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Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped?
by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]

Dolphins and Missionaries in Space

For years, I've been told I should read these two books. Not by the same people, mind you. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard them both mentioned in the same conversation before. They're not that much alike, except that they're both about earthlings on far distant planets who get themselves into awkward situations. Brin's earthlings are dolphins, and the aliens are far more technologically advanced than we are. Russell's earthlings are Jesuit missionaries and the aliens are less technologically advanced.

So which one is the classic, and is it over-hyped? And which one is the forgotten treasure? Or has Neil gone totally off his rails?

Startide Rising (1983)
David Brin

Startide Rising David Brin was born on 6 October 1950 in Glendale, California. He has degrees in astronomy and physics and earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego. Brin is best know for his Uplift novels, including Sundiver (1980), Startide Rising (1983) winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, The Uplift War (1987) winner of the Hugo, Brightness Reef (1995), Infinity's Shore (1996) and Heaven's Reach (1998).

Some of his other novels include The Practice Effect (1984), The Postman (1985), Heart of the Comet (1986) with Gregory Benford, Earth (1990), Glory Season (1993), Foundation's Triumph (1999), and Kiln People (2002). Collections of shorter works include The River of Time (1986), Otherness (1994), and Tomorrow Happens (2003).

David Brin is a name that has become quite well-known and well-respected in SFdom. He's still probably best known for his Uplift novels, of which Startide Rising is the second. It's also the second novel he published, and it's the one that cemented his reputation as an author of intelligent, sophisticated science fiction. Startide Rising won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards -- an impressive feat that occurs only rarely.

In addition to this, many different people, for many years, have been telling me I absolutely must read Brin's Uplift books. When enough people tell me I really have to read something, I tend to get my back up and obstinately avoid reading it. I'm not sure why that is, but I'm quite certain I'm not the only one stubborn in this way. Maybe we just like to discover things on our own. Or maybe we prefer to come to a book without any preconceived notions about it -- either hopes so high they're likely to be dashed, or expectations that all the praise has been greatly exaggerated. In this case, I didn't have any conscious bias; it was just one more of the hundreds of books I've been meaning to read for an awfully long time.

So, yes, I know I'm jumping into the middle book of a series. But it's the one that won some of the most prestigious genre awards. And the edition I read was the 10th anniversary edition, revised and corrected by the author. Probably, then, even better than the original book that won such high praise. And I must say that I never really felt like I had come into the middle of the story. Sure, it was apparent that there was some back story here, and quite a bit of history with some of the characters, but that's frequently the case in a good novel anyhow. Without having read any of the other Uplift novels, I can confidently say that this book is a fine stand-alone read. Better, than fine, even. It's a darned good book, and I really quite enjoyed it.

(Can you sense the "but" coming?)

Good characters, interesting ideas, and a plot that kept me reading intently right to the end, somehow making "uplifted" (i.e., genetically advanced) dolphins crewing a spaceship seem plausible in the context of the novel. But even with the revised and corrected text it isn't a flawless novel. The aliens are extremely petty and at times laughably gullible. The dolphins are perhaps a little too human, although that may be intended by the author as a result of their close association with and continued limited dependence on their fellow sentient earthlings to whom they owe their uplifted status. Overall, it's a very good book, although not a great one. I sincerely doubt it will be remembered and revered 40 years later in the same way as, for example, Frank Herbert's Dune, which similarly won both the Hugo and the Nebula back in 1965.

The story is of an exploratory vessel from Earth, the first dolphin-led space expedition, with a crew of 150 uplifted dolphins, 8 humans and an uplifted chimpanzee. The earthlings have discovered artifacts that may be of the Progenitors, "the mythical first species, who established Galactic culture... several billion years ago" (I quote from the convenient glossary). Having made this important discovery, the earthlings are pursued by many different alien factions who are all intent on destroying the hapless dolphins and humans, as well as each other, in their reckless attempt to recover the Progenitors' leavings. Our heroes have been chased to a planet of mostly water, where they are desperate to repair their spaceship and escape from the battle raging amongst the several alien races now in orbit around this planet. But while they are here, they make some further discoveries that are just as important as the evidence of the Progenitors which they've already found.

On the whole, it's a pretty cool book and well worth a read. It's also quite apparent that there's potential for much more story in the same universe. I may well have to track down the rest of the Uplift series and read them.

The Sparrow (1996)
Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow Mary Doria Russell was born in Chicago in 1950. She earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan. Switching gears from academic publishing to fiction, her first novel The Sparrow (1996) received great critical and popular acclaim. It won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, the British Science Fiction Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award. It also won the Book of the Month Club's First Fiction Prize.

Russell's second novel, Children of God (1998), was a sequel to The Sparrow, further exploring some of the concepts developed in her debut work. A Thread of Grace (2005) is a novel set in Northern Italy during WWII and deals with Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution.

Mary Doria Russell's first novel, The Sparrow, was likewise received with great acclaim and much winning of major awards. Russell stepped onto the stage with a fully developed and confident writing style that won immediate and well-deserved attention. Like many of the very best science fiction novels, its SFnal aspects were downplayed in the marketing of the book so that mainstream literary readers might be tricked into reading a really excellent novel that was only somehow accidentally science fiction. (It takes place in the future and is about the Earth's first contact with aliens. What else could it be but science fiction?)

The Sparrow is also a book I've been meaning to read for many years. I've been told I really should get around to reading it, although by fewer people than the crowd who insisted I should read Brin. Russell's second novel, Children of God, is a sequel to this book, and I haven't read it yet. So in a sense, you could argue that I've only got half the story here. On the other hand, I've heard that the sequel is nowhere near as good. Whatever the case, The Sparrow reads just fine as a stand-alone novel. Better than fine, in fact. It's a truly excellent novel.

(Can you sense the "but" coming?)

So here's a truly marvelous work of literature, that just happens to be science fiction, which leapt into the imagination of the reading public and immediately won all manner of praise and awards. But remarkably few SF readers today seem to be at all familiar with this book or its author. What happened that this book blazed so brightly and then faded so quickly (it was only published a little over 10 years ago) into relative obscurity? Russell is not so well known as Brin largely because she has not been nearly as prolific an author, with only three published novels to date. Also, Russell's third novel is well outside the genre, perhaps splitting her audience a little. Nevertheless, The Sparrow is most definitely a classic, a must-read, a heart-breakingly beautiful work of art. (And now, if you're stubborn like me, you'll probably not read it for another decade. Ah well, your sad loss!)

The story is of Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest and missionary, in addition to being an exceptionally talented linguist, who is the sole survivor of Earth's first contact with what appears to be its nearest inhabited neighbour, four and a half light years away. He has returned brutally mutilated, accused of murder and prostitution, and suffering what appears to be an irretrievable loss of faith. The story unfolds from two directions, as the reader learns of the bright hope and excitement prior to the mission, and hears Father Sandoz's slowly drawn-out and reluctantly told story after his return. As we come closer to the heart of the tale, the suspense grows achingly because we know some of what is coming but cannot imagine how this adventure with such a wonderful beginning can come to such a horrific end.

On the whole, it's a stunningly brilliant book, and deserves to be ranked alongside other classics like Herbert's Dune, Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon, and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Yes, it really is that good.

One Mildly Over-hyped and One Currently Overlooked

So when I came to these two books, I viewed Startide Rising as the classic, although I wasn't at all sure whether it might have been over-hyped, and I viewed The Sparrow as potentially overlooked. You may consider these to have been moderately odd choices; maybe they were. Particularly The Sparrow, since it had such an enthusiastic audience when it was first published. But I think that in view of how massively brilliant it is compared to how little it is talked about now, The Sparrow qualifies as undeservedly overlooked -- I would even say it may be considered a "lost" classic. And Startide Rising, although definitely a good book, has probably been slightly over-hyped. If it were published today, I cannot imagine it would sweep the major awards. Although that may not be a fair comment, since every book is at least partially a product of its time and times do, after all, change -- as do our perceptions of what we read.

Finally, I realize that science fiction is not, as is sometimes claimed, an art form dedicated to making predictions about the future. But if ever there's a race to see who makes it into space first, dolphins or Jesuits, my money's on the missionaries.  ;-)

Copyright © 2007 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh has never travelled to a distant planet, with or without dolphins and Jesuits, although way back in the early 80s he decided that if he couldn't have lunch on Mars by the year 2020 there would be something seriously wrong with the world. The possibility of a Martian lunch seems increasingly remote, but Neil's assessment of the state of the world may not be too far off the mark. Nevertheless, he feels that Earth is still a pretty little planet and he plans to stick around for a while.

His other reading in the past month has included the following: SF with a graphic element, Girls, Volumes 2-4 by Joshua & Jonathan Luna (2006-07); a couple of quality fantasy novels in the world of the Malazan, Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson (2007) and Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont (2005/2007); a more mainstream fiction novel, Foxprints by Patrick McGinley (1983); a variety of non-fiction, The Book of the Sword by Richard F. Burton (1884), Life of Herod by Josephus, extracted from his Jewish Antiquities c.93 AD, translated by John Gregory (1988), and Verbatim edited by Erin McKean (2001), a collection of articles and essays from the eponymous magazine; plus a dash of poetry for flavour, Perfect Harmony, the Sufi poetry of Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) with gorgeous calligraphy by Hassan Massoudy and translated to English (2002).

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