First read October 17, 2008. (No review)
Second reading review, April 23, 2010.
There are as many origin theories as there are people to think about the origins of humanity. Like most reviews, I can't help but praise David Brin's Uplift concept. On one hand, the von Daniken-like idea of having a "patron" species that shepherded humanity toward sentience is comforting and resonates with our need to have concrete origins and a sense of belonging in a larger community. On the other hand, the Darwinian idea that humans evolved on their own—coupled with the even more interesting idea that we are special among the larger galactic community in this regard—is also attractive. Almost immediately, the latent question is: are you a Darwinist or a von Danikenite? Skin or Shirt?
I'll be honest: I'm incredibly biased toward the Humans Are Special camp and hope we evolved on our own. But Brin doesn't take any sure stance, at least not in Sundiver. And there's a host of secondary mysteries mixed up in this larger one. These form the core of the plot of Sundiver. If humanity was Uplifted, then maybe the mysterious solarians discovered by the Sundiver Expedition are their patrons, or know who their patrons were. If humanity is a "wolfling" race, then maybe the solarians know why no one stumbled across us earlier. Either way, the answers lie past Mercury.
Brin manages to meld together so many different aspects of story and science fiction that Sundiver becomes a very intense work of literature. It's an epic of exploration, a testament to humanity's struggle against adversity: we're going to conquer the Sun! It's also a mystery, multiple mysteries, with alien adversaries with their own inscrutable agendas. And it's a psychological thriller: is Jacob crazy or just very, very discerning?
Of course, by trying to appeal to all these aspects, Brin walks a tight rope. He doesn't always pull off this fusion successfully. In particular, his characters tend to suffer from having to carry so much around on their shoulders. Jacob, despite his mental malady, is not a very interesting protagonist. Brin alludes to a past conflict in which Jacob emerged the hero (and which resulted in his subsequent psychological trauma); unfortunately, he manages to make it sound so interesting that I kind of wish it had been part of the story and not just a past event. But it wasn't.
Where was I? Oh yeah, the characters. We never get to see what makes the characters tick, aside from maybe Jacob. They just act, especially the aliens, who conform to the species-stereotypes that Brin creates for them: Bubbacup is the ur-Pil, Culla is the ur-Pring, etc. The humans at least have individuality personalities; they just aren't very interesting ones. As a result, although Sundiver is primarily a mystery, it lacks the threat offered by a credible villain. There's nothing sinister about what happens so much as childish—dangerous, yes, but childish. The characters often allude to the political implications of various events, but we don't witness the fallout.
So while there's a lot going on in Sundiver, it never really congeals into a satisfactory ending. The same goes for how Brin portrays post-Contact Earth. While he does a good job of portraying a "Confederacy" (of states) that shuns civil liberties, it's a very abstract and distant entity. We don't see an agent of it until the very end of the book. Worse still, however, is the apparent lack of contribution to the Sundiver Expedition from any government aside from the Confederacy. Apparently, at least in this future, America is still the only country that matters. . . .
Sundiver has so much potential, but it shies away from the detail necessary to fulfil that potential. What rescues it from mediocrity is not a brilliant plot or convincing story but the sheer quality of Brin's writing itself:
Lumps and streaming shreds of ionized gas seared thither and back, twisted by the forces that their very package created. Flows of glowing matter popped suddenly in and out of visibility, as the Doppler effect took the emission lines of the gas into and then out of coincidence with the spectral line being used for observation.
The ship swooped through the turbulent chromospheric crosswinds, tacking on the plasma forces by subtle shifts in its own magnetic shields … sailing with sheets made of almost corporeal mathematics.
I love that phrase, "corporeal mathematics." Brin, as a physicist, knows his science and wields it well. If only he were as strong with the fiction part of "science fiction."