50,000 years ago, the planet Garth was leased to the Bururalli who nearly destroyed its ecosystem by overhunting all large indigenous species. The ecologically sensitive galactic civilization killed all Bururalli, demoted their patrons, the Nahalli, to clients of the Thennanin, and began working to preserve and repair the remaining ecosphere of Garth. Several decades before the start of the novel, Earthclan acquires the lease on Garth in return for their expert assistance in biosphere recovery. The Z'Tang complete a final ecological survey before the planet is passed on to EarthClan.
The novel begins in the year 2489 C.E. with the avian Gubru planning to invade Garth, Earthlings on Garth preparing to defend their claim to the planet, and ambassadors from other races getting ready to depart. The Gubru, a conservative and somewhat humorless alien race, attempt to hold Garth hostage in an attempt to learn more about the discovery that the dolphin spaceship Streaker made in Startide Rising about the Progenitors.
The Gubru invade and overpower Garth's weak space forces, a battle that is witnessed by neo-chimp soldier of Earthclan, Fiben Bolger. Having easily overcome Garth's token resistance in near-planetary space, the Gubru engage a small portion of their ground force in ritualistic combat against Earthling forces. Because they take relatively high losses, Earthlings successfully defend their legal right to the planet under the punctilio of Galactic law. However, the Gubru immediately take hostage most of the human population using pre-planned subterfuge consisting of poisonous gas. The Gubru, used to galactic norms, believe that the neo-chimp population on Garth will be easily controlled without their human patrons to guide them. However, humans are more lenient about the uplift process than most species, and have, as much as possible, already granted chimps full rights within their society (aside from free breeding, which is still controlled to continue the process of forced evolution), rather than keeping them as slaves for 10,000 years. Some humans and a few chimps are killed by the hostage gas while en route to receive the antidote; the surviving human population is sequestered on an island and kept isolated.
Taking advantage of resentments that fester among the lower social strata of the neo-chimp population (those with limited rights to breed), the aliens subvert some of the neo-chimps in and around Port Helenia, the capital city. A large group in the mountains, led by Robert Oneagle, son of planetary coordinator Megan Oneagle, and Athaclena, the teenaged daughter of Tymbrimi ambassador Uthacalthing, engage in guerrilla warfare. Their combination of “wolfling” ingenuity and galactic diplomacy allow them to inflict significant damage, both psychological and physical, on the Gubru. Fiben Bolger, in town on a fact-finding expedition for the Resistance, runs afoul of one of the conspirator neo-chimpanzees known as Irongrip.
Elsewhere on the planet, Athaclena's father Uthacalthing, the Tymbrimi ambassador, and the Thennanin ambassador, Kault, are shot down while fleeing the Gubru invasion. The two ambassadors land safely, but must trek several hundred kilometers back to civilization. The Tymbrimi are allies of Earth and well known for a low sense of humor that, along with a yen for surprise, motivates much of their behavior. By contrast, the Thennanin are portrayed as dour, supercilious, physically unprepossessing protectors of the rights of animals and species. Hoping to fool Kault with an elaborate and ultimately costly practical joke, Uthacalthing secretly instructs a furtive neo-chimp to create false evidence pointing to the existence of Garthlings — a fabled race of pre-sentient creatures that were rumored to have survived the Bururalli holocaust. Uthacalthing also plants evidence about the Garthlings in his diplomatic cache — which is, after being disturbed by Fiben Bolger, stolen by the Gubru. Unknown to him, the humans have been illegally beginning the uplift process of gorillas, meaning that there actually is a 'Garthling' race up for adoption.
The three Gubru co-commanders (suzerains) overreact to most situations. When the Suzerain of Cost and Caution is fortuitously killed in an accident set up by the neo-chim resistance movement, the other two suzerains exploit the situation and further their own goals. The Suzerain of Propriety seizes on the Garthling myth and builds an enormously expensive hypershunt on Garth. If Garthlings can be found, the Gubru will be able to use the hypershunt to adopt and indenture the race for 100,000 years in exchange for uplifting them to sentience. Coincidentally, the Gubru and others find evidence of secret uplift in the mountains, and come to believe that Earthclan was hiding a secret effort to uplift Garthlings.
The Gubru commanders (suzerains) are unable to resolve their internal power struggles and begin scheming against one another. Fiben Bolger begins to fear that Earthclan's well-known naivete at Galactic punctilio could imperil the entire neo-chimpanzee population, both on Garth and on Earth. Some of the key neo-chimpanzee characters are eventually forced to choose between following the legal representatives of the surviving Planetary Government, or to follow their original leaders, Robert Oneagle and the young Tymbrimi Athaclena. Many of the major characters fall in love and must weigh their personal feelings against patriotic duties and greater responsibilities. There is a confrontation between Fiben Bolger and Irongrip, with the fate of all of neo-chimpdom hanging in the balance, as the Gubru attempt to co-opt the uplift of the neochimpanzees in order to make profit from the hypershunt. In the end, Uthacalthing's joke succeeds beyond his wildest imaginings, with Uthacalthing being as much in the dark as those he had been trying to fool. The partially uplifted gorillas come forward as Garthlings and claim their place as aspirants... Under the Thennanians, with Humans and Neo-Chimpanzees as their observers (races tasked to ensure that uplift is not mishandled or abused). The Gubru are ejected from Garth, and as the book comes to an end, Uthacalthing's maneuverings have brought desperately needed assistance to Earthclan and its allies out on the starlanes, as the Thennanian and their allies join the conflict on Earthclan's side.
Read more about this topic: The Uplift War
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