Edition: Bantam, 1985 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 869
Brin's first novel succeeds because of the quality of its central idea, which is not new but which is treated in a way which is very fertile. The source of the idea, in Brin's case, is an attempt to make Erich von Daniken's ideas about aliens being responsible for the rise of human culture a sensible basis for a science fiction story. He does this by postulating a galaxy filled with alien races all of which have become sapient through the intervention of another, through genetic manipulation and teaching (a process Brin gives the convenient name Uplift). The one exception is humanity, with no obvious guiding hand. Either intelligence on earth arose spontaneously or the human race has been abandoned halfway through an Uplift project, both possibilities which are disturbing to the galactic community.
The obvious science fiction reference for this kind of story is 2001, but Brin does not mention Clarke even though Daniken, another influence, comes up quite frequently. It is an interesting development of the idea to come up with an entire galactic culture based on Uplift, using humanity's anomalous status to motivate this and the other novels which follow it.
The story of Sundiver is fairly typical of hard science fiction, about manned travel into the interior of the sun, where strange creatures are encountered which are unknown even to the superior science of the galactics. The hard science component, while interesting, is comparatively unimportant; Sundiver is really about the different personalities, human and alien, involved in the project. The portrayal of the aliens is particularly impressive, each species being convincingly non-human in a different way.
One criticism of Sundriver which has to be made is that the prose style is rather pedestrian, and this is off-putting to start with. It is the quality of the ideas which engages the attention rather than that of the writing.