Bestselling, award-winning futurist David Brin returns to globe-spanning, high concept SF with Existence.
Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector. For a hundred years, people have been abandoning things in space, and someone has to clean it up. But there’s something spinning a little bit higher than he expects, something that isn’t on the decades’ old orbital maps. An hour after he grabs it and brings it in, rumors fill Earth’s infomesh about an “alien artifact.”
Thrown into the maelstrom of worldwide shared experience, the Artifact is a game-changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate. The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity.
David Brin is a scientist, speaker, and world-known author. His novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Existence, his latest novel, offers an unusual scenario for first contact. His ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and near-future trends such as the World Wide Web. A movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was loosely based on his post-apocalyptic novel, The Postman. Startide Rising won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel. The Uplift War also won the Hugo Award.
His non-fiction book -- The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? -- deals with secrecy in the modern world. It won the Freedom of Speech Prize from the American Library Association.
Brin serves on advisory committees dealing with subjects as diverse as national defense and homeland security, astronomy and space exploration, SETI, nanotechnology, and philanthropy.
David appears frequently on TV, including "The Universe" and on the History Channel's "Life After People."
First of all, Brin is among the foremost respected science-fiction authors on the market today. His stories have the power of an Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 series. Yet, like Clarke, Brin seems to have jumped the metaphorical shark (or dolphin, as the case may be). Put simply, this book is not much more than a re-hash of previously published stories (he follows their publication dates in the afterword to magazines to the early 80s) and stale characterization. Moreover, it's boring. I cannot think of a harsher critique for a storyteller, but that's the simple truth. Since I read it on my kindle, I know exactly at what point it became interesting. 75% of the way into the book, my interest was piqued and I began to really wonder how Brin was going to write himself out of his holes. Then, to my everlasting horror and dismay, he completely side-stepped those holes by either writing the character out of the book entirely (ask yourself what happens to Hacker, Tor, or Peng Xiang Bin), or worse, answered them in exposition in another subplot, or worst of all, seems to have let them drop entirely. The difficulty of connecting emotionally to Brin's characters seems to lie in the fact that they are simply vehicles for expositing in the most hackneyed fashion whatever philosophy Brin puts in their mouth. Interspersed throughout, moreover, are asides, interviews, chapters or quotes from books, all to add the sense of milieu that this work demands. Indeed, the milieu is the star of this story--from an inventive near-future reality that blends multiple interactive real-time layers, to the advancement of a complex inter-relationship between human beings and AIs, even the cloning of a neanteral child (I thought to preface that statement with a spoiler warning, but even though it occupies much of the narrative, it does little to advance the plot). All told, the best part of this book was the world that Brin evokes, but setting is never a story and ultimately, this story about First Contact deserves no contact.
An alien artefact is found orbiting the Earth and salvaged. The astronaut who found it became famous mostly because the Artefact seems to respond to the first one who touched it. Inside there are several species of aliens and humanity is trying to establish a communication with them.
50 pages in and I said to myself: I have found another favorite, yey! However, my excitement didn’t last long. Such a promising idea lost on the way because:
1. There are too many side PoV which add nothing to the story, albeit a couple of them are quite interesting; the rest are not. Even so, I followed them and was curious where the things are going but only to discover they lead to nothing. They are cut midway and you are left wondering what the point of their stories was.
2. The main idea is treated here and there. We get some bits and pieces in between the endless talking and rhetorical questions our characters never seem to get tired of.
3. The worldbuilding is too much (and I love worldbuilding) – so many useless details which simply suffocate the story.
4. The side characters (with two exceptions) were totally unnecessary.
5. The main ones in the end lost all importance they had – one is even totally lost and we don’t get to know what happened to him.
6. Hacker’ story was really compelling and if it would have been a novella, I think I would have easily give it four or five stars, depending on the ending, which we did not get here. At all. I read that his part was to introduce the reader to the Uplift world (from which I read the first, Sundiver and didn’t like it much either; all I can remember from it’s the Danikenism, endless talking and some sort of cows living in the Sun…). Could be, but what’s the point including it here? Why not make it a separate story? It has nothing to do with the Artefacts…
Almost everybody says that it’s a hard read. In a way, it is, because of the writing style, which is dull, in my opinion, and because it is so disjointed and has so many loose threads. Moreover, there are a lot of invented words. I don’t know if it was the translation to blame (I didn’t check the original) but some phrases were hard to comprehend (to the point in which they did not make any sense) and some of these words sounded like grinding your teeth. Otherwise, it’s a world fully technologized, with AIs and information at the blink of an eye. Nothing special about it, no wow moments or ideas.
But I must acknowledge that the author thinks in a grand scale. So many details, discussions, interwoven side stories. Too bad the final result was such disappointing. I like big books and I cannot lie (sic!), but this one should have been a third of it. It kept my interest the first 100, last 150 pages and few in between. The rest of the reading was full of eye rolling and questions like: what’s this doing here? What’s the point? Where does it lead? Unfortunately, nowhere. Not even the ending was a wow moment (except the discovery Tor made toward the end – that would have been something to develop further. In the current form, it made no sense in its relationship with the Artefact).
Therefore, I’m sorry to say, but no more David Brin for me.
----- Referitor la editia in romana de la Paladin: cand (daca) ajungeti la pagina 314 din volumul 2, urmatoarea nu este 315 ci 316. 315 se citeste intre 321 si 322. Greu cu editatul/corectura/whatever...
Mi-ro-bo-lan-tă. Barocă, extraordinară, complexă, alambicată, grea de-ți pârâie neuronii, întortocheată, complicată, lungă, plictisitoare (pe alocuri), extravagantă. Dacă-mi aduc aminte încă niște epitete până ce voi încerca să-i scriu o recenzie pentru Argos, le voi trece și pe acelea. Probabil cel mai ambițios hard-SF al ultimilor ani și cu siguranță cea mai complicată carte SF pe care am citit-o vreodată. Dacă n-ar fi fost atât de lungă și de complicată și dacă editorii și-ar fi dat mai mult interes să o promoveze așa cum ar fi meritat, probabil că despre ea s-ar fi scris articole peste articole. Dar așa... prea puține impresii pentru una dintre vedetele incontestabile ale ultimilor ani. Mai multe, pe FanSF: https://wp.me/pz4D9-2XO.
While more essayistic and less intense than Earth, Existence reinforces David Brin's position as one of my favorite writers and thinkers. With the exception of another David (Zindell), I cannot think of a contemporary who has envisioned better and brighter futures, over and over again. At the Human Library, we're about to announce a contest for short stories looking at precisely these kinds of futures--and looking for the ways to get there. Both Brin and Zindell are at the top of our list of recommended reading. ;)
This is one of the hardest books to talk about and rate because on the one hand it is very ambitious, the author put a lot of time and thought into it and it is the kind of sf I really would love more, but on the other hand I found about 90% of the book so misguided and infuriating that I felt like slagging it badly and giving it the rare 1 star rating I reserve for the truly atrocious novels from one point or another.
Below are some raw thoughts on why:
Let's start with the Afterword where after a banal answer to "why write sf rather than literary fiction" the author starts rhapsodizing about how serious sf today means no ftl; leaving aside the "really, is our physics so advanced to claim we know it all?" cheapish answer, the irony is that instead of ftl the author posits AI's and the transference of the human personality into silicon which to me are as likely/unlikely as ftl; in some ways I can imagine an advanced humanity somehow breaking the law of physics and creating ftl within the tiniest cracks allowing it, while the sentience/self awareness barrier seems much harder to break.
In other words, the former sf space jocks missing the 1960's ride to the stars on a rocket, now will ride to the star into a small silicon wafer; again by itself that's fine with me but calling that more likely than true ftl is not serious sf, but wishful thinking 2012 in the Facebook/Twitter times rather than wishful thinking 1960's in the Apollo era...
Second also in the Afterword, the author claims:
"Existence is about the cosmos that we see. Stark, im mense beyond immensity,and unwelcoming to moist mayfl ies like us. Strangely— dauntingly—quiet. And perched in this vast emptiness is the oasis speck of Earth. More fragile than we imagined. Yet, despite all that, might there be ways to persevere? To endure? Perhaps even to matter?"
Again, i really wish it were so, but the book is so filled with the present day leftist intelligentsia geopolitical cant combined with the Facebook/Twitter take the world vision so beloved by the nerds that the world it imagines is a mixture of the very dated 90's cyberpunk with today's social networking, where nothing else really matters or exists within a political/ideological framework that I found laughable
The book is also full of what I like to call the Thomas Friedman (per the NYt columnist) view of the world - a US white privileged man view that believes himself enlightened and understanding the rest of the world by dint of traveling there and hobnobbing with the officials and the upscale locals; I always prepare myself to cringe when non-US/western characters(as cultural location so to speak rather than ethnicity/race per se) are introduced and here it is no different; I tend to read a lot of books actually written by Japanese, Chinese or various other nationalities writers and their local characters vs the Thomas Friedman-like authors (David Brin here, Ian McDonald in Dervish House etc) show better than any explanation why one cringes when reading these last...
And incidentally it is not really a matter of race/ethnicity as the US/Western characters regardless of such are quite well drawn like the US Japanese named general or Indian named scientist of this book; it is just that somehow the "natives" must be different than the "white man land's people".
I also think that a lot of how you look at this book depends on where you think the Facebook/twitter stuff goes; if you believe it will take over the world and consume everything else, you may enjoy this book more, but personally I think the computer revolution is about done and the next big fundamental shakeups will come in bio science and maybe and just hopefully in energy producing with physics as always a wild card and as mentioned this book pretty much ignores everything else; there is a little bio stuff with the autism plague and a clinic that does stuff a bit unorthodox and of course there are satellites, space junk, SETI telescopes but nothing is really expanded or gets too much depth beyond the AI/silicon/virtual stuff, the 5 minute moment of fame on the global networks and the political stuff which I found so stupid to be really funny in many ways
Overall I will settle for a 3 star rating as in 1 star for execution (the writing is a little below what is usually the Utility English of sf, but above the usual NY Bestseller English a la Patterson or Follett since at least personally i enjoy jargon to some extent) and five stars for ambition and scope.
Oh dear! I used to really admire David Brin. The first three books in his “Uplft Universe” are among the all-time greats (at least, in my reckoning). “Earth” is truly outstanding. “Existence” . . . . Sorry, Dr Brin – this one just doesn't make the grade.
Of course, having said that I must now attempt to justify my position. Well firstly let's cover the good bits. The background is a near future, extrapolated from current trends and is in the best traditions of 'hard' SF. So far so good, and an area in which David Brin normally excels. There are a lot of good solid cultural references, believable and well-rounded characters, plenty of set pieces in credible scenarios . . So what went wrong? There are too many shifts and reverses. The basic scenario (discovering alien artefacts) is good, but we are presented with the problem of resolving the aliens' motivations. This is a potential minefield, because there is no guarantee that humans could ever understand alien motivations – and Brin admits this - but then he gives us a lead – and then shows it is incorrect – and then does that again – and again . . . .too many shifts in the paradigms! This may be realistic, but it doesn't make for a good story. Then there is the inclusion of the autie characters. If autism is to be used as a major component of a novel, it needs to be handled carefully. The reader needs to know about the author's view of autism, and needs to be helped to develop some sympathy with the character(s). This was not well done. And the nice ideas that were never developed – we open with a space jockey working a teleoperated 'garbage collector' system, clearing junk from low orbit – and he has a capuchin monkey as companion/assistant. Now there is an idea worth playing with – but it gets very little development. Partly-uplifted dolphins were in there as well – but after reading books from the Uplift Universe, the ones we have here are pallid things, lacking development. And repeated references to 'Awfulday' but never a full account of what must have been quite a major disaster. And the 'messenger parrot' that self destructs . . . And (sorry, Dr Brin) there was the length. I read this in paperback, and it ran to 550 pages. It would have made a good 250 page book. Maybe 350. Beyond 350 I admit I was not reading every word. Beyond 450 I wasn't even reading every paragraph – I was just waiting for the end. And finally, there are the liberties taken with the English language. Now I don't normally have many problems with minor tweaks to Standard English where the tweaks help to give the reader a clear lead – but this book has a few things that frankly grated. One is the repeated (frequently repeated!) insertion of 'ai' into words (examples: an 'aice' reporter, 'eyes and ears' becoming 'ais and eairs', various sorts of 'wair', meetings with aiwitnesses, and a wearable digaisisstant) to inform the reader that the item in question is electronically enhanced to AI level, or something close to that. The first two or three of these that I noticed I thought “OK, nice way of doing it”. But the last-quoted of those was only page 30, and by then I was finding it rather overdone. Eventually, it grated. The second problem was the thin underline of the occasional word or phrase. It took me a while to work out that this probably indicates a hyperlink – though whether a link to a glossary in an electronic version of this book, or a part of the fictional world was never made sufficiently clear. Reading it on paper, these things are just 'mildly irritating' – and that is not what I wanted from a book. Brin also introduces an acronym “waist” (Wow, ain't it strange that . . .”) that (sorry) didn't work. If it had been used more consistently, or as part of a suite of similar acronyms (I had no trouble with Niven's “Tanj” or “Tanstafl”) then I could have been happy with this – but it didn't 'click'. And one more item I just remembered – the change of font. This can be a neat way of changing viewpoints, or establishing context – but this time (like so many other things in this book) it didn't work. So in final conclusion – I am glad I got this as a Christmas present. If I had actually spent my own money on it, I would have been gravely disappointed. I finished it, so I suppose it deserves two stars – but if it hadn't had David Brin's name on it, I would probably have given up halfway through, or even earlier.
After ten years of absence, David Brin is finally back with a new novel. Reading Existence, it is not difficult to imagine how that monster of a book took so much time to write. It is huge, not merely in terms of word count, but also in terms of conceptual volume. Brin’s 1990 book Earth is a similar creature – teeming with predictions, explorations and interpretations of the near future, ultimately succeeding on most levels. Existence has inherited that DNA, but the author has raised his latest brainchild with even greater ambition. It is not just the near future that is in focus here but the whole timeline of existence, its image refracted through the lens of human civilization. That’s right, the novel’s title aptly summarizes all the numerous threads that make the book, because they all eventually point to that very concept. What is the purpose of life and intelligence? Is survival in the cold universe possible? How do we even define different modes of existence and how do we understand them better? These are the questions that run throughout the text and the curiosity, meticulousness and imagination with which Brin tackles them on every page make Existence a notable event on the SF horizon.
The story takes place around the middle of the present century, I’m not even sure the precise year was mentioned at all in the book. The world has changed a lot but at the same time has remained surprisingly familiar. The Internet has evolved in the Mesh – a collection of Webs comprising of hundreds of info-levels where augmented reality has blossomed without check. The majority of people are constantly wired to it through interactive glasses and interface systems that allow them to subvocalize commands, exert control through tooth-clicks, design their own environments and tap into thousands of artificial eyes. AIs, not fully Turing-compliant but still incredibly smart, pervade everything, even language, as the “ai”-morpheme has become so productive that it can combine with almost any phonological template, forming words like “aixperts”, “waiste”, “aies”, “vaice”, “vraility”, etc. Awfulday, a catastrophe so horrible and memorable that it is never explicitly described, has left Washington irradiated, while America itself is fractured into a multitude of bickering states and republics. On a global scale, social engineering has led to the Big Deal – a compromise that has squashed hopes for a transparent society and differentiated the population into ten estates (or castes), ranging from the super rich trillionaires to the poorest citizens and even the AIs. Space exploration is now largely history, as nations focus on more immediate problems on the planet.
The plot of the novel is set in motion when Gerald Livingston – a lasso-wielding collector of space junk – retrieves a most amazing object from Earth’s orbit. A crystal ovoid exhibiting almost miraculous technological functionalities and, most importantly, claiming to be a messenger from an alien civilization. Earth quickly goes abuzz with this epochal discovery and a contact team is assembled to communicate with the simulated entities within the artifact. Meanwhile, Pen Xiang Bin, a menial caste shoresteader, desperately struggling to ensure the survival of his family, stumbles upon something just as curious and suddenly finds himself in a vortex of competing power players. Other agents of the story include: a super rich space jockey saved by a pack of super smart dolphins; his trillionaire astronomy-buff mother; a famous book/screen writer and director, consulting the prophet of the retroactive Renunciation movement; a tireless reporter fully immersed in the augmented and many-layered reality of the future; an autistic girl thinking in strangely beautiful non-linear poetry.
I hope these couple of paragraphs have given you a rough idea of the immensity of Existence, even though they capture merely the tip of a very large iceberg. This insanely ramified nature of the beast is the novel’s greatest strength and weakness at the same time, strange as it may sound. Brin has pulled off something that I would hardly imagine possible – he has written a polyphonic novel, whose polyphony is not composed of characters’ voices but of the myriad techspeaks and futurespeaks that buzz, murmur and boom across the story. Augmented reality layers, various breeds of AI, cyborgs and robots, machine learning tricks for whatnot, cognitive science and neuroscience, reality as simulation, nano-printing, Zeppelins made of smart polymers, encryption of long-distance communication through parrot brains, seven-dimensional Gestalt logic, rocket dives in the stratosphere, smart mobs forming on-line metaminds with god-like intelligences, the list can go on for pages, encompassing even the softest technologies of social and political engineering, and I’m not kidding. This novel is high on the future to come. Brin has sieved through the web and academic literatures so extensively and attentively, that Existence could easily be the wet dream of the entrepreneurial collective unconscious. The level and intensity of prognostication alone make the book exceptional, but Brin has gone further. He has managed to orchestrate these many voices, so that from the apparent cacophony emerges a motif and a unified, albeit constantly modulated, voice that at the end speaks for humanity as a whole. This defining song of our species, however, is not static and simplifying, but bold, imaginative and inclusive. The human spills over into the machine and vice versa, other species join us, while even inter-humanity speciation events are recognized as possible and possibly desirable. This is one of the thrilling bottled messages swimming in Existence: Why be a million species that pretend to be one species? Be a million species that are one despite their differences. As long as we recognize what existential traits will keep us moored to that infinitely more interesting family of sapients.
The novel is polyphonic in structure too. Every part is preceded by poignantly relevant quotes from various thinkers and almost every chapter is followed by excerpts from Brin’s fictional non-fiction. Some of them detailing the various ways humanity can come to an end, others discussing the Fermi paradox and the great cosmic silence, and still others sifting through the Mesh and meta-curving the text upon itself. The voice of Brin himself shines through here and there, at which moments it is difficult not to smile wholeheartedly in appreciation of his inexhaustible faith in our meaningful future existence and the fervor with which he has been envisaging it for decades.
Existence does not simply sing techsongs and futuresongs. It tries to cull the good from the bad, to expose hidden differences and pitfalls within the music of humanity, to show how unity could arise from diversity:
“The distinction between “one” and “many” can be ambiguous. The best models of a human mind portray it as a mélange of interests and subpersonalities, sometimes in conflict, often merging, overlapping, or recomposing with agile adaptability.
Sanity is viewed as a matter of getting these fluid portions of the self to play well together, without letting them become rigid or to well defined. In human beings, this is best achieved through interaction with other minds––other people––beyond the self. Without the push-back of external beings––outside communities and objective events––the subjective self can get lost in solipsism or fractured delusion.”
To explore these distinctions, we need more of those transparent arenas (science, the arts, media, social networks) where memes can battle and combine toward an ultimately mutual goal. We need more of those positive-sum games to function better as a species:
“But it seems deceit is nature’s coin. Among humans, animals, or across the cosmos. Unless you’re held accountable by opponents who know your tricks. And you’ll retaliate, shining light on theirs.”
But we shouldn’t forget that:
”Everyone’s different, I hear. Our inner images map onto the same reality as other people see––the same streetlights and billboards and such. Each of us claims to perceive identical surroundings. We all call the sky “blue”. And yet, the actual experience of sight––the “qualia”–is said to be peculiar to each person. Our brains are not logically planned. They evolve––every one of us, in that sense, becoming their own species.”
And that is where lies our greatest strength, which is so often stifled in the name of false or badly-phrased causes.
In line with the above paragraphs, I cannot but spare one more on two of Brin’s most exciting ideas: intelligent dolphins and auties. Existence can be seen as a prequel of sorts to his Uplift series, as it explores the first tentative steps in pushing animal cognition to human levels of intelligence. Fans of these earlier novels will surely enjoy that part. The one about autistic humans is even more striking, in its portrayal of autism not as a disease but as a marvelous difference between normal, attention-obsessed humans and non-linear, multi-integrating, synaesthetic, ever-tripping, ever-poetic auties. There already might be alien forms of intelligence lurking on our very planet, without us dull homosaps being able to recognize them for what they are! I wanted to share these two pieces of poetry, you figure out which one is dolphin, and which autie:
# If you’re good at diving––chase fish!
# If you have a fine voice––sing!
# If you’re great at leaping––bite the sun!
“nervous normalpeople +/- building careers +/- building houses – civilizations – families … breeders-breeders linear thinkers obsessed with time. reason-not-rhyme -/-”
I mentioned that the sheer immensity of the novel is also its Achilles’ tendon. Sadly, the characters of Existence are much too underdeveloped. That is not really due to a flaw in Brin’s writing, it is a result of the constraints he has set upon himself. There is simply too much to be told and far too little time to expand the narrative voices into high resolution human cameras, whose minds we can look through with confidence. And those are potentially very interesting characters, I have to say. Here and there, especially in Pen Xiang Bin’s chapters, Brin supplies the reader with tidbits about their lives that make them come fully alive. There are even a few moments of intensely beautiful character development, which show that, oh yeah, Brin knows how to control this writerly element. The prognostic and philosophical preoccupations are predominant, however, and characters are always talking, talking, talking, mostly in their heads, to explain, explain, explain. Had he succeeded in writing great, fully-fleshed protagonists as well, Brin would have given us a masterpiece.
Another problem of the novel has to do with structure. The first three quarters, messy as they are, somehow balance well enough between all the different character and story arks, that polyphonic quality provides the necessary warp and weft to the narrative. Parts seven and eight, however, jump even further ahead in the future and narrow the narrative focus so forcefully, that the clumsy characterization becomes a readerly obstacle and gives the text a bit too much of a didactic tone. Still, those parts contribute essential pieces to the puzzle of existence conjured by the author and they are pretty mind-bending too.
Despite all the quibbles (which would have been major complaints, had this been any other novel), David Brin’s new novel delivers majestically. As a first contact story it is as impressive as Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, as an extrapolation of the near future it shares a league with Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, and as a wild exercise in imagination it is just as good as Brin’s other books. Don’t go looking for breathtaking wordsmithery, although the author sure can turn a pretty phrase (“At nights he felt more relaxed than he had in years, perhaps ever, dozing while the dolphins’ clickety gossip seemed to flow up his jaw and into his dreams.”). The memory of the protagonists won’t remain with you for too long, but they won’t turn you off either. What will probably stay is the profoundly-SF frame of mind that Brin fosters and advocates for. He must be one of the great living future shepherds and Existence is probably as good a manifesto as any we will collectively dream up as a species.
I fell in love with David Brin back in 1985 when a co-worker turned me on to Startide Rising. That book was so phenomenal, I started reading every book I could get my hands on. I loved it all. In 1993, I was able to go to a book signing for Glory Season. I found that Brin is an extremely well-read man who manages to juggle an astounding number of ideas in his head. In 2002, he released Kiln People, I book that took me a couple of attempts to get through and which I really disliked. However, I considered that a one-off and have spent 10 years waiting for him to redeem himself. Well, the wait was over in June of this year and it wasn't worth it.
Existence is a giant mess of a novel. I don't know how the editing process was left out. You can tell that Brin is one of those super-intelligent people who has a lot of ideas and a lot to say. However, he didn't need to try cramming it all into one novel. There isn't any subject matter he doesn't tackle in this book, usually in long-running commentary that has nothing to do with the story. He has too many POV characters and plot lines. He drops characters and their stories without resolution. 3/4 of the way into the book, he jumps ahead 26 years and it becomes a totally different book. Like I said, it's a giant mess. There were some story lines I really enjoyed, but he would just drop them and not go back.
In some ways, this seems to be a prequel to the Uplift series, but it's different enough to not be. I'm really not sure what he intended with the throwaway uplift plot that was only semi-followed. I would have liked to have seen more of that.
As far as the audio production goes, I have to say that Robin Miles is one of the best female narrators out there. She can bring just about anything to life and more than carried her sections. The male narrators were a different story. One of them was okay and one was just awful. I don't know which was which though because I've never hear either of them before. The one who did the Hamish and Gerald sequences was really terrible. He'd read really fast and you could hear him suck in his breath when he ran out of air in the middle of sentences. It was really annoying. Towards the end, Hamish meets up with a male Jamaican professor and the narrator is so terrible that Robin Miles has to step in and do the professor's dialogue. It was really disturbing considering the character was male and she's obviously female. If the male narrator couldn't do a Jamaican accent, just an ordinary voice would have been less disturbing.
I probably would have given this one star if it weren't for the fairly interesting premise and for Robin Miles' outstanding performance. Sadly, I am probably never going to buy any of David Brin's books again. This was just too disappointing.
Existence is a couple short stories, a couple essays and an old Usenet post woven into a longer framing novella, most dealing with transhumanism and the Fermi paradox -- if we're not the only intelligence in the galaxy, then why can't we see signs of the others?
I didn't know that a good portion of the novel -- its short stories and some of the essays -- had been published before until I got to the end, where Brin explains it and I have my "aha!" moment -- so THAT'S why there were so many dropped characters and storylines, so many abrupt transitions and restarts. Still no explanation for the constant name-dropping of Brin's friends in the SF writer community, or why he named one of his lead characters "Tor", after the book's publisher, or why he inserted himself as a slightly-obscured viewpoint character (that nonetheless had the funniest line in the book).
Hmm... Was Random House the publisher of Zelazny's "Amber" series? It would be a precedent, anyway.
The novella that comprises the majority of the book starts with the discovery of a mysterious, glowing stone in low Earth orbit that, when held by the astronaut that found it, seems to show images of aliens below the stone's surface. How this solves the Fermi paradox, I won't spoil. It's a pretty fun solution, but the ending seemed abrupt and unsatisfactory to me.
For Brin fans, the short story "Hacker" will serve as a distant prequel to Brin's famous Uplift series, though the rest of the book describes a universe that clearly could never become the Uplift-verse.
Existence is far from Brin's best work. I'd have preferred the short stories, essays and novellas packaged more conventionally instead of interwoven so it would be clear that these were stories set in the same universe (except, arguably, Hacker), instead of jumbled-together plots and characters.
Clear the decks. A new book from David Brin goes to the top of the stack
OK, half way through now, and I think this is the most enjoyable book from Mr Brin in a long time. Some is familiar to me (Hacker's story), but so much is new, and often i will finish a section and just think about the ideas that come through. As a bookseller, I cannot wait to introduce customers to this book. (And hopefully, most of his backlist.)
Finished. What a great book. It was worth the wait. It kept me hooked until the final page. Wow
If I had to reduce this book to a few epigraphs, they’d be:
The relentless drive of evolution drives on relentlessly. Deception is sometimes a darn good reproductive strategy. So is competition. So is cooperation. Being sentient means we have some influence on which strategy we use. But not as much as we’d like to believe.
This is Big Book written by a master of Big Ideas. An astronaut with a helper monkey finds a crystal seed in orbit. Turns out it one of billions, maybe more, that other intelligent species have sent into the cosmos to say “We are here! Join us! Pass it on!” The gifts of the beneficent cosmos. And the viruses of a malignant one. Enough seeds were sent out by enough worlds that selection pressure came to bear millions of years ago. Reproductive success does not equal folks you want in decision-making positions.
This book has characters, but it’s not really about them. They carry the story like we carry and modify the DNA that passes through time in our bodies. All the people we follow, except maybe the Michael Crichton figure, are good and generous people, on the right side of history to the best of their abilities. The not-Crichton character may have good intentions, but he is willing to use deception and betrayal to accomplish them. Again, time honored reproductive strategies. They work with crystal encapsulated intelligences. Which is sort of a “duh” now that I come to think of it.
The book has its frustrations. There are lots of pieces that aren’t clearly connected. There was a US Senator with an addiction to outrage that I would have loved to have seen played out; a terrorist doctor with a heart of gold who left the narrative way to fast; non-human sentient beings I wanted to know so much better. Much of the action happens off the page, and I never did figure out what Awful Day was. This is not so much a book with a beginning, middle, and end as a book that carries a piece of possible future history from one arbitrary point to another.
That may not be fair. We start with a crystal seed carrying information; we end with a crystal seed carrying information. This book is a cheerleader for the idea of doing good things with that information; be more generous than we have to be. Build the United Federation of Planets. There are many moments of courageous generosity, from a steward on a zeppelin to a Chinese peasant in a sunken city that turned out to save the world.
The last line in the afterword put a tear in my eye. “We aren’t a curse upon the world. We are her new eyes. Her brain, testes, ovaries . . . her ambition and her heart. Her voice. So sing.” (556). This I believe. Or, at least, I want to.
Big ideas, good science fiction, frustrating style
The story starts out slow and I was tempted to stop listening several time in the first few chapters. I recommend you keep going, a lot of interesting things will eventually happen. Unfortunately a lot of very uninteresting things also happen. It is almost like Brin had a goal of writing over 500 pages and was not going to let the fact that he only had 300 pages of material stop him.
On the plus side, the book has lots of great science fiction material, ancient aliens, machine intelligence's, high tech gadgets, and exploration of the solar system. It even has some very good characters (Human and alien). I also found his plan for how other intelligent races would contact and interact with whatever life exists in the our galaxy to be novel and well reasoned. It explains very nicely why we don't see any evidence of life when look out into the Milky Way.
Of course there are also some problems, for some reason Brin is not able to simply tell what should have been a great story. Instead he is constantly interrupting the story with whole chapters that have no relevance to the story or even any real purpose. To make it worse when reading one of the chapters that does tell the story he will invariable end the chapter as if it was the last show of the season for an action adventure series on TV. Ever one of these chapters will end with the narrator saying something like "and then she saw something that will forever change the way we think of the universe" or "then something unimaginable came around the corner" . The chapter then ends and we get 40 pages about something completely different (different characters, different plot line). By the time Brin gets back to the main plot I have almost forgot where the story left off. I can forgive an author for leaving the reader hanging once or twice, it helps to build suspense. But by the tenth or fifteenth time Brin does this is just annoying. It happens so often and with such ham-fisted prose, it becomes laughable which totally breaks the mood of the story.
Brin also goes to extraordinary ends to include elements of his Uplift books in the story. Even though they add nothing and actually impede the story. It is almost as if he had a bet with his publisher that he could include 5 chapters about Uplift without making it seem like an unrelated story. I assume he lost the bet.
Even with all the problems I am still going to recommend the book, just because I liked the big ideas the book presents.
Sandi's review nails it when she writes "Existence is a giant mess of a novel."
At its heart, this is another attempt to resolve Fermi's paradox, which asks the question, "Where is everybody?" The basic resolution is reminiscent of Alastair Reynolds's in his Revelation Space series. And I liked that aspect of the novel, and, if Brin had contained himself to that story, then I might have been be able to give it that extra star.
But he doesn't. This book is all over the map with multiple story lines and POVs that - as many reviews here point out - go nowhere (i.e., the Hacker Sander/dolphin thread, the Basque Chimera/Neanderthal story or the Autism Plague).
Ultimately, the chief reason I can't recommend this novel is an essential philosophical difference between the author and myself. Like many of the hard SF writers today he leans strongly toward libertarianism and a childlike and absolute faith that technology will answer all the myriad problems we face. True, there are nods toward the unintended, often maleficent consequences of constant "progress" but the only possible answer to them is more, more, more technology. Anyone who might have a different viewpoint is a bad guy (i.e., The Prophet) or is sneeringly referred to as a "do-gooder."
Which leads into my second philosophical objection - A pathological disdain/dislike (bordering on hatred?) of Nature. All things - in this book - are meant to be used or modified to the benefit of the human race. And not only that but humans are meant to bring all the "benefits" of consciousness to other beings (i.e., dolphins). It's the greatest difficulty I had with Brin's "Uplift" series, and Existence often reads like a Christian fundamentalist bringing the Gospel to the Godless savage.
For all his nods toward diversity and the richness of human experience, Brin's universe (for me) is a bleak, soulless, mechanistic nightmare.
And a sexless one as well.
Not in the sense that there's no sex (though, fortunately, Brin avoids any - inevitably - awkward sex scenes) but one in which the only major female character (Tor Povlov) is rendered genderless very early by a terrorist attack that leaves her a cyborg. And all the other women in the book are motivated by maternal instincts.
I wish I were exaggerating but even the token woman scientist - Emily Tang - is motivated to acquire alien technology because she learns that they have artificial-womb technology.
All right - I should point out that Brin is brimming with interesting notions. I've reached the point where that's about the only reason I read hard SF anymore. I'm not a Luddite who would see modern humans reduced to their hunting/gathering ancestors. I retain a belief - perhaps as equally naive as Brin's in technology - that there's a balance to be found in how the world is and how we would like it to be, and that we can find it. But I can't see it in Brin et al.'s visions.
I wanted to love Existence out of respect for David Brin and his previous works.
Overall it enjoys a rich setting inhabited by interesting but fairly uncomplicated characters who are driven by an overwrought plot more than internal motivations. The concepts and conflicts are compelling and interesting, but the narrative fails to engage fully.
The first half of the book is the problem,in my view, as there is entirely too much detail put into what are essentially tangents related to politics. Insightful, but plodding: the volume of text these tangents inherit from the author is entirely out of proportion with their importance to the narrative. In short, I grew bored.
I finished Existence only because I was hoping the book would redeem itself. It did, to an extent. I enjoyed the underlying concepts, once revealed, and the second half of the book was much more engaging.
I would rate the book very highly on its concepts and commentary, but unfortunately the form and complexity of the narrative make it almost completely inaccessible. As written the book tries to be too many things. Perhaps it should have been two books , or perhaps one book with substantial pruning.
I love David Brin's books. Normally. I really do. I need to go back and review more of them here.
Anyway, this is not a good book. There are good seed ideas here, but if anything 2 stars is generous.
The core premise is that the world is a little further ahead in time than we are now. Huge disparity between the rich and the poor, conflict over power and control, all sorts of things we are dealing with now but intensified. Into this mix comes an astronaut cleaning up earth's orbit who finds an alien probe which offers a simple message: "Join Us."
This sends ripples out everywhere, and it's a great start to anything.
However, what happens next is lumpy and uneven. We are presented with a staggering multitude of viewpoint characters, many of whom are of questionable relevance to the wider story.
Basically, I think this could have been edited and reworked into something that is a much stronger narrative.
Where the story took off for me was about 90% of the way through the book, which is never a good sign. It then proceeds to timejump in a frustrating fashion, meaning that some of the elements that I actually got interested in at the 90% mark are never resolved because the narrative skips fifty years past them.
A larger problem is the political tone, and I say this as a card-carrying academic unionist: this is what happens when a left-leaning author starts to go off the rails.
There are storylines which boiled down to "The rich are soulless amoral reptoids out to devour the world and most people won't listen to those who know better than them WHY WON'T THEY LISTEN." Also trying to be inclusive regarding accepting autistic people... by immediately insisting that everyone with autism has it shape their world in exactly the same way for the same reasons and oh yes they're all magical savants. And that's not to mention the "All religions were caused by aliens and just to be extra specially considerate about this let's specify that Islam definitely is, so there's no room for doubt," moment.
It's a mess. The ideas are interesting in places, but honestly I'd reread something in the Uplift series instead.
this giant tome turns out to be at least half a dozen old stories the author wrote a decade or more ago and now mashed together like they were all one story of unrelated people and events.
i only kept going thinking there was going to be some way it all came together in some amazing way. it did not. a few of the stories were completely unrelated to the main story of the book. like red herrings. 100's of pages of red herrings.
like another reviewer here wrote, it was as if brin was determined to write 500 pages and when he didn't have it, he just went through his files, pulled out old stories, invented ways that those old characters might be the son of one of the current characters and copy/pasted it in.
this might be the first time i wanted to throw a book at the wall upon finishing it. i wouldn't recommend it to anyone. if you are a brin fan, then have at it. otherwise, read anything else.
I’ve been trying to catch up on classic science fiction as of late. Recently, I read through Isaac Asimov’s I Robot collection, which was written to an audience with a different set of expectations than readers today. Fifty-plus years ago, science fiction was largely a genre of ideas — where plot and characters took a back seat to shear innovation. In I Robot, the short stories serve mainly as a series of logic puzzles that explore the what-ifs of robot psychology. Today’s reader, on the other hand, has a greater concern for plot and character development. If a science fiction author is seeking to predict or in some way encourage the future of humanity, it can only be successful if the story itself entertains or instills emotion in the reader. Ideas alone are not satisfying enough. Plot and character development must stand on at least equal footing with the ideas being expressed or the modern reader will lose interest.
And so begins my review.
Existence is a novel about humanity’s first contact with an alien species. It begins with Gerald Livingstone, an outer space trash collector, encountering a strange artifact. He recognizes it not as an ordinary piece of space junk, but as an object with power that wants to communicate with him. It is a fitting introduction, as Gerald is not an elitist by prestige, class, or intelligence. He is an everyman, blue-collar worker, whose discovery could change the fate of humanity.
The point of view shifts in the coming chapters and we encounter Hacker, a rich playboy who is saved by dolphins after crashing his rocket into the ocean; Tor, a field correspondent who must come to terms with an event that changes her way of life; Hamish, an apocalyptic novelist; and Bin, a man who salvages material from drowned buildings and homes along China’s shore. In later chapters, we encounter even more viewpoint characters (perhaps ten in all?) who all play a role in humanity’s first contact.
As my introduction suggests, Existence is not a novel about a plot or really about characters either. It is more philosophical in nature, examining the possible ways that technology can benefit or bring the collapse to human civilization. Much of the doomsday predictions are told through excerpts at the end of chapters. In particular, a non-fictional work, Pandora’s Cornucopia is referenced with its several doomsday predictions.
David Brin is certainly ambitious in this work. His pursuit to understand humanity in Existence (an ambitious title itself) is in a sense an undertaking as large as the many physicists’ pursuit of the Theory of Everything. He examines history of human civilizations and tries to understand how our progress and innovation either assists or hinders us in thriving in the future. On one hand, I want to call this novel remarkable and brilliant, but on another, the narrative is fragmented, characters are severely underdeveloped, and the plot is loose and disconnected.
I think what frustrated me most was the constant diverging from the central storyline. I found the use of extracts to be burdensome in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, but his use of them was much more palatable than in Existence. 2312 managed to also be a science fiction novel of ideas, but was successful in interweaving innovation with plot and the characters. Robinson’s ambition was in the plausibility of inhabiting the entire solar system. Brin’s ambition is much broader — examining the plausibility of human existence itself, not just how and where we live. But without a satisfying story or characters I could cling onto, many of the concepts of Existence were swept away with the tide.
For those who are looking for a deep, philosophical look at humanity in the context of science fiction, you may find full satisfaction with what Brin has achieved in this novel. For those who are looking for an entertaining story with characters who have internal and external conflicts to overcome, this novel is entirely lacking. For myself, I am left somewhere in the middle, admiring Brin’s ambition and conceptualization, but being somewhat apathetic toward the lives of the characters within.
This review was originally published at Odd Engine
The story of “Existence”, Brins first novel in about ten years I think, is a complex multi character, multi idea, multi side story based rather complex super hard sci fi work about deception. Again, this is hard SF. It is as far from any soapy space opera you can come and the wide variety of characters in the story includes (among others) a Chinese slum family, a Rastafarian pop-scientist (really cool by the way, wish we could have seen more of him), an author, a super intelligent news reporter (later becoming a cyborg like entity), a Neanderthal girl, synthetic self-aware aliens, a jet-set space junkie and much more.
I will not go into analysing or rating David Brins writing techniques since he is in fact already a very accomplished writer, and the continuous publication of his books will have to stand as a quality stamp on his authorship. However, his contemporary writing in “Existence” in fact reminded me a lot of that of William Gibson and the world that Brin portraits has much in common with that “cyberpunk”, “always online” “fully embedded” world so often pictured by Mr Gibson.
Unfortunately Brin also picks up another of Gibsons less appealing traits. Sometimes you simply have no idea what the heck the current chapter is about or what relation it has to the main story. To make it worse, in the end of the book the reader is forced to recognise that many of the side plots didn't really have a meaning at all – nor are they concluded in any apparent meaningful way. One can only wonder why Brin has made it such, or why the editor let it slip through, but in the end this enormous work clearly has the feel of a great synthesis of smaller stories rather than a dense monograph.
Now, for those readers interested in the first contact problem, or the fact that to date there is no extra-terrestrial contact, this book is on the other hand a goldmine of intellectual sharpness, debate and dissection of the aforesaid problem. Honestly I think there are single pages in the beginning of the book that is worth the whole amount that I paid for it.
Also Brin offer an apparent connection to the uplift theme of his best known novels (see the Uplift trilogy – “Sundiver”, “Startide rising” and “The uplift war”), though I should say that as the story unfolds, the evolution of it does not really lead towards the universe of these earlier stories. In fact Brin expands his uplift idea to embrace surrogate births for Neanderthals, extensive cyborg/prosthesis usage and civil rights for the Ai community. As far as my taste goes it becomes a bit too much really, Brin is trying to fit too much in the story (or the world), and the universe in “Existence” does not really portrait a future that I agree with, nor find enormously interesting. However that is not to say that our future might not turn out in a similar way.
One last significant drawback is that the book is too long. Not so that the six hundred and fifty pages are too much per se, but the main story stops at about page 490 and what comes after that really should have been the material for a book of its own. (Read – Brin should have thought about the final events more thoroughly). If the book actually had stopped at this point I would probably have given it 5 stars, but as it is now, the extreme complexity and variety of themes and characters in the end becomes too much for Brin to handle and several of the characters in the story simply disappears in the time-gap between part six and seven of the book. Thus the end does not fully connect to its opening problem, the driving theme of the story. It does not really answer the questions put forward earlier. Thus David Brins "Existence" will only get 4 well-earned stars.
I found this a very disappointing book after all the hype from the transhumanist community about Brin and the constant appearance of the book on my social media.
There is some interesting and innovative thinking here (although perhaps less so to anyone who has actually 'worked' Second Life'). Brin can also write well about character in short bursts.
This is overwhelmed by the standard faults of contemporary scifi - too many ideas not taken to a conclusion, an inability to take a stand that is not ultimately sentimental and neologism to excess.
The real problem here seems to be the triumph of marketing over classic editorial engagement - not an uncommon problem nowadays.
Three quarters of the book is a slow moving mix of alternating adventure (the best parts), didacticism (all rather basic preaching) and experimental writing that just does not work all that well.
Then, just as one is settling into this near-glacial flow, and taking an interest in the fate of at least one or two of the characters, the book suddenly stops and jumps into a final fifth of space opera.
Was this deliberate? Or was Brin simply finding that this massive tome would meander on forever into multiple volumes and needed to be 'concluded' for the bookshelves and the kindles.
The whole things smacks of editorial indulgence. The book could have been so much better with an editing down of 30% of ideas and text, an improved bridge between the sections and greater balance betwen them.
Brin can be very good at adventure and at character, though his characters are still mostly symbols rather than people while his aliens seem more real on occasions than his humans.
But some of the personae are just plain irritating - I would willinglly have shot Profesor Noozone out into the furthest reaches of the galazy - while whole story lines are suddenly abandoned.
Whatever happened with the Chinese mother and her autistic supporters in the Disney Park? Who was behind the machinations over the stones? and is that all with the snotty rich kid and the dolphins?
We have critiqued the messiness and indulgent populism of modern science fiction before (see http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/83... ) Those criticisms hold for 'Existence' to a large extent. It seems to be a crisis in the genre.
Truly great science fiction takes one or a relatively few ideas and works it or them to the limits without equivocation. The thinking takes place in the mind of the reader and not all on the page.
'Menu' science fiction - throwing idea after idea without development so that the reader can pick what he or she likes according to taste and mental wallet - is what you get in a market-driven culture.
Here, nothing is properly developed because it is a novel of alternatives from a primer on human fates and destinies - it is a list of possibilities that end up becoming sillily absurd by the end.
So there we have it. You might be entertained by it but I could not take it seriously ... it reflected a flibertigibbet frightened culture of readers rather than directed us to new horizons.
This is a massive brain-dump from Brin with lots of rough edges, but worth the read.
I really liked that Brin set out to tackle the near future with tons of political and technological predictions, but a lot of it was annoying also in the first few chapters. Much of the future jargon comes of as anachronistic and silly instead (is anyone going to use 'trilly' for trillionaire?), and characters who are supposed to be older in the future setting while would have to be kids growing up right now in 2015 seem to be transplanted instead out of our past.
Instead of drawing the reader in some of this highlights cliche SF devices like 'name three historical greats, two the reader has heard of and one that they haven't because the third is yet to become famous or be born at all'.
In the interstitials it seems like Brin is preaching directly at the reader, and plenty of other pieces of political commentary are indistinguishable from what you might find on the author's blog. Exclamation marks are overused in both venues.
But popular media and culture is annoying in real life, and people do make up and attempt to perpetuate stupid phrases and jargon- it's a classic mistake to white-wash the future into a bland uniform coolness where all products and buildings and people and vehicles conform to a single futuristic aesthetic.
I did like the use of 'ai' injected into other words that would otherwise properly spelled would just have an 'a' or an 'i' to show that the thing has an artificial intelligence in it.
Stross or a Sprawl-era Gibson paint a more convincing vision of the near future and would avoid problematic areas by just avoiding them, but I appreciate that Brin is trying, and most of the annoyances fade away as the plot takes over.
The near future society gives way to space travel in the third act, with some Baxter like content, and midway through something happens that really changed my reading of the book but I'm still unsure what to make of- I'll have to look on the internet to see what it was.
I haven't read Earth yet but it sounds like I should (and I'm only a few novels short of Brin completion minus short stories and longer essays).
This is a big book with a lot of big ideas. The time is the mid 21st century and the world has become wired in a way that involves constant virtual reality. AI's are crossing the line between smart computers and true sentience. In the midst of these changes, a space garbage collector discovers an odd object that turns out to be an alien space probe.
I loved the ideas in the story and the way the story kept moving in directions I didn't expect. What does it mean if we aren't alone in the universe? What does it mean if we are? What does it mean to be human? This book explores those questions and there were times I just stopped and thought about the ideas being presented. I found the idea of fascinating. That was a take on alien contact I have never seen before.
This was a 5 star read in many ways but there were a couple of things that made me rate it a 4. The book moves very slowly, especially in the first half and the exposition seems overdone. The story is told from multiple points of view which I enjoy but the time getting back around to a certain POV was so long in many cases that I had forgotten how the previous section had ended.
Also, the parts about Hacker and the tie-in to Brin's Uplift series, while interesting story telling, had no connection to the rest of the book whatsoever.
Despite a few drawbacks, this is a book to make you think and I would definitely recommend it.
Existence, by David Brin, has gotten many very positive reviews. One reviewer from SFF World stated, “Existence is my top SF novel of 2012 and I recommend it without hesitation.” Well, I strongly disagree! Existence is a “first contact” science fiction book in which Brin presents some interesting and unique concepts that could have been woven into a very informative and interesting story. Unfortunately, Brin failed to accomplish that because the strangely disjointed narrative throughout the book did not provide a natural flow to guide the reader through satisfying experience. Brin includes a large number of interesting characters, long segments of their dialogue with each other, and even longer passages of their thoughts. Many of these passages were very interesting, but many of them did not seem to be relevant to any continuing story for the reader. In addition, after suffering through these long and seemingly irrelevant portions, many of the characters that the reader becomes acquainted with just vanish from the book without any explanation. In addition, the extreme length of this book combined with the lack of a coherent narrative exacerbates the reader’s confusion. I kept thinking that Brin would eventually pull everything together to provide the reader with an epiphany of understanding about the book. However, that never happened for me and I was very disappointed by this book.
The opening scene of Existence, David Brin’s long-awaited return to novel-length science fiction, is a great set piece that’s meaningful in a number of ways: astronaut Gerald Livingstone is working on the border of Earth and deep space, literally between heaven and earth—and helped by a monkey, no less. The symbolism couldn’t be clearer if he waved a flag depicting the Sistine Chapel’s God’s-hand-reaching-down-from-Heaven scene.
What Gerald actually does in orbit seems, at first, much less uplifting (sorry): he’s essentially a glorified garbage collector, gathering pieces of floating space junk for disposal—until he finds a mysterious glowing stone, which soon proves to be an alien artifact. This sets off a long and complex plot that will change life on Earth forever.
Bravo! David Brin has written a masterfully polished work that contemplates deep ideas about a vast universe that manages to be a compelling page turner of a read.
The nested, parallel story lines and fragments of TED-like texts makes for a dense and richly populated world. One that seems to constantly teeter from the brink of falling into any number of traps that could doom humanity. A world that is self-aware enough to pull back from each catastrophe before it completely unfolds. Few authors have embraced both pessimism and optimism with such gusto.
But the glue that holds so many big ideas together is a cast of well written characters that give the reader several focal points. This is an ambitious story that manages to be engaging while tackling heady concepts. Any number of the subplots could stand alone as novels in their own right. The sum of these individual plights makes for a staggering, thrilling read.
So far as I can recall, I have never read anything by David Brin before, but I will definitely be looking for others of his works. It seems just a short while ago that I declared I did not give five-star ratings to fictional novels, but I seem to have done that a few times over the past couple years, and I certainly have to do so here. Having said that, I have no doubt at all that most people would not agree; most people, in fact, would say I am out of my mind. That is certainly true of most of my friends and casual acquaintances, a good percentage of whom would not have any truck with any science fiction novel, and I also suspect that many people who do read popular science fiction would get turned off quickly by this book. Despite that, I think it is one of the most impressive novels I have read in my lifetime.
The style that Brin uses here can be an easy turn-off for most people. His novel does not have chapters; it has parts — and each part is a small slice of writing, sometimes extending for several pages and sometimes taking up less than half a page. Each such slice is either a third person description of what happens to some character or a first-person account that varies from stream of consciousness to an actual third-person report from the viewpoint of a different character. Until the reader gets into the story, all these different slices seem chaotic and unrelated, but eventually the action starts coming together to present a cohesive picture of the overall story — a story, by the way, that occupies the better part of 100 years of time, during which the different characters meet each other and interact.
All of that is not excessively new, but what is new is that Brin establishes a picture of how society may have involved through the next century, extrapolating from countless things that go on in our current society to present a future that is both intriguing and horrifying. Nowadays, many of us are concerned with the way our children and young people carry on with cell phones and tablets, but few of us look into the future to see what the results of those practices are apt to become as technology continues to evolve. As described by Brin, communication between different people occurs through instant access to an Internet beyond our wildest dreams, accessed through a multitude of artificial intelligence machines — including, for example, a contact lens that lets the wearer see the world through different layers of reality, activated by dental switches, and connecting the wearer instantaneously to whoever wants to be connected. Furthermore, some people have gone beyond that point and had the micro-sized equipment actually installed in their eye, rather than bother with a contact. One prime user of this equipment is a young female reporter, Tor Povlov, who provides both video and audio feeds to an expanding base of followers and finds that she is becoming the control unit of an instantaneous flash mob whose collective research abilities and communicative powers result in the near instantaneous determination of answers to impossibly difficult questions. It is more than describing the equipment being used, however; Brin over the course of several vignettes involving Tor lets us see into her mind and to understand what it is like to live in that society.
Another aspect of the future world in which Tor lives is that language has changed to reflect many of the changes that have occurred in the interim between now and then. Since everyone in that future world, from the richest to the poorest, has access to some kind of artificial intelligence, for example, vocabulary has expanded to include a lot of words that reflect this different factor of their lives. In addition to all the new words, which most readers very possibly will find confusing, Brin has an irritating but natural process of filling in the missing century by oblique references that only suggest what happened. There are a great many references to Awful Day, for example, but we are never actually told what happened on that day, other than a suggestion that Washington DC and a few other American cities disappeared that day.
************************** What really makes a novel, of course, is the story. And the story in Existence is an incredible one that twists in succeeding levels of consciousness as we see through the build up of all the slices of life what is happening … and then see that we actually understood very little … and then see in a new development that it was even more complex than we had thought. I did not see any simple way of telling you what that story is without spoiling some of the build up, unfortunately, so you will have to read it yourself to find out why I find it so exciting.
This is one of the densest books I've read recently, both for better and worse.
The good: There's a rousing story here, with numerous subplots, characters, and ideas. It has everything but the kitchen sink: a near-ish future with plenty of personal virtual technology; AI; uploaded personalities; alien contact; Neanderthals reconstructed from old DNA; Uplifted dolphins (a homage to Brin's Uplift series, but not the same universe); autistic savants who are almost a separate advanced species (they've always been here, but the world wasn't ready for them yet); an ongoing thread about the myriad ways civilizations can self-destruct; an elite cabal that rules the world (or tries to); there's even a quote from Richard Brautigan! One of the dozen or so main characters is a science fiction writer who probably represents someone--a frenemy of Brin's, or himself? The premise is this: A space-garbage collector finds an artifact that turns out to be an alien probe. Adventure and a lot of navel-gazing ensue. The adventure is colorful and satisfying.
The bad: Way too much navel-gazing. The first half (and more) of the book has an inordinate amount of exposition. There are whole recurring threads of it; various ideas on, I guess, civilization(s): history, dynamics, and how it can end or evolve. And some science, of course. It may be all relevant--it is, after all, the substance of the book--and interesting as well, but it makes for a slow read. Worse is when it's put into conversation between characters, who parrot stuff for the reader that they probably would not say to their fictional audience. (Did I mention the talking parrots that serve as secure communication devices? Kitchen sink.) This exposition comprises a large percentage of the dialogue (and almost all of the other parts) in the first two-thirds of the book. Then things pick up toward the end, and in fact progress goes at breakneck pace.
Also, on the bad side, I didn't find any of the main characters very sympathetic. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I don't know if it was intentional; I think Brin meant for the astronaut (or space-garbage collector) and the journalist whom circumstances turn into a cyborg, at the least, to be engaging. I found neither of them so. I liked the Chinese sea-scavenger couple better--but not all that much better. (I'm sure the science fiction writer was deliberately annoying and worse.) Yet, I ended up feeling disappointed that some of the characters' stories stopped when the book moved ahead chronologically.
All in all, the book was a satisfying read, and more and more so as I got deeper into it. Excellent science fiction (as always, with Brin), even if--or because?--it took my mind through more convoluted pathways than I prefer.
David Brin has been too long absent from the list of New Publications, but he is back, and on form! This is science fiction doing what it does best - asking questions about what it means to be human, and about what we are doing wrong and could do better. This is what I expect from my science fiction: if I haven't been made to think, I've been wasting my time.
Earth touched on the Fermi Paradox (roughly: since it seems likely that intelligent life is common in the universe, where is everybody?), but Existence grapples with this question head on, as well as with the matter of how humans would respond to one of the possible answers to that question. He's heavy on the social commentary as well, much more so than he did with Earth, which wasn't short of damning criticism of some sections of human society. Our planet has a past in this book, much of it bad (what really happened on Awfulday?): there are plenty of refugees around. Here is our potential, and here is how far we are falling short. It is, in some ways, inspirational.
It's also a good yarn, which kept me turning pages until the conclusion, which kept me guessing until the end. It's a convoluted yarn, yes, but convoluted keeps the brain working, which can only be a good thing.
This book is more like Earth, or Heart of the Comet, constrained by Einstein, than the Uplift novels (although he touches on this concept, and there may be potential to examine how Uplift might be different in this universe). There are no lethal Tandu cruisers around - although this universe is no less hostile.
The touch that makes a great science fiction author is still there. Recommended.
This book seemed like disconnected, vaguely related collections of stories that were pieced out in short snippets. Each chapter focussed on one storyline, but was short and cut abruptly to the next one.
I found it hard to figure out and keep track of all the storylines. Mostly because I only liked a few of them, mostly the ones that had some action happening like Peng Xiang Bin's story, or Tor's zepplin adventure. The majority of the time it seemed that nothing much was happening.
Another feature I found hard to follow was all the slang and unexplained verbiage. Yes, I know futuristic science fiction often has new language, but it is usually either explained or self-explanatory. The major of the slang in this book had my re-reading passages to figure out the meanings.
Overall, this story was too broad and reaching for me. There was a lot going on, and it seemed that the book lost focus and drifted by in uncohesive pieces. Due to this, I was only able to make it through about 40% of the book before I gave up due to lack of interest.