The Uplift War by David Brin
1988 Hugo Award Winner
Got it from: E-book from the Library
I began listening to this as an audiobook but stopped half-way through because, I just wasn’t feeling the reading and I didn’t want to ruin the experience, so I quick grabbed up the e-book which my library makes available through amazon (in a lot of cases too…which is awesome). Anyway, I just wanted to admit that I didn’t necessarily read all 636 pages in this case, but I’m counting them in my overall page count because I don’t know how to split that up and I actually started prior to the halfway mark. I’m not sure if that counts or matters. Whatever.
Remember the Gubru from Startide Rising? Ha ha (sorry I have to laugh at them). The avian species chasing the wolfling races of Earth throughout the galaxy to steal a possible artifact of the progenitors of all galactic sentience. Turns out they’re still at it and in The Uplift War they make an attempt at takeover of another of Earth’s assets in order to gain some leverage/bargaining power. Turns out they totally underestimate Neo-chimpanzees. Turns out they totally bite off more than they can chew…again.
For me, Brin’s universe is something to get lost in thought over. You know I loved how silly Startide Rising could be and with the focus of this one on the chimpanzees, there’s definitely more of Brin’s wry humor here. But in The Uplift War, Brin added some depth to his ultra-mega-huge universe. It’s huge, it’s paradoxical, it’s dangerous, it’s hilarious.
And the parts that get me most, are the paradoxical. Regarding uplift, it’s so strange. You’d think, in a universe where for millions of years sentience has been encouraged and coaxed out of so many species of all types, that such a universe would be pretty dang egalitarian. Maybe it’s just me but it seems like an understanding that all races/animals have the potential for greatness would make you think twice before subjecting your will over another sentient.
In The Uplift War, you really get a flavor for how hierarchical the uplift process has become (well, except in humanity’s case but I’ll get to Brin’s optimism later). When you have been space faring for hundreds of thousands of years there is some disdain for those that have only been uplifted for hundreds of years, as in the case of the Neo-chimpanzees. Well, not all species share the disdain but in any case, the client species’ price of being uplifted is generally 100,000-years of servitude. It’s not how I would have imagined such a thing, but I like how Brin handles it and it had me putting the book down a moment and thinking on numerous occasions.
My favorite paradox though was the Neo-chimpanzees. Humanity uplifted the chimps about 300-years ago and they’ve become really great specialists in genetics and the selection process. Nevertheless, they still struggle with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity over their comparatively recent introduction to the world of sentience. I loved this self-doubt more than anything else in the book, and that battle with primitive urges didn’t stop with the Neo-Chims:
And for as long as they lived thereafter, the chims who saw it talked about what they saw: a pale green figure in loin cloth and beard, swinging through the trees, meeting fully armed Talon Soldiers with knife and garrote. There seemed to be no stopping him, and indeed, nothing living withstood him.
For the record, he was green for camouflage. I said my favorite paradox was the Neo-chims struggle, but really it was an issue taken up by nearly every character in the book and I just loved it (I guess I’m still too close to it, because I’m struggling to find words other than love here). There is one particular scene when Fiben (my favorite chim) is caught up in the moment and finds himself stuck in a feedback loop of frustration and exasperation that descends into primal rage:
Thunder pealed, setting the fence rocking. The slats squeezed Fiben between them, and he howled in agony. When they let go he fell, half-numbed with pain, to the ground near Sylvie. But he was on his feet again in an instant. Another electric ladder lit the glowering clouds. He screamed back at the sky. He beat the ground. Mud and pebbles flew up as he threw handfuls into the air. More thunder drove the stones back, pelting them into his face.
There was no longer any such thing as speech. No words. The part of him that knew such things reeled in shock, and in reaction other older, sturdier portions took control.
Now there was only the storm. The wind and rain. The lightning and thunder. He beat his breast, lips curled back, baring his teeth to the stinging rain. The storm sang to Fiben, reverberating in the ground and the throbbing air. He answered with a howl.
This music was no prissy, human thing. It was not poetical, like the whale dream phantoms of the dolphins. No, this was music he could feel clear down to his bones. It rocked him. It rolled him. It lifted Fiben like a rag doll and tossed him down into the mud. He came back up, spitting and hooting.
At this point, my brain exploded (at least I have an excuse for my stupidity now?). Seriously though, it was such a powerful moment in the progression of Fiben’s self-doubt and despite the uncontrollable primal rage, it was his most human moment in the entire book, and it really deeply moved me. Maybe that sounds strange, but maybe after reading it, you’ll agree.
Wolfing humans are the greatest environmentalists. We were on the brink and nursed our planet back to health. But throughout the universe it is understood and one of the most important rules of uplift, that the ecosystem of a planet is not to be damaged. When nearly the entire animal species of a planet is a potential uplift candidate, you just don’t want ruin another species future potential.
There is an environmental message running throughout The Uplift War though I’m not sure it was entirely coherent, but because I had loved Startide Rising so much and for the most part, Uplift War too, I was excited to see how that loosely woven thread might come together. In the end, I think Brin’s message may not have gained much more cohesion than a general optimism and I was looking for more.
If I had to make comparisons, I would point out that there were some really strong connections to the controversial brand of environmental optimism of Gregg Easterbrook. Then, the prologue specifically notes his attempt at an infusion of environmentalism in which he attempted to depict “a new view of life”, one that disavows the view of humans as a poisonous, detestable, and destructive force wreaking havoc on the earth. I’m not entirely sure whether the prologue was written for the initial printing in the 80’s or if it was recently added, but Easterbrook would attempt to say much the same thing in the early 2000’s and well, it really didn’t go over too well then and coming from Brin didn’t make a very good impression on me either.
I don’t want to use this forum as a soapbox, so I won’t go into more detail than to reiterate that it is really difficult to downplay the extent of environmental damage that humans have accumulated over the years and while a positive attitude is great, reason and science would argue there is a long way to go before that optimism resembles anything like realism. Frankly, I just don’t understand Brin’s anger over the environmental movement and I think the attitude decrying humanity as “a foul, evil, murderous, rapacious canker on the lip of creation” is some kind of straw man. I’ve never heard of such an attitude.
Nevertheless, Brin’s environmentalism really takes a back seat to the rest of the fun and especially without the prologue could probably just be forgotten. In fact, I hope I will do just that because I liked the rest too much to let this ruin it. Plus, despite my general aggravation over the specific message, it was nice to see an explicitly environmental message in a Hugo Winner, so I guess he deserves some props for that at least.
Of the two Uplift Trilogy books to win a Hugo, I think this one was my favorite, which seems crazy considering how much I enjoyed Startide Rising. I know I’m bordering the clichéd but this book literally had me laughing, crying, pondering, fuming. Everything. This is a book (the whole series, really) that I envision myself coming back to again and again. I couldn’t get over so many great quotables (“This universe is a goddam awful place”), hilarious jokes and really odd sexual moments, and oh yeah, Brin has inspired some really great art too! I could go on forever but as it is, this review is already much too long. Please read and enjoy.
Social/Political Climate 4/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5
Well folks, that wraps up the 80’s! But before I start in on the 90’s, it’s on to those posts that I love to do so much (The charts! I love the charts!).