Author Archives: photocosmic

Startide Rising By David Brin

 

Startide Rising

 

The starship Streaker, crewed mostly by dolphins, has discovered what may be evidence of the race that started the whole cycle of uplift throughout the galaxy. Several other alien species, intercepting Streaker’s message about the discovery  to Earth, pursue the ship determined to seize this evidence for their own benefit. Damaged in an encounter with some of these aliens, the Streaker is forced to land on the planet Kithrup. As the ship prepares to flee again, various different alien fleets blockade the planet, their seizing of the vessel only prevented by their battle with each other. And the planet itself also threatens their survival.

This book is a sequel to Sundiver, I was disappointed by the lack of mention of the race discovered on the sun. Surely, that must have had some major impact on Earth. However, this book does lots of things which I really enjoyed. In including viewpoints from several alien races, it fleshed out galactic society and some of the reasons uplift had taken on such a central role. The dolphin crew, particularly the captain Creideiki, are more interesting than their human and simian crew mates largely because the incompleteness of their uplift gives them unique and compelling internal conflicts.

Uplift as portrayed here raised a lot of ethical questions for me. For example, it is only certain species of dolphin that are being uplifted. What ultimately happens to the stock that don’t make the grade? Are there going to be unaltered  stock left in the wild? What relation have they to their sentient kin? At what point does a neo-dolphin cease to be a dolphin at all? You have to be willing to not worry too much about these questions to enjoy the book. Why should the natives of Kithrup be candidates for uplift on a par with dolphins or chimps when the former can build their huts and use weapons.

Also there are a lot of viewpoints, so if you prefer a small number of points of view, this book may not be for you. However, I found the aliens’ perspectives and the insight into their various psychologies captivating. At the beginning of the book the action on the planet seems a bit detached from the orbiting battle but they collide dramatically the tension ramps up. All in all, it was well worth reading.

 

 

 

Sundiver By David Brin

 

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The Earth has been brought into the galactic fold, but finds itself a pariah because of its dubious pedigree. All the other races in the galaxy have achieved sentience through uplift by older and wiser species. Or so the galactics’ propaganda maintains. Common wisdom dictates that it would be impossible for the upstart human species to discover anything not already in the massive galactic library. But with the prospect of sentient life being discovered on the sun that assumption too may be challenged. When Jacob Demwa is invited to take part in the contact mission, things quickly take a sinister turn.

This book was not what I expected. It’s not about uplift in the way I assumed. It is only in retrospect, having read the first two sequels, that I came to appreciate what it is about. Each book focuses on the travails of a sentient species from Earth. It happens to be humans in Sundiver. In the other books, the species in question must deal with issues around its uplift. Humanity in Sundiver faces the skepticism of their newfound allies because there is no evidence that any guiding intelligence was involved in their uplift.

The characters feel a bit flat as does the political background on Earth. There’s a lot of clever ideas packed into it, but they’re not developed in great detail. On the other hand, the main character Jacob’s weird alter ego left me scratching my head. I did enjoy the mystery aspects of it but I preferred the sequels.

Sarah Canary By Karen Joy Fowler

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As one of the characters, B.J. Voisard, might describe it, this story is exactly like the quest for the grail, except it takes place in late 19th century America instead of medieval England, and instead of a grail there’s a  mysterious woman with an unknown past who can’t speak, and instead of valiant knights there are a Chinese migrant, a suffragette, and an escapee from an insane asylum on quests to help her. Otherwise, it’s the exact same story.

The book is rich in detail and meticulously researched. The SF elements are more of an open question and it isn’t heavy on plot. The writing is excellent but the characters, quirky and memorable, make the book, particularly for me, the aforementioned B.J. Voisard. If you don’t find them engaging, this book really isn’t for you.

 

 

City By Clifford D. Simak

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This is a series of eight interlinked stories that deal with different generations of the Webster family and their robot servant Jenkins over thousands of years. Beginning the abandonment of the cities due to technological advances, it moves on to exploration of the solar system, the uplift of dogs and other species, the development of mutant humans, and so on. Preceding each story is a note written by intelligent dogs trying to give their canine reader some context about these strange, incanine (hey, made up a word) tales.

The notes get a bit stale after a while but the stories themselves are very imaginative and often tongue and cheek. While they are self-contained, each builds on its predecessors. I thought there are some interesting parallels (particularly in the first story) with the way modern technology can isolate us. However, perhaps due to the amount packed into them relative to their length, they can feel a bit rushed and even naive. Often concepts aren’t explored in any real depth.

The Websters themselves are often little more than names. Even Jenkins only comes into his own in the later stories. The dogs make their appearance in the third tale and they often play a secondary role to the robot and their masters.

The fifth story, Paradise, was my favorite because it tied a lot of elements together from the previous stories in a clever way while I liked the fourth story, Desertion, least because  I found its premise unconvincing.

February Update: If the Devil is in the detail, then editing can be like an exorcism.

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Finishing the 2nd draft of novel codenamed Spaghetti 1 at about 70k words, I immediately started on the 3rd draft. This draft will work through the detail of the story. I have the skeleton but it needs to be fleshed out in a lot of places. The organs are there, but some are too small or too big or in the wrong place.

This draft is also about making decisions. I must expunge the narrative scars of ideas that went nowhere. The 2nd draft had a level of ambiguity. For example, two mutually exclusive ideas might have been allow to coexist, I have to now choose, one way or the other. Where there are conundrums in the narrative, I have to solve them as I go along, even if it means taking a few steps backward at times. And of course, any decision can set off an avalanche of new ones. And new ideas are coming, better ideas than before, that must be accommodated in the story as if they had always been part of it.

And every detail needs to be carefully indexed so I don’t have to wade through pages of  text later, getting that horrible drowning feeling, to confirm I’m not contradicting myself. From dress to character, from motive to tea preference, everything must be made consistent.

It’s slow. It can be tedious. But is it worth it? Yes. It’s fantastic to see the story take shape, the characters come alive, and the blur come into focus.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe By D.G. Compton

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Katherine Mortenhoe has a terminal illness at an age that is extremely rare in her time. This makes her fodder for a voyeuristic reality television show determined to track the final weeks of her life in humiliating detail. Roddie, whose eyes have been replaced with cameras, is the man charged with this task.

Written in the mid-seventies, this book is haled for its prescience. It certainly is insightful, if bleak. Even the humor that peppers it is grim. Most of the characters are unlikable except for Roddie’s ex-wife, Tracey.  Neither Katherine or Roddie are particularly likable well into the book, but they grew on me as they grew on each other.

The narrative view point moves between Roddie’s first person and the third person of the other characters (predominantly Katherine). Most of these shifts are highlighted by section break but towards the end, a couple of these are missing, presumably in error.

The ending puzzled me. Mulling it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that the book is less about Katherine than Roddie’s rediscovery of his humanity through his relationship with her. He’s the only first person viewpoint, he has the first word and the last. At the start, he wants to build a ‘continuous’ (complete and objective) picture of her, but he (and the reader) are only given glimpses of the connective tissue that binds all the versions of her into a cohesive whole (symbolized for example by the different versions of her name other characters are in the habit of using). In that sense, the original title of the novel, The Sleepless Eye, is more apt.

Greybeard By Brian Aldiss

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The world is going out with a whimper instead of a bang. The entire human race is pretty much sterile due to a nuclear accident. More large animals, except reindeer have suffered the same fate, while other small animals thrive to the point of being a threat. Civilization despairs and collapses, but after a period of barbarity, the apocalypse mellows into something more genteel if still dangerous. The eponymous hero, Algy Timberlane, and his wife Martha flee the village they have sheltered in for several years on a quest to find something better.

They wander through a chaotic world, encountering a host of eccentric characters including the ‘physician’ Dr Jingadangelow. Many deny the end of the world, putting their faith in ludicrous superstitions. Others turn the surviving remnants of past institutions. But the overall mood is one of resignation.

As can be guessed from this, Greybread’s journey is more than physical. It’s a quest for meaning in an increasingly meaningless world. In a sense, it is the opposite of most apocalyptic stories I’ve read. Most are really about a new beginning, a fresh start, but this one is about facing the end of everything. Ignoring that emotional journey reduces the novel into a series of random incidents.

The flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of the disaster, working chronologically backward, were of variable interest but ultimately fed into this theme. I found the account of the events leading to Algy’s father’s suicide particularly moving.

The ending, though subtly foreshadowed throughout the book, was a bit abrupt. (I can’t say any more without spoiling it.) Nonetheless, I enjoyed it.