Cover image of "Startide Rising," the second novel in the series about life in the Uplift Universe

Ask dedicated science fiction fans to name the best-known series in the genre, and they’re likely to think first about those that have been adapted to the screen. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, for example. The Hunger Games. The Expanse. But I’ve found that others, though less widely known, are better. I think of the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, and—now that I’ve finally read one of the books—David Brin’s award-winning Uplift novels. Startide Rising, the second book about life in the Uplift Universe, is frequently listed among the best science fiction novels ever written. And, yes, it’s that good.

A universe teeming with intelligent life

The concept of Uplift is central to the stories in the series. The premise is that we live in a universe teeming with intelligent life. But most species in the Five Galaxies attained sapience not through evolution, or at least not exclusively that way. Instead, they were “uplifted” by a patron species from a starfaring race and thus became their clients, forced to do their bidding. Earth, it appears, is the sole exception. Here, homo sapiens evolved through natural processes. But we humans then proceeded to institute our own home-grown form of uplift, using genetic engineering and selective breeding to welcome dolphins and chimpanzees into the ranks of the our planet’s sophonts. And when starships piloted by humans and dolphins reached for the stars, homo sapiens thus became the youngest patron race in the Uplift Universe, with dolphins and chimpanzees our clients.

Startide Rising (Uplift #2) by David Brin (1983) 515 pages ★★★★★ 

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel

Image of a bottlenose dolphin, one of the species uplifted to sapience in the Uplift Universe
A bottlenose dolphin like those who have been “uplifted” to human-level intelligence in David Brin’s Uplift series. Image: illumina

A sprawling cast of characters

Startide Rising opens with a daunting, seven-page glossary and cast of characters. The upshot is that the novel is indeed a slow slog early on. It’s a challenge to get used to the many neo-dolphin and human officers on board and to the multitude of other, hostile species in the Five Galaxies. But it’s worth it. And eventually the identities of the central characters become clear. It’s still a large number, but manageable. Such is life in the Uplift Universe.

The humans

The principal human characters include:

  • Dr. Gillian Baskin, a physician and agent for the Terragens Council. She is the most senior among the small number of humans aboard.
  • Midshipman Toshio Iwashika, who hails from the mixed human-dolphin colony world of Calafia
  • Dr. Ignacio Metz, a human expert on uplift
  • Thomas Orley, an agent of the Terragens Council who is Gillian Baskin’s lover
  • Dennie Sudman, a female exobiologist
  • Hannes Suessi, a male engineer

The neo-dolphins

However, the principal dolphin characters are more numerous, as this is a ship piloted and captained by neo-dolphins—the first ever.

  • Akki, a midshipman from Calafia who is Toshio’s best friend
  • Brookida, a metallurgist
  • Creideidiki, an aging neo-dolphin who captains the exploration vessel Streaker, thought to be a genius by many in the crew
  • Hikahi, a female neo-dolphin who is third in command
  • Keepiru, pilot of the Streaker, who is a trained military officer
  • K’tha-jon, a petty officer who is an experimental variant Stenos neo-dolphin
  • Makanee, the ship’s surgeon, a female
  • Sah’ot, a civilian linguist who is a Stenos neo-dolphin
  • Takkata-Jim, vice-captain of the Streaker, a male Stenos new-dolphin
  • T’sh’t, a female neo-dolphin who is the ship’s fourth officer
  • Wattaceti, a non-commissioned officer who is a male neo-fin

Joining them is Dr. Charles Dart, a neo-chimpanzee planetologist, who is the only member of his species to appear in the story.

Conflict with alien species

To this awkwardly long cast of characters, add a bewildering number of hostile alien species. They all come together when Streaker is forced to land on an out-of-the-way planet called Kithrup. By accident, they’d discovered a billions-of-years-old derelict fleet in a backwater in the Milky Way galaxy that consists of ships the size of moons. The aliens have pursued them to discover what the Earthlings have learned about the ancients who piloted the derelict fleet—and to convert the humans and their dolphin and chimpanzee clients into clients of their own.

But the aliens are hostile not just to humans and dolphins. They detest one another with sometimes even greater acrimony. The result is a colossal battle in space around the planet for each of them to gain the advantage over all the others. Meanwhile, Streaker is trapped under an ocean on Kithrup, with factions lining up against each other over clashing plans for them to escape their fate.

If all this sounds unappetizing, never fear. Brin does a brilliant job developing the characters in the story and pacing the action. Read this book, and you’ll likely find yourself caring a great deal about the fate of those on Streaker. Life in the Uplift Universe is endlessly fascinating.

About the author

Image of David Brin, author of this novel about life in the Uplift Universe
David Brin. Image: Cheryl Brigham – WIRED

David Brin (1950-) holds a BS in Astronomy from the California Institute of Technology and both a Master’s in electrical engineering and a PhD in Astronomy from the University of California, San Diego. Most of his 19 science fiction novels are hard SF. Six are set in the Uplift universe, of which Startide Rising is the second. Brin has won all the major literary awards in the genre. In addition to writing science fiction, he works widely as a lecturer and consultant about the future. Brin lives in San Diego with his wife and children. He is of Polish-Jewish ancestry, and Jewish values and themes are reflected in much of his fiction.

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