Sundiver – David Brin (1980)
‘Of all the intelligent races in the universe, none has survived without the guidance of the Patrons – except mankind. But if our Patrons began the Uplift of the human race aeons ago, why did they abandon us? Circling the sun, in the caverns of Mercury, Expedition Sundiver prepares for the most momentous journey in human history. A journey into the broiling inferno of the sun… to find our final destiny in the cosmic order of life. ‘
Blurb from the 1991 Bantam paperback edition
This is the novel that set Brin off on a series of novels whose page-count seemed to grow exponentially as each one was published.
Known as ‘The Uplift Series’, the books are set in a near-future where the galaxy is populated and controlled by a civilisation of ancient alien races. None of these races evolved intelligence, but were genetically engineered from lower forms by their Patron race who, in turn, were ‘uplifted’ by their parent race.
Thus, when an exploratory Earth ship encountered Humanity’s first aliens, it was a surprise to everyone.
The ‘wolfling’ race – who have themselves ‘uplifted’ chimps and dolphins – are a political embarrassment to some of the galactic factions, who consider Humanity to be an orphaned uplifted race, whose patrons are unknown, much like the original race who began the uplift process. Known as The Progenitors, their details are lost in the mists of time, even in a civilisation whose records go back millions of years.
Earth has been allowed to start colonies, although people who have a propensity for violence are not allowed into space. They are known as probationers and electronically tagged. Humanity is also split on the issue of their origins, between the Darwinites who believe in Humanity’s natural evolutionary origins and the Danikenites who are convinced of their ancient Uplift and abandonment .
Against this backdrop we have the story of Jacob Demwa, a Native American who works with uplifted dolphins. His alien friend, Fagin, a kind of mobile shrubbery, arranges for him to be part of a classified project on Mercury.
The Sundiver project ostensibly is to study the sun itself very very closely by means of new ships, using a mixture of alien and human technology. The Sundiver ships are saucer-shaped and use refrigeration lasers to deflect the excess heat.
The big secret, however, is that life, of a form never before discovered, has been found in the sun itself, and it may be intelligent.
A Danikenite reporter has bulldozed his way into the project and believes the aliens to be Humanity’s missing Patrons.
When the ship of a chimp professor on a solo mission malfunctions, destroying both chimp and ship, it is thought to be either the work of the sun creatures or an accident, until it is proven to be sabotage.
Thus, the stage is set for an interstellar mystery of murder, espionage and big science.
It is difficult to tell if Brin originally planned this as a stand-alone novel. The ending certainly leaves the big questions unanswered.
The characters are competently three-dimensional, although it has to be said that the female characters are rather less fully drawn than the males. All the aliens, as far as we are aware, are male, even the shrubbery, for whom sexual identity wouldn’t have been an issue, one would have thought.
As with all mysteries there are other things going on, red herrings, bluffs and distractions, and it has to be said that Brin handles it all rather well.