

You know this is a fetish, somewhere on the internet.

Hold on a sec. I just have to quietly regret leading the kind of life that brought me to wonder about genetically engineered space-dolphins’ sex lives.

Okay. Okay. I’ll- we’ll be…we’ll get through it. Onwards!


Earth Sciences

Now here’s the part where I spend a really long time talking about Earth sciences and how tectonic activity works. You may want to just skip it.

There’s a possible error in some of the science. They’re hiding on this planet in an ocean, and their neo-chimp scientist is doing research on the planets’ crust. He comes to the conclusion that – gasp – a civilization existed here that has no record in the Galactic Library! Here’s the science part – he theorizes that this civilization was aware of the Galactic restrictions on this planet. It was reserved for this one race that ignores it. So a space-faring race set up some nice cities here, and to avoid punishment in the future, they built all their cities near subduction zones, so that their cities would be pulled underground in some hundreds of thousands of years. The Galactic inspection people or whatever are pretty busy, so they only come around once every million years or so. Maybe not these time lengths exactly, but a similar thing – build cities near subduction zones, when you leave, cities get pulled into the crust and melt in the presumably hot mantle.

The perfect crime! Except a neo-chimp figures it out while trapped on a submerged ship with limited research. So, uh, a pretty flawed crime, really.

“Elementary, my dear Bonobo.”

But, uh, I don’t want to sound like a pompous asshole, but I’m pretty keen on my Earth sciences, and that isn’t how subduction works. Boring science lesson time!

So the science behind the movement of the crust on Earth isn’t 100% understood. I mean, we can’t directly observe it. But the evidence we have is really solid (hah! get it?), and the theories are good. You may remember from middle school or high school that the Earth has a crust, a mantle, and a core. We’re dealing with the crust and mantle here (I could be using the terms lithosphere and asthenosphere to be more precise, but they don’t exactly mean the same things as crust and mantle so I guess I shouldn’t have said anything).

The crust is what we live on. Trees grow on it. Mountains sit on and in it. Oceans flow on top of it. The mantle is underneath. The mantle isn’t solid – it flows (i.e., it has “plasticity”). Think of it like Play-Doh, except instead of whatever the hell Play-Doh is made out of, it’s rock so hot that it’s only ‘kind of’ solid. The crust floats on top of the mantle. This is why the continents are moving. Tectonic plates ride convection currents in the mantle.

This is what Earth really looks like from space. NASA coverup! Conspiracy!

What’s convection? Example: the process by which hot air expands and rises, and cool air shrinks and falls. Like when your shower curtain flaps at your legs when you’re taking a hot shower. The hot air rises towards the ceiling, then cools and falls, and to replace the air that rose out of the shower, the cool air pushes in on the curtain to get into the shower.

The parts of the mantle heated near the core rise, and create flows, which push the tectonic plates around.

Now, there is a difference between continental crust and oceanic crust. The plates move a bit differently because of this. Continental crust is made mostly of granite, which is a comparatively light-weight rock. Oceanic crust is made mostly of basalt, which is heavier.

When an oceanic plate and a continental plate crash into each other, we have a convergent plate boundary. The heavier oceanic crust is subducted – it is forced under the continental plate. Most of the stuff that was on the sea floor gets pulled down as well, and it returns to the mantle. It’s part of the rock cycle.

Imagine cars crashing. That doesn’t help here, but – vroooom! Kapow! Haha!

I love rocks!

But here’s my point (finally!). Brin has made one of three errors. First, he may not have understood or cared about how subduction works. Two, he may have this particular planet work differently. Three, the aliens that built cities near subduction zones lived underwater, on oceanic, basaltic crust.

In the first case, fine, that’s his prerogative. It’s his novel. But it weakens a sci-fi novel to make such errors; at least, it does for assholes like me, who read it and go “That doesn’t make sense.” I’m willing to buy that there are alien races, faster than light travel, crazy genetic experiments, rapist dolphins – that’s fine. But I’m willing to believe it because that’s all crazy sci-fi stuff. It’s what I’m here for. But basic geography stuff? If it works differently on this planet than it does on Earth, just say so.

In the second or third case, Brin needs to tell us about it. For the third in particular; there are so many races in this book, and this detail would be important. The story needs to make sense internally. It has to work by its own consistent logic. Only Earth has heavy ocean crusts? Fine – but tell us. I need a believable world, even for space-dolphin adventures.

“Atlantis is wonderful this time of year.”

Because, see, how Brin describes it is – well, not at all, really. We’re just told “Oh aliens lived here, secretly, and built their cities to be destroyed by a specific kind of tectonic activity.” If the aliens built cities on continental crust, they wouldn’t be subducted, not back into the mantle, for a long long time. What it does it take me out of the story. Now I have to fill in essential details. Now I’m irritated because I have to guess things about this world. It pulls me out of the story.

Then again, the planet is heavily laced with metals. The plants even incorporate metals into themselves. However, the rock cycle would still separate the heavy metals out from the lighter metals. The lighter metals would rise and we’d still have continental crust being lighter than oceanic crust.

And I’m sorry I’m spending so much time on this but it aggravated me: the world is portrayed as more of an ocean world with islands. Okay, so, if we had two oceanic plates crashing into each other – well, first, I’d still want to know if the creatures who built cities built them underwater. Second, there’s still a problem – one oceanic crust would subduct under the other. They wouldn’t swap back and forth, so one plate wouldn’t be pulling cities down into the mantle. The evidence wouldn’t be hidden fast enough.


 On Uplift

There are aspects of the book that look interesting, but are rarely touched upon. The dolphins have been uplifted by humans, but humans haven’t made them a client race. That means humans haven’t insisted on the dolphins serving them for one hundred thousand years. We supposedly treat them as equals. However, throughout the book, dolphins talk about being allowed to have children. So humans are still acting as the superior race.

Whether that’s true or not – dolphins have only been a sentient, tool-using race since humans uplifted them about 300 years ago – the effect of this patronizing on the dolphins would be interesting. At least, I think so. Here we have dolphins capable of piloting space ships, and yet they need permission to be able to reproduce. How would that affect them, psychologically? Would they chafe under human restrictions? Or would they accept it as natural? We barely know.

When we Uplift cats, they are still jerks (probably). (Source)


Some information comes too late. It isn’t until almost the last quarter of the book that we get to see what drives Charles Dart, the chimp scientist. He’s actually motivated to make a big discovery because he believes that chimps are second-class citizens in the Terragen Council, the ruling council of Earth. He thinks that chimps are only on the council as a form of tokenism. He’s out to prove that a chimp scientist is every bit as capable as a human. This informs many of his decisions, and it would have been useful to know earlier. Without it, he just comes off as unreasonable and irritating, but worse, he feels like a distraction from the main direction of the novel.

That’s another problem – the novel is too disjointed. We follow too many threads, and especially towards the end, it slows the novel down. The climax of the novel jumps between at least six different character points of view. It bogs down the story and I kept losing interest. Oh, we’re back on this tiny island, and they’re talking to the natives? And it doesn’t affect the other stories going on? Thrilling. Oh, here we are, we’re back at this battle that started a dozen chapters ago. Good thing we’ll only see a little flash of this crucial battle that will decide the fate of the Streaker’s crew before jumping back to dolphins repairing a ship.


Final Verdict

Eh, I don’t know. We’ll see how amazing the next book is – The Uplift War. As it is, Startide Rising doesn’t answer the mysteries I want answered and was a little disjointed. I would not recommend it.


About seansynthetic

"...so I says the the guy, I says to him, 'No, YOU ain't allowed back into this Chuck-E-Cheese.'"

Posted on August 8, 2012, in Wordy Wednesdays and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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