I've been binge reading David Brin's stuff. It's always a weird experience reading his science fiction. It's so unusual I couldn't quite put my finger on what makes it such a strange experience until this evening as I was reflecting on a day about a half century ago when I was seining a bayou in Louisiana for reptile, amphibian and fish specimens for a local museum. I was running the seine along smoothly through dark, tannin-tinged water with a perpetually-enthusiastic classmate named Shamburger. When we pulled it up to see what we had captured, there were some dark gray eels writhing around in the net. Big, long, thick ones.
I had never seen an eel in real life before, just the ones on Jacques Yves Cousteau oceanographic TV specials airing at the time (late 1960s). Knowing they weren't poisonous, Shamburger yelled "Grab them!". We scrambled up the bank with the seine full of flipping, flopping, slithering life forms and lunged to catch one of the eels before it could wiggle away back into the bayou, and man were they wiggling like hell after we got them on dry land to do just that, somehow knowing precisely which way to go to get back into the water (probably by slope of the bank). Lunging and grabbing at them was futile. They were strong and slippery, and they had a nasty bite that included an anticoagulant which made their victims bleed a lot. One bit Shamburger on the web of flesh between thumb and forefinger as he struggled to hang onto the frantically wriggling thing. He yelped and let loose of it, shaking his hand in the air, sending droplets of his brilliant red blood flying copiously from dozens of tiny teeth marks. The sight of that was a real memory maker. A Jacques Yves Cousteau quote from a recent episode of his show popped into mind: "The sea is the universal sewer." That was all I needed to decide to give up on the one I was trying to hold onto and let loose of it before it was too late. I was pretty squeamish in those days, and good grief those eels were such slimy, fiercely creepy things to see and feel in action in the flesh. Memory of that first encounter with American eels has never faded in my mind's eye.
Super slippery eels biting unexpectedly is a pretty good way to describe the weirdness of David Brin's writing style. Reading happily along, getting what he is saying in the story without any problems at all while thoroughly enjoying the rich, complex imagery and smooth flow of words, he suddenly throws in a totally unexpected, heretofore never-encountered concept triggering thoughts never consciously considered before. These thoughts originate from secret depths of the mind which seem to have lain dormant and still far too long. Lunging after the new thoughts vectoring to the surface, they writhe and slither in protest of mental grasp barely sufficient to hang onto them. Then they strike and bite, triggering copious synapse excitations to kindle memory of the strange encounter indelibly among neuron and glial cell clusters while at the same instant almost triggering microphagic responses from microglia always on guard to protect the brain from assault.
Asked to think about why he might purposely try to jar reader expectations and surprise with such unexpected thoughts, I wonder at how I mentally wrestle so fervently to grasp them; and upon gaining understanding, experiencing lingering sensations of deep satisfaction. It seems he is masterfully inducing self-directed learning at a primal level–the most entertaining of all learning approaches.
A very cool, unforgettable cognitive experience in recreational reading.