Since this novel was selected by a member of my book group for discussion, I'm not going to discuss this in as much detail as I would other books. No need to give away all of my conversation points before the actual conversation….
The premise behind Brin's novel is a fascinating one, especially given my current spate of reading golden age speculative fiction. Brin imagines a galactic federation loosely associated cultures, a sort of staple of early pulp fiction. But unlike those pioneers, Brin doesn't imagine man's place in that confederation to be founders or leaders. This kind of human exceptionalism is pretty much taken for granted, and given that the thrust of much of the early writing is to show us mastering the universe around us, it makes sense. Given also that the audience for a lot of that early writing was a younger audience, and it seems to be a function of what is now termed YA literature to push its readers to better themselves, it makes sense that humans would play an important role in the galactic federations that it finds itself in. This trope is even repeated in such well-known speculative fiction as the Star Trek universe—the Federation is man's idea and though other races are older and wiser than ours—such as the Vulcans—they accept the leadership role that humans take on. And sure, the leadership of the Federation seems to move about the various races of the Federation, but remember where Federation and Star Fleet headquarters are located, on Earth.
But Startide Rising ponders an existing galactic culture that allows humans to join it, and while humans are central to the story, they are not central to the galactic culture. In fact, humans are rather despised because they fall outside the natural order of the culture: usually a race is genetically manipulated to sentience by existing members of the culture, while humans appear to have no such benefactors and have evolved to sentience naturally. This represents a different type of exceptionalism, of course—humans are the only ones who are naturally sentient--but this exceptionalism makes them targets to other races rather than models. It's not often that speculative fiction offers a galactic milieu in which humans are at least roughly equivalent to other races, let alone dismissed as inferior.
An interesting tangent to the racial artifacts of Brin's setting is the characterization of races. I, a child of the civil rights era, was troubled as I read the sweeping stereotypes of entire races of creatures that Brin employs. Races are categorized as good or evil by other races, and the few individuals we see from those alien races seem to bear out the stereotype. And yet the Earth races represented, primarily dolphins and humans, are shown all across the continuum. It should be noted, though, that when a human or dolphin performs a malicious act, it's most often because they are misguided but good at their core (with one notable exception). This terra-centrism (to coin a term, I think) is difficult to get away from, given that the audience is, of course, terran-based. But it grows grating in its continued use, especially when compared to the alien races that are just uniformly bad.
Mostly, however, this is just a nit, and one I can understand. But it does point out to me some of the difficult decisions and elements to be considered in such a sweeping novel as Startide Rising. And it also allows me space to think about the variations on the trope of humans in a galactic civilization. These in turn should indicate just how powerful a book Startide Rising is, since it forced me to think about such things. Despite these few foibles, I see it as worthy of the Hugo and Nebula awards it received.