‘Temptation’ by David Brin
Can you set a space opera entirely underwater? No, obviously not. ‘Temptation’ is an annex of a space opera megatext but not such a story in its own right. Brin started his Uplift series with Sundiver, his 1980 debut novel, but it was really with his subsequent novels in the universe (1983-1998) that it emerged as a key work of new space opera. This episode is from the Robert Silverberg’s 1999 anthology Far Horizons – “all new tales from the greatest worlds of science fiction” – which puts it substantially outside of the “late 1970s to late 1980s” period Hartwell & Cramer ascribe to it.
So this is a story within a story but it also contains several stories itself. We open with physician Makanee describing the alien world where she now lives. She is a dolphin, one of the races that humanity has uplifted to sapience, and is taking pastoral care of a pod of her fellows who are regressing back to their original nature due to trauma in space in the safe confines of a backwater planet. Then we have the twin narratives that seem to reveal the story’s plot: Peepoe has been kidnapped by a pair of semi-regressed males to be used as a sex-slave and Tkett is searching for her whilst, at the same time, investigating mysterious acoustic traces far below. Brin, it must be said, is not particularly sensitive to the issues of using rape as a plot point and simply attempts to shirk his responsibility:
Despite sharing the same culture, and a common ancestry as Earth mammals, dolphins and humans looked at many things differently. Peepoe felt more annoyed at being kidnapped than violated. More pissed off than traumatized.
This is symptomatic of an author that H&C describe, not unsympathetically, as being know for “optimism, showmanship, and unornamented prose.” Indeed, Peepoe’s first section begins with leaden cliche: “Captivity wasn’t as bad as she had feared. It was worse.”
But this enslavement turns out not to be the heart of the matter either – now comes the showmanship. Both Peepoe and Tkett discover mysterious acoustic traces far below the waves and follow them to a vast alien submarine containing myriad other species, including humans, locked into virtual reality dream worlds. This leviathan will then seed the local galaxy with these pioneers of brave new VR worlds: “It will be a galaxy run by special-effects wizards! A perpetual theme park, whose inhabitants use magical spells instead of engineering to get what they want.”
It is a bizarre turn for the story to make until you realize that the whole point is to provide Brin with a platform for culture wars and really he just wants to have a pop at fantasy fiction. This is clearly voiced by the dolphin poetry that closes the story:
*What need for ersatz magic?
*Or for contrived Disney marvels?
*God and Ifni made a cosmos.
*Filled with wonders… let’s go live it!
I’m not sure where H&C took their source text from but either it was a right state or multiple errors were introduced when it was typeset because it contains at least four embarrassingly glaring typos.