In the Future We Will Land a Man on the Sun

Sundiver — David Brin
Sundiver, book 1


There’s always a certain risk inherent mentioning this author or his books because he is known to show up in online venues to offer unrequested commentary should the review deviate from truth as he sees it. However, it seems a pity to skip a book I enjoyed just because of a minor authorial quirk1. So, allons-y!

If I’m not screwing up the chronology, 1980’s Sundiver was David Brin’s debut. It established Brin’s Uplift universe, a setting he would reuse in Startide Rising (1982), The Uplift War (1987), Brightness Reef (1995), Infinity’s Shore (1996) and Heaven’s Reach (1998), as well as some shorter works. I don’t recall Sundiver getting a lot of buzz in the magazines (although Tom Easton reviewed it in an issue of Analog that I know I read) but I enjoyed Sundiver and it came in third in the Locus Poll Award for Best First Novel2, which is a lot better than nothing.

Decades after First Contact, humanity is still struggling to come to terms with its new-found neighbors, a vast and ancient civilization established when the most complex life on Earth was single-celled. Similarly, the Galactics are struggling to come to terms with the humans, who don’t fit into their inflexible social structure. Going back to the days of the semi-mythical Progenitors, every intelligent species was created from a sub-intelligent species by an older Patron race, itself the product of a past “uplift”; the obligations of Uplifted to Patrons is one of the pillars of Galactic civilization. Galactics find humanity’s claim to have evolved naturally somewhere between laughable and sacrilegious, but the alternative is to believe some Patron race created and then abandoned humans, a serious breach of custom and tradition.

From the Galactic point of view, the most propitious solution is for humanity to assimilate into the one true civilization, something a lot of humans are not at all sure is in their best interests. By sheer dumb luck, humans had uplifted cetaceans and apes by the time the human starships encountered aliens. Having client races gave humans a certain level of status, and status buys a bit of tolerance, which is very good for Earth because the Galactics can be … firm in dealing with social pariahs like Earth.

Following the death of his wife Tania during the Vanilla Needle Affair, Jacob Demwa abandoned his former life of adventure for a quieter, sadder role in the cetacean uplift program. Just because Jacob wants to give up adventure doesn’t mean that adventure wants to give up Jacob. Thanks to some arm-twisting by his old alien chum Fagin, Jacob gets sucked into the Sundiver Affair (which I don’t think is ever actually called that but it would fit the naming system for the previous cases about which we do hear).

Even before contact with the Galactics, humanity dreamed of landing a man on the Sun!


The Sundiver project is still ongoing, which makes it a source of friction between the Galactics and certain human factions. On the one hand, using the standard Galactic toolkit would make the trip to and from the Sun a lot easier to pull off successfully — on the other, humans had made a lot of progress on the problem using indigenous technology and throwing all that away in favour of poorly understood technology (that is controlled by an organization many members of whom are overtly hostile to humans) may well be a terrible strategic error.

What was just one of many points of diplomatic disagreement becomes something more serious when the Sundiver project discovers that humans are not the only anomalous inhabitants of the Solar System, nor is Earth the only body in the Solar System that is inhabited. Our Sun is filled with a rich and unexpected diversity of plasma beings, some of whom appear to be intelligent. And opinionated. And, if the loss of a mission into the Sun is any indication, murderous.

Inexplicably, the local branch of the Galactic Library seems to have no record of anything like the plasma beings.

Jacob accompanies what could be the final crewed mission into the Sun, a foray whose goal is to answer at least some of the questions raised by the discovery and subsequent contact with the Sun Ghosts. It may be his final trip, because the ship is crewed with a mixture of Galactics and Terrestrials, and not only is each member of each species acting according to their own private agenda, some of them might be happiest if the ship never returned from the Sun at all.

This is one of the teenage favorites I can clearly remember reading. I was thinking about the plot while meandering up Waterloo Street and taking Snyder’s Road West towards Waterloo Oxford DSS. A pleasant walk in spring 1981. A nice stroll for thinking about books (except for the stretch where I had to keep an eye out to see if a particular dog was running free again). I think my memories of Sundiver were shaped by that enjoyable spring day3.

To put this book in context, remember that 1980 is just as close to the end of World War Two as it is to 2015.

This is consciously a space opera in the old style. While it doesn’t have planets crashing into each other or mentalists locked in deadly mind-to-mind battle, it does have the perfectly Hamiltonian — or perhaps, given the name of one of the sunships, Bradburyian — conceit of having people scoot around in the outer parts of the Sun. I just wish that the basic idea behind Sundiver — One Day, Man Will Land on the Sun! — didn’t sound like the punchline of a bad joke. This whole section

Project Icarus it was called, the fourth space program of that name and the first for which it was appropriate. Long before Jacob’s parents were born — before the Overturn and the Covenant, before the Power Satellite League, before even the full flower of the old Bureaucracy — old grandfather NASA decided that it would be interesting to drop expendable probes into the Sun to see what happened.

They discovered that the probes did a quaint thing when they got close. They burned up.

In America’s “Indian Summer” nothing was thought impossible. Americans were building cities in space — a more durable probe couldn’t be much of a challenge!

Shells were made, with materials that could take unheard of stress and whose surfaces reflected almost anything. Magnetic fields guided the diffuse but tremendously hot plasmas of corona and chromosphere around and away from those hulls. Powerful communications lasers pierced the solar atmosphere with two-way streams of commands and data.

Still, the robot ships burned. However good the mirrors and insulation, however evenly the superconductors distributed heat, the laws of thermodynamics still held. Heat will pass from a higher temperature to a zone where the temperature is lower, sooner or later.

The solar physicists might have gone on resignedly burning up probes in exchange for fleeting bursts of information had Tina Merchant not offered another way.

is a bit too reminiscent of

When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that’s what you’re going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.

for my taste.

Sundiver gets round the whole heat problem with cooling lasers. Now, it is true that there are such things as cooling lasers but they don’t work the way Brin has them working, which is as straight radiators taking advantage of the fact their effective temperature could be millions of degrees. Sundiver’s cooling lasers are example of the sort of superficially convincing nonsense SF loves. I am surprised so few SF authors have filched the idea.

(I should note that readers will be informed and entertained if they sit down and figure out why the handwaving cannot work, so this apparent failing of SF is potentially educational.)

While this book is primarily a space opera, genres can overlap with each other. This book is also the sort of mystery that TV Tropes is calling an enclosed space mystery (the general case of the locked room mystery). Circumstances place the detective and the supporting cast of suspects and victims somewhere sufficiently isolated that the bad guys (or for that matter, the victims) cannot simply leg it from the crime scene. From the detective’s point of view, this has the advantage that the killer (or sometimes thief, but usually a killer) is still present to be revealed, but the disadvantage that the killer might just kill the detective too4.

The Galactics are a perfectly beastly civilization, the odd bit of environmentalism notwithstanding, which serves to make them more effective foils for the humans. It somewhat undermines the stark contrast between Galactics and humans that the humans seem to have been in the early stages of recapitulating the whole Uplift cycle of abuse by reshaping primates and cetaceans according to our whims. I understand that reshaping the universe to our whims is a big part of what humans do, but … once the subjects of our manipulations are able to talk and think, I think it would be nice to ask the subjects if they have any opinions on the process.

Again, I freely concede that Sundiver came out in 1980, when the author’s native land was still wrestling with the whole idea that researchers needed the consent of subjects of research, a development that was still quite recent. In fact, eugenic sterilization would continue in the US until the early 1980s, after the publication of Sundiver. Also, it’s not like the book is doesn’t have reservations about the idea of Uplift: it’s an early plot point that narrow-minded decisions on what traits are worth encouraging might inflict a cost on the subjects:

Jacob sighed. “If you’re hoping these results will persuade the Confederacy to cancel the next generation of mutations, don’t count on it. They’re running scared. They don’t want to have to rely forever on poetry and music to prove that dolphins are intelligent. They want a race of analytical tool users, and giving codewords to activate a rocket waldo just won’t qualify. Twenty to one Manfred gets to cut.”

Gloria reddened. “Cutting! They’re people, a people with a beautiful dream. We’ll carve them into engineers and lose a race of poets!”

The imagined history between now and the mid-23rd century is … very 1970s, a surprisingly common feature for books written in the 1970s. Apparently at some point Earth was unified under the Bureaucrats, who were Bad, and while the Bureaucrats were overthrown and the B-word replaced by “civil servant”, certain legacies, in particular sorting the population into law-abiding Citizens and Probationaries, potentially violent people subject to 24/7 surveillance, lives on. Citizens, those darn sheeple, are perfectly happy with that aspect of Bureaucratic rule because

Then, as now, the Citizens loved the Probation Laws. They had no trouble forgetting the fact that they cut through every traditional Constitutional guarantee of due process. Most of them lived in countries that had never had such niceties anyway.

Those darn foreigners! But it’s interesting to see the total surveillance state in germinal form in Brin’s fiction.

Somewhat in contrast to the SFnal conventions of the day, human starships tend to be crewed by women. They outnumber the men, because men are seen as too rich in warrior types for a galaxy where humans will likely lose any fight. The powers-that-be have taken steps to make sure the women they choose are sufficiently cautious:

Sure. You remember I said there was a way to make a largely female crew more cautious in dealing with aliens … a way to guarantee that they’ll run rather than fight?”

Yes, but …”

And you know that humanity has been able to plant three colonies so far, but transportation costs are too great to carry many passengers, so increasing the gene pool at an isolated colony is a real problem?” She spoke rapidly, as if embarrassed.

When we got back the first time and found that the Constitution stood again, the Confederacy made it voluntary for the women on the next jump instead of compulsory. Still, most of us volunteered.”

Moms apparently take a longer-term view of benefits and costs than men. Someone else can talk about how Disco-era Brin’s views tie into his views as expressed in Glory Season, but I cannot because I have not reread Glory Season in ages and ages.

Brin goes to some trouble to give Jacob a backstory, complete with fridged lover. He did this effectively enough that in the 1990s people kept showing up on (or it might have been its predecessor, rec.arts.sf-lovers) asking where they could find the earlier stories. Some of them seemed quite put out that the earlier installments didn’t exist, which just goes to show that there is no pleasing some people.

I don’t think I am likely to reread Sundiver again any time, but I don’t regret having spend an evening rereading it. I can see problematic elements that completely passed me by in 1981 (a number of which I didn’t get around to mentioning; feel free to add them in comments) but not to the extent that they are overwriting my pleasant memories of thinking about the book while walking along a quiet country road on my way to high school. When one is talking about books one liked as a teen, “I don’t hate myself for once having liked this” is probably about the best one should hope for and I would have to say that this book exceeded that bar.

1: That said, I won’t review books by authors I wouldn’t let comment on my site. I don’t necessarily recommend taking advantage of this policy of mine, but it exists.

2: For those who are curious what the contenders looked like that year.

Best First Novel

  1. Dragon’s Egg Robert L. Forward
  2. The Orphan Robert Stallman
  3. Sundiver David Brin
  4. Beyond Rejection Justin Leiber
  5. The Gates of Heaven Paul Preuss
  6. Master of the Five Magics Lyndon Hardy
  7. Hawk of May Gillian Bradshaw
  8. Still Forms on Foxfield Joan Slonczewski
  9. Yearwood Paul Hazel
  10. Scavengers David J. Skal
  11. Web of Angels John M. Ford
  12. White Light Rudy Rucker
  13. The Man in the Darksuit Dennis R. Caro
  14. One on Me Tim Huntley
  15. A Lost Tale Dale Estey

I have read and remember fondly many of those (although, huh, Dragon’s Egg for #1? Seriously?) but you’d never know from that list how much top-rate SF by women was being published back then.

3: Startide Rising benefited from being read under circumstances that enhanced the thrill of anticipation. I read it while working as a guard at a factory then undergoing a labour dispute. Every time I put the book down to do my rounds, there was a certain chance that one or more angry workers would ambush me, toss a blanket over my head, and then beat me savagely with a bat. I could never be sure when I’d get to read the next chapter. Or if. No subsequent Brin novel was ever read with that same level of anxious anticipation. I am not 100% unhappy about that.

4: I no longer remember which Soft Boiled Detective series it was where the lead jumped on the chance to do a classic parlor scene, the kind where all the suspects are gathered so the detective can do a grand reveal of the killer. The detective in question had never had the opportunity to do one; he knew the killer was an old lady; what could go wrong? Turned out that it was not important that the killer was an old lady; it was important that the old lady was a killer. What was even more important is that it didn’t occur to the detective to take the razor-sharp letter opener off the desk in the room he was using.

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