I've just finished Sundiver. A member of our local book club had selected Startide Rising. But I wanted to begin at the beginning. Now having read it, I thought I'd review it because, unlike many reviewers, I haven't read anything else by Brin to color my thinking.
This is a detective story. At first I thought this was going to be a hard SF novel. It's not. For most of the book, we follow the protagonist, Jacob Demwa, as he unravels the mystery is "who killed the intelligent chimp in the sunship" and other related riddles. So while we visit Mercury, the Sun, and an entire universe of Brin's imagined future, the plot rests on a couple of tentpole scenes where the protagonist solves the mystery and accuses the criminal. Brin seems to acknowledge the legacy of this device when he refers to one climactic scene as an "Agatha Christie" turn of events.
It's easy to imagine why Brin, at the beginning of a career, would choose such a device. A detective story is an incredibly sturdy workhorse. The detective story's author can introduce a variety of inventions along the detective's quest for clues. In this case, the inventions are a unique future history, galactic structure, alien races, and hard science fiction. And all these inventions are neatly worked into the mystery and its solving.
Unfortunately, this idea only succeeds if you've got an interesting mystery. As a reader, Brin never really courted me into curiosity or concern. Characters are flat. Events and clues work with the plot in oblique angles. We follow, for example, Jacob Demwa to Mercury and beyond but for a good chunk of the novel, no-one really tells him why he's been invited. Often supporting characters can't divulge plot details or help because of some convolution of the plot, apparently to avoid a premature climax.
In a Sherlock Holmes short story, this is okay. It only takes a few pages for Holmes to amaze us with how neatly he deduces a conclusion. Sundiver moves similarly but, unfortunately, with the onus a couple hundred pages of universe building before things come togethor. Brin keeps his mystery closed to the reader. Brin's clues only function for the plot when the plot jerks forward and villains are unmasked. This makes the mystery solving become something of a Rube Goldberg moment. Everything comes together but not in a way we could have possibly conceived.
There are other, smaller flaws dealing with characters, pacing, and setting. Personally, I was particularly put off by how Demwa was surprised by 20th century anachronisms in some scenes but then found using similar anachronisms in other scenes. It made the character seem half baked.
If Brin had made his central idea work and involved the reader in the solving of the mystery, the novel would have worked, even with a whole universe of ideas in tow. But the mystery is forced. We patiently wait for the solution while we watch Brin build his universe. And because we see the artist at work, the novel doesn't succeed in really transporting into its fiction. There's just not enough momentum.
The good news is that we are left with the foundation which Brin then works to create the (hopefully) superior sequels. As a reader, I can't recommend Sundiver: the rewards just aren't big enough. But as an academic, the underpinnings of the novel and how they both fail and succeed are pretty interesting. And they promise a writer with greater things to come. So despite my disappointment, I'm ready to dig into Startide Rising.
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