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Brin, David

Entry updated 11 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1950-    ) US author with advanced degrees in engineering and physics, who began publishing sf with his first novel, Sundiver (1980), which is also the first volume in the ongoing Uplift sequence (see Uplift), for which he remains best known: it continued with Startide Rising (1983; rev 1985) and The Uplift War (1987), the two being assembled as Earthclan (omni 1987); a further integrated sequence, the Uplift Storm Trilogy, includes Brightness Reef (1995), Infinity's Shore (1996) and Heaven's Reach (1998). Startide Rising won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best novel; The Uplift War won a Hugo. As a whole, the series established Brin as the most popular and – with the exception of Greg Bear – the most important author of Hard SF to appear in the 1980s; he retained this position through the 1990s, though his production – at least of fiction – has slowed in the early twenty-first century.

The basic premise of Uplift is simple enough, though its workings-out as the Uplift series continued became increasingly complicated. All thinking life in the Universe – or at least throughout the Five Galaxies encompassed in the six books so far – has been created and regulated by, and may remain under the remote control of, a Progenitor species, now billions of years old (if it survives). In the process of Uplift, a sapient species subjects a non-sapient species to uplifting genetic modification (see Genetic Engineering), creating a subsequent client/patron relationship between the two species, a relationship which softens over millennia. The Uplift novels focus mainly on the incursion of Earth civilization into this vast structure. Humanity – echoes of the Golden Age of traditional twentieth-century American sf can be heard here – is the sole example in the galaxies of a "wolfling" species, i.e. one which is self-uplifting (or so humans believe); moreover, humanity has itself uplifted two species, the dolphins and the chimpanzees of Earth. The original Progenitors have long disappeared, and the intergalactic search for relics of their presence, along with the conflicts generated by humanity's asserted uniqueness, shapes much of the sequence, which Brin enlivens throughout with exceedingly clever depictions of a wide range of Alien species.

Unsurprisingly, given the sequence's Golden Age provenance, the human race turns out to be not only a special case, but also more ambitious and energetic and fast-moving than other galactic peoples. The local Patron Line has become corrupt, and its rulers hope to batten on human vitality (while mocking our brash pretensions); moreover, the Galactic Library Institute, supposedly autonomous, has itself been corrupted, and the human race has begun to learn caution about the technological data and other lessons supposedly passed down from the Progenitors via this source. Sundiver plunges into the heart of all this. A human expedition penetrates the Sun, where lifeforms are found which impart secrets about the Universe and the Library. In Startide Rising, one of the most rousing Space Operas yet written, a starship crewed by uplifted dolphins and a Genetically Engineered human find an ancient fleet and an ancient cadaver, and must contrive somehow to escape an assortment of Patron-led foes and get their prize of knowledge and power back to Earth. The Uplift War, seemingly an interlude, transfers the action to a planet occupied by Earth humans and neo-chimps who may have some clue as to the location of the Progenitors. And the Uplift Storm Trilogy continues and intensifies the Space Opera dramas generated by the success humans are having in beginning to plumb the various complex mysteries generated through the creation and management of thousands of species over billions of years. True to its sf origins, the Uplift universe is a willed universe.

In focusing for much of his career on an ambitious Space Opera super-series, Brin demonstrates both a fundamental difference in approach from Bear, but also shows something of the range of work which can be subsumed under the Hard SF rubric. Some exponents of this mode of sf speak as though it were a kind of writing which adheres to rigorous models of scientific explanation and extrapolation, eschewing both the doubletalk of Space Opera "science" and the psychobabble of "soft" disciplines like sociology; and it might be argued that Bear attempts to convey in his work a sense that he is carrying that form of discipline to its uttermost, and beyond. Not so with Brin. Despite his professional competence as a physicist – a level of scientific qualification not shared by Bear – he writes tales in which the physical constraints governing the knowable Universe are flouted with high-handed panache, with the effect that – for instance – the Uplift books are as compulsive reading as anything ever published in the genre.

In standalone short fiction, Brin won a short-story Hugo for "The Crystal Spheres" (January 1984 Analog).

Insofar as Brin's singletons stay closer to home, they are less successful. The Practice Effect (1984) reworks in fantasy terms the oddly Lamarckian principles (see Evolution) espoused in the space operas. The Postman (portions in Asimov's, November 1982 and March 1984; 1985), set in a worryingly Pastoral Ruined-Earth America after the end of a short Nuclear Winter, in which an ex-militia survivor adopts the clothes and role of a dead postman and thus provides a conceptual nucleus around which a new sense of US community begins to grow. The novel eulogizes Yankee decencies without much analysing the hugely complex cultural matrix that shaped them, and segues into a less than convincing conflict between Heroes and Supervillains that echoes the Comics tradition; it was filmed as The Postman (1997). Heart of the Comet (1986) with Gregory Benford – featuring a mission to explore the interior of a Comet – is an occasionally uneasy marriage of two very different hard-sf writers, Benford caught as usual in the coils of Stapledonian Sehnsucht (see Olaf Stapledon) and Brin resolutely uplifting. In Earth (1990), a novel of very considerable ambition about the Near-Future death of the planet for all the usual (and quite possibly valid) reasons, Gaia is rescued at the last moment from a gnawing Black Hole and other threats by an infusion of Pulp-magazine plotting that consorts ill with the pressing seriousness of the issues raised.

This is not to say that Brin fails to raise those issues: more than any of his earlier novels, Earth demonstrates his very considerable cognitive grasp of issues, his omnivorousness as a researcher, and the reasoning that lies behind his stubborn optimism. He is, in other words, a taker of cognitive risks, and Glory Season (1993) – which seems to require a sequel – demonstrates this attractive characteristic in its compendious attempt to present a matriarchal culture with virtues, warts, centres of inherent strength, and fault lines too. The story takes place on a planet long isolated from "normal" male-dominated human hegemony; its climax portends an ultimate clash between the two ways of life. But Brin's foray into the territory of Gender was not universally welcomed, with feminist critics such as Gwyneth Jones treating harshly its assumption that his gender-divided society would remain exclusively heterosexual.

Like E E "Doc" Smith before him, Brin gives joy and imparts a Sense of Wonder; but he also thinks about the near world, as evidenced in his first novel of the twenty-first-century, Kiln People (2002; vt Kil'n People 2002), a Near Future detective novel set in a world in which humans can decant versions of themselves into manufactured "dittos" or "golems", retrieving the experiences of these partial selves or Avatars at the end of their short lifespan. Tentative hints of a Golem liberation front perhaps overload an already complicated tale. Also complex is Existence (fixup 2012): a moderately Near Future Earth under various stresses – including disastrous Pollution engendered by crises in Ecology and Climate Change, along with an intersecting collapse of government (a threatened elitist coup may put an end to even token democracy) (see Politics) – is further convulsed by First Contact, not with physical Aliens but with their Uploaded representations in a small crystalline Computer from the stars which serves as a sophisticated chain-letter designed (or evolved) to propagate itself quasi-virally. The ultimate question posed by the novel – a question to which Brin provides a guarded affirmative (see Optimism and Pessimism) – is whether or not Homo sapiens can transcend its ruinous success on the vulnerable planet of its origin (see Evolution) and survive into a state of star-spanning wisdom. Less taxingly, The Ancient Ones (2020) plummets Homo sapiens into a Space Opera galaxy where trickster-like Aliens run circles around the race they only semi-reverentially call the Ancient Ones. In the High Horizon sequence of Young Adult tales beginning with Castaways of New Mojave (2021) with Jeff Carlson, a group of high-school students, transported by Aliens to a new planet, must learn to cope with stresses and opportunities.

Brin has also, in more recent years, focused on nonfiction work. His aggressive, can-do responses to many of our world's problems may excessively depend on the presumption that technological "fixes" can cope with the accumulating complexity of the issues facing the world, demonstrated for instance by his conviction – which permeates his exercise in Futures Studies, Chasing Shadows: Visions of our Coming Transparent World (anth 2017) with Stephen W Potts – that advances in Computer science will render our lives universally transparent, whether or not we are among the few who increasingly own the capital-intense technologies required for such an enlightenment. But his clarity and vigour are welcome.

Vivid Tomorrows: On Science Fiction and Hollywood (coll 2021) collects his Cinema criticism, some pieces being usefully assembled from previous books. [JC]

see also: Apes as Human; Astounding Science-Fiction; Berserkers; Biology; Disaster; Elements; GURPS; Holocaust; Identity; John W Campbell Memorial Award; Linguistics; Living Worlds; Mercury; Monsters; Scientists; Seiun Award; Social Darwinism; Sun; Under the Sea.

Glen David Brin

born Glendale, California: 6 October 1950



Uplift Universe

High Horizon

individual titles

collections and stories

  • The River of Time (Niles, Illinois: Dark Harvest, 1986) [coll: contains the Hugo-winning "The Crystal Spheres" (January 1984 Analog): hb/Paul Sonju]
  • Dr Pak's Preschool (New Castle, Virginia: Cheap Street, 1988) [story: chap: hb/Alan Giana]
  • Piecework (Eugene, Oregon: Pulphouse Publishing, 1991) [story: chap: first appeared January-February 1990 Interzone: hb/Alan Giana]
  • Otherness (London: Orbit, 1994) [coll: hb/Fred Gambino]
  • Tomorrow Happens (Framingham, Massachusetts: NESFA Press, 2003) [coll: hb/Jim Burns]
  • Sky Horizon (Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 2007) [novella: hb/Scott Hampton]
  • Insistence of Vision (Stamford, Connecticut: The Story Plant, 2016) [coll: pb/Patrick Farley]
  • The Best of David Brin (Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 2021) [coll: hb/Patrick Farley]


works as editor


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