Wordy Wednesday – The Uplift War by David Brin
Instead of solving any of the mysteries presented by Startide Rising, we are brought to the planet of Garth and introduced to a bunch of new characters.
First, Uplift has no dolphins, and no dolphin-sex-fetish. So, huge jump in quality right there.
Second, we have fewer characters to follow, and their stories intersect in a more logical and structured way.
Third, we have a lot of neo-chimps as characters. If you recall, humanity has been engaged in the process of uplift on other species, where we give them intelligence and give them spaceships and sometimes it’s okay to fuck them I guess. We’ve done it to chimps and dolphins, and there are hints in the book that we’re doing it to dogs.
Though we probably don’t uplift the dogs that still believe in Santa Claus. (Source)
Characters have motivations that make sense, though they are sometimes hard to follow. It works, though, because some of the characters are crazy aliens. In particular, Uthacalthing is a little hard to follow at first. He’s an alien, one of the Tymbrimi, a race of semi-shapeshifting pranksters. His whole motivation appears to be to pull a really good prank. That’s it – which is odd, because he’s the ambassador of the Tymbrimi to the humans of Garth, and the planet is being occupied by a hostile race of bird-things, the Gubru. You’d think he’d, I don’t know, help out more?
One of his pranks does help a bit, by tricking the Gubru and making them waste time and money looking for a native species on Garth that doesn’t exist. Anyway, his motivations are clear for the most part. He’s a decent character.
More interesting are the chimps. I mentioned in my review of Startide Rising that I wanted to hear more about what uplift does to a species, and how humanity treats them. Humans don’t insist on the hundred-thousand-years of service from their client species that aliens do. But we still treat them like second-class citizens, all in the interest of uplift. There are various reasons for this, but it still must have an effect on the client species.
It does! And we get to see a little of it with the chimps. They are categorized based on their worth as reproductive agents. So, a really intelligent chimp would get a white card – he or she can have babies with whoever, whenever, excepting only Probationers (I think). Probationers, or Probies, are chimps that are particularly low-brow. They’re the less intelligent, atavistic chimps. Probies aren’t allowed to reproduce. There’s a whole spectrum between Probies and white card chimps. But anyone below a white card needs to apply for permission to have a baby. The Uplift Board then reviews both chimps, father and mother, and can approve or disapprove the match.
It’s grating to many of the chimps. We get to see some of the ways in which the chimps avoid or confront the system. Also, in Startide Rising the chimp-scientist touches on this, but it’s just stuck in there, like “Oh and here’s why he does this thing, the end.” In The Uplift War, it is on stage much more, and we get a better understanding of the culture of the chimps. It’s interesting.
Another thing that Uplift does better than Startide is the threatening aliens. In Startide, the humans and dolphins are hiding on a planet while a variety of fanatic alien extremists have a big space battle in orbit or around the star system. It didn’t make much sense – why wouldn’t some of the larger factions send details down to the surface to look for the dolphin’s ship? If they could capture it first, they could get the information they want and leave. Sure, they’d have to fight off a few other factions on the surface, but none of them even look until one of the humans sets a trap and uses a fake beacon to draw the aliens in.
But in Uplift, the Gubru show up and immediately win. I mean, the planet Garth is a human colony world – we don’t have a bunch of people there. We’re mostly working on the ecology of the world. It had been torn apart, and we’re putting it back together. Not only does this sharpen our ecological skills, but preserving livable worlds gets us some credit and support in the Galactic government.
So it isn’t a military outpost or anything, and the Gubru are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years older than us as a spacefaring society. They’ve got all kinds of high-tech weapons to use on us. They use mostly ones that don’t kill us, too, because of complicated rules that govern inter-species wars. They don’t want to have to pay reparations for killing too many people, or damaging the ecosystem again.
Basically the Gubru. Just add a leg or two, maybe imagine them with spaceships. (Source)
Thus, instead of a rambling, overly-complicated space battle, we have enemy occupation. It’s a better stage. And naturally, a human, a Tymbrimi, and a lot of chimps set up a resistance force in the forests and mountains. They figure out how the Gubru are tracking them, block it, and use low-tech weapons that can’t be traced – bows and arrows, crossbows, toppling trees to block roads, so on. They fight a guerrilla war.
And in the background, the Gubru aren’t trying to hold Garth. What they wanted was a way to discredit humans and bring honor to their species. They thought we might be messing up the ecological projects, but we aren’t. So they try to lure the chimps away from us – by holding some kind of ceremony, they can legally have the chimps proclaim that they want a new species to help uplift them. The Gubru, naturally, use a Probationer as one of the two chimps needed for the ceremony. The other one is brainwashed – just a little! – so that they’ll claim to want to Gubru.
All in all, the novel was much better written than its predecessors, from the plot to the characters to the social issues involved with uplifting a species. It’s tighter in focus and, perhaps most importantly, interesting. Then again, it doesn’t answer any of the questions from Startide, so that was a little frustrating.