on 11 August 2013
This novel has lots of interesting things to say about why aliens have not revealed themselves, and what the challenges are if a civilisation is to survive. But this is also the novel's big failing, because it tends to 'say' these things, rather than express them through the story. The characters generally all talk in the exact same scientific voice and are not so much characters as mouth pieces for Brin's points. It's what you would get if you took a series of essays and tried to convert them into dialogue. And every chapter is actually followed by an almost direct essay, supposedly from a future encyclopedia or expert.
Also Brin does't seem to understand how to use narrative within a novel. Some characters, who we've been following over hundreds of pages just disappear without any real conclusion. (SPOILERS!) What happened to Mae Ling, or to Hacker and his Dolphins - why did I read all about his story for it then to just vanish? Also, what about the glowing artifact that the dolphins discovered underwater? It just got completely forgotten about.
Having built up some tension at times, Brin just threw it away by not bothering to tell us the most exciting moment, completely ignoring the climaxes of several sections, and then telling us little bits in the following chapter in typical essay style. For example, the majority of the novel is about the two stones, one in the U.S and one in China. And just when the stones are about to be brought together to face each other - the point that the whole book has been moving towards - Brin stops his story and jumps forward twenty years. I mean... what was he thinking?! He's supposed to be a novelist. It happens again a chapter or two later: Tor (who never showed a hint of sadness, turmoil, or regret about her disabilities just continuous, relentless scientific essay talk) has almost found the lurking robot in the asteroid belt; the robot is about to act in a potentially devastating or wonderful way (we've been waiting to find out which) and then... story over, jump to another time and place... Again, what...? What kind of story telling is this?
So, there's some big flaws in the writing, and it's far too long. However, it was far more interesting than most other novels I've read lately, and although I disagreed with many of the ideas (I'm fed up of reading of human minds encoded as data; there's far more too us than that) it kept me reading and wanting to know what happened. So I'll give it three stars, which says as much about how rubbish most novelists are as it does about the qualities of this book. But there we go, three stars. Many problems, but still interesting.
David Brin's Existence proved irresistible. It examines some of the biggest, most compelling themes. Is humanity alone in the universe, a mere freak of creation? If, on the other hand, there is intelligent life out there, why has it chosen to remain silent?
Brin's focus is on several characters in the near future, a time when space exploration has stalled but leaps in technology are fast and ambitious. Gerald is one of the few humans in space, gathering debris from the orbit of earth and flicking it into the planet's atmosphere for annihilation - he finds an Artefact, a non-human entity that communicates through him; Peng Xiang Bin lives on the margins of survival in Shanghai, a watery existence in the flooded ruins of devastated seaside mansions - he finds another artefact, which appears to be aware of the other found by Gerald. It doesn't like it; Hacker is a rich man who seeks thrills. He finds them in space, in self-funded rockets that peek into space before falling back to earth; Hamish is a famous film maker and writer, a celebrity, who works for a confederation that seeks to turn from the stars and heal the earth through the abolishment of democracy and the emergence of a more basic society run by a rich elite; Tor is a journalist who speaks for the flashmob. Seeking to report the truth about the Artefact, Tor finds herself in the unique position of seeing humanity from the other side.
This cast, as well as many others who come and go through the pages, slowly begin to circle around the space artefact, its opposing earth artefact, and show us the world that earth has become. Hacker's rocket, for instance, crashes into the sea and the only way he can survive is through the help of intelligence-developed dolphins, while his mother and others debate the merit of technology outstripping the ability of humans. It's not long, though, before the alien voices of the artefact are added to the noise of unease and, above all, fear. The aliens bring a message and how to deal with that message is a theme of this novel. Humans, such as Hacker's mother Lacey, may have spent millions trying to detect the existence of aliens but, once they're noticed, what they have to say may not be what is expected.
Existence shows us how people behave when they learn that they, us, are not alone. Interspersed with the narrative are brief passages which examine, for example, potential methods of extinction - the other side of the coin to existence. We also hear hints of other beings, the reborn Neanderthal child, as well as pleas from one of the characters imploring alien life forms to reveal themselves.
These passages don't particularly disturb the flow of the novel because that is already fragmented by the chopping and changing between characters. This is an issue with Existence. The stories are each so vividly told that the interruption as we move from one to another is felt keenly. The fact that this matters is testament to the quality of the story telling.
Thrown into this are some fascinating ideas - we hear about Awfulday, without being given details, but it is clear that this was some unspecified nuclear cataclysmic event. There has also been a plague that has resulted in Auties - vast numbers of autistic survivors. Artificially intelligent life forms are evolving. The oceans have risen, resulting in slums on the edges of the sea. There are hints throughout of great disasters. We also have glimpses of animal life. Amongst the extinctions, there is the monkey who works with Gerald to destroy space debris as well, of course, as those most marvellous dolphins, and the emptying waters fished by Peng. Then there are the artefacts themselves...
Existence is hard science fiction. There is a great deal of contemplation by characters and the narrator about the world and universe around them. Their self awareness increases and we are a part of the discovery. This is especially true of Tor who is transformed through the novel in almost every way. She is a fascinating character.
Existence is about 550 pages. However, don't let that mislead you. The size of the font means that you may as well double the size. It's not a fast read but it is an absorbing one. I found it extremely compelling and I didn't want to be away from it too long. This was because of the characters - particularly Tor, Hamish and Gerald - but also because of some of the other themes we come across, some human and some alien. I didn't miss a word, I didn't skim a page.
There were issues for me - especially, as mentioned, the leaping between characters and, as the novel goes on, the leaping between years. The latter led to characters disappearing and loose ends loosened further. I think the novel could have been made tighter. Nevertheless, I was mesmerised by the read. This is Brin's first novel for ten years. After Existence I can only hope that we have to wait a mere fraction of this for the next.
on 18 November 2012
This could have been an interesting thoughtful book about the future and first contact with aliens, trouble was it's narrative was buried in a hotch potch of essays on related subjects that contributed very little to the story and made the book both irritating to read and in parts boring. Some of the material seemed to have been dumped into the book, having been written for other projects, and would have been better left out. Written in a more spare style this would have been a much better book. In spite of this I finished it and enjoyed reading some of it.
on 16 July 2012
In 1982 David Brin published a paper on the Great Silence, the Drake Equation and Fermi's Paradox - the reason no signs of extraterrestrial civilisations have been found. Thirty years later he is revisiting this in a serious piece of SF. This weighty tome might claim to be his magnum opus. It is a serious piece of fiction somewhat less frothy than his Uplift series bearing more resemblance as it does to 'Earth' in style.
Are we alone? Where are the others? What is the mechanism for the 'Great Filter' preventing civilisations from filling the Galaxy. In existence Brin does not attempt to exploit these for cheap drama, the book is a liesurely tour through the various theories for the Great Silence. Along the way several solutions and pitfalls are examined.
Set in the near future , an Earth under pressure is exposed to an Alien probe bearing a mesage. The message is a promise, a trap and a solution. Can or will Humanity follow the path of prior civilisations or can we navigate our own way around the 'Great Filter'.
The book is a piece of thinking fiction proposing potential real physics solutions to the questions raisied in physics. Its not the most elegant piece of SF Ive read as its constrained by real universe physics and economics. It is a fantastic sleeper novel, though it requires some patience its worth the read.
This is a book for people interested in a hard look at our real universe. Its not a light and frothy , its thought provoking and very current. Not his most enjoyable piece , but a very worthwhile read.
on 15 January 2014
Well, I've struggled on with this for several weeks, hoping the few great concepts would come alive as the denouement neared and justify the dazzling reviews. And then on page 508, I read this. "Ah Gerald, my friend. I see you tease me. Very well. I shall stop demanding haste". So this alien, locked a crystal jar for however many millennia and conversing with a human, starts talking like a character from a Victorian melodrama. Noooo! It's a bridge much too far and I have to consign the tome to file 13.
Discursive exposition is the bane of much SciFi, as is dodgy characterisation, and I'm afraid this book has them in spades. And I'm a lover of the genre. Brin has many, many different ways, all in various typefaces, of putting his dodgy future world opinions across, and, in Prof. Noozone, a character to match Jar Jar Binks in stupidity. The basic concept, of overturning Fermi's paradox as to why we don't see the alien is a brilliant one, but he's overloaded it with so much future history guff (how the elite show their scorn for social norms by allowing their guests to pee in a pot is one that particularly sticks in mind) that it's hard to follow any basic human relationships with the plot and the whole book flops like an over-baked soufflé. I had thought that most modern authors had given up this sort of nonsense, but maybe when you've won as many awards as he has you don't give a damn anymore.
I'd suggest a) a much better editor and b) that the esteemed Mr. Brin reads, I don't know, a bit of Steven King to get the relationship between plot and character a mite closer.
Disappointing is not strong enough a word, but I have to bear in mind the house rules here. Do not buy this travesty of a novel.
on 5 August 2014
It was not a promising start that proceeded to wander, seemingly without end. This seems like a clumsy and formulaic attempt to create a prequel to the uplift saga that is compounded by having been written by committee (see the credits at the end if you can stand to slog it out that far). Sub plots that tail off after extensive and pointless over-description, 2 dimensional characters and a narrative that seems to bore even brim himself by about 3/4 of the way through. With some decent and quite heavy editing this could be a good read and the overall story arc could easily have made a rather more pleasing trilogy. The overwhelming and lasting impression is of a contractual obligation to the publisher fulfilled; a book that is not half as clever as it thinks it is and fails almost completely at what any decent book should do...entertain the reader.
I've never read any of David Brin's books before, but have seen his name come up often on Amazon searches, so thought this was a good place to start. This is a massive book, but I dived into it with enthusiasm. We follow the stories of various people at a time, seemingly not all that far into our own future, where technology is key in many people's lives, but even technology has not saved the world from political and cultural clashes, referred to obliquely throughout the book.
The discovery of apparently alien artefacts stirs up many people over the world, including those who prophesy alien interference, those who would rather technology retreated instead of advanced. Among those whose stories we read are the prophet Tenskwatawa, Peng Xiang Bin and his wife Mei Ling, Hacker Sander and his mother Lacey, the journalist Tor Povlov and spacer Gerald Livingstone.
Ultimately this book seems to be about the lengths that people would go to to protect their own `truth', and how differently people over the world see, and would react to the apparent evolutionary stresses of humanity and the prospect of aliens in the wider galaxy.
Unfortunately, by about page 300 I really just wanted the key plotlines to get on with it; I was getting a bit tired of the overlong recurring and over-clever polemic about alien and humanity; religion and science; technology and technology-phobe. And I found some of the author's theories to be rather fanciful; the dolphins seemed really out of whack, and storylines seemed to just dwindle off into nothing after a long buildup. This book had a skeleton of a really good story at its core; unfortunately it seems to have been buried somewhere amongst all the other writing that really would have benefited from a ruthless editing cull. A pity.
on 19 December 2014
I am not a discerning reader. I disliked dissecting books at school and scraped an 'O'-level in Eng.Lit. I failed to recognise the ending of Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls as a classic cat in a Schrodinger box and didn't realise that James T Kirk's 5 year mission was related by name with James Cook's exploration of the Pacific. Nevertheless, I have a grading on books, from multiple bonfires for a book I threw across the room unfinished up through several levels of shelves on the bookshelf. This book goes on the top shelf because I am certain I will want to read it again.
This book has two main themes, the Fermi paradox and the birth of new sentiences.
It fizzes with ideas, such as the reporter acting as the nucleation point for an online investigation group that makes major discoveries, and the idea of interstellar chain-letter as a viral plague. I said that I don't like dissecting books after I have read them but this book must have been good because I wanted to discuss it with someone afterwards. As an example, I don't believe that gravitational braking can be used to reduce 3% light-speed to a captured orbit but maybe I am missing something; someone famously proved that spaceflight was impossible because there weren't any fuels powerful enough to lift themselves into orbit but they were wrong because they hadn't thought of multistage rockets. I also believe that an attempt to genetically resurrect Neanderthal humans is as abhorrent as the production of epsilons in Brave New World.
I said fizzes and I chose the word deliberately because this could also be seen as a weakness of the book. I don't know if there is a name for this structure, but many books start with chapters introducing different characters in different situations and the characters converge and interact during the course of the story. Sadly, I once read five chapters of a book before I realised that it was a book of unrelated short stories and not a single novel. This book is structured differently; it diverges instead. One hero starts out married with a child but parts from them near the start and they never meet again even though we follow the adventures of both. Not that child, but another of his wife, makes a superfluous cameo performance near the end. Both parents are kidnapped or kidnap attempts are made but we never discover by whom, they are just shadowy presences that are never made explicit. In many other chapters we follow the adventure of another character who never interacts with anyone else that we are following and his story could be excised without harm to the book. Towards the end we follow the actions and thoughts of an alien AI without ever discovering its motivations and intentions.
When I went to the author's website I found out what is going on. He has taken several good novellas and tacked them loosely together to make a composite novel but the threads of the sub-stories are still hanging loose. Personally, I found the way that the story briefly focuses on some players and events but leaves other players nebulous, vague or only hinted at all rather tantalising and attractive but I can understand if some readers have given a low rating because of this.
on 5 April 2015
This is less of a novel a than collection of essays on end of the world scenarios.
The characters are shallowly drawn and uninteresting, the direction and focus of the plot changes continuously and jumps about all the time leaving no real plot in the end.
This is an academic exercise in the exploration of alien contact ideas giving reasons why they might not have happened yet and running them together to form a timescape of thought on contact.
There is some intellectual interest in the book but it is not a real novel and that makes it, by far, Brin's worst book.
on 12 July 2012
My exposure to David Brin has been limited to five novels: the three Uplift series novels from Sundiver (1980) and the standalone novels of The Postman (1985) and Earth (1990). So Earth is the most recent novel of Brin's which I've read and given its twenty-two year age, Brin's style still resonates with me--a style which is cleanly composed and indulgently intelligent. The 244,000 word novel is hefty in page count and even loftier in the implementation of the imagination; each page blossoming with careful thought, each idea stewed in applicable thought... the combination invigorates the mind of the reader. With the keen eye of a science fiction aficionado, there's even more thought behind the tome of Existence than the plot and ideas, but there's also a slew of backslapping towards the greats of science fiction (some subtle, some blatant).
Inside flap synopsis:
"Telepresence. Global security. Everyone is watching everyone, all the time. Anything interesting draws a flash crowd of ten million eyes. One man in Afghanistan live-tweets a special forces attack, and the world tunes in. Revolutions coordinate online. And that's today! Tomorrow, you'll wear the Web, immersed in augmented overlays. Your aiware glasses will ID, name-tag, and tattle on each person you walk by, in a global village of ten billions souls.
"But instant access to all of human knowledge only widens the gulf between those eager for tomorrow... and those fearing an end to human existence.
"Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector, clearing a hundred-year mess, when we spots something unexpected--a glinting crystal, unmapped and strange. An hour after he captures it, rumors fill Earth's infomesh about an 'alien artifact.'
"Peng Xiang Bin is a shoresteader off the Chinese coast, salvaging homes abandoned to the rising tides. Under one mansion, Bin finds a secret treasure cache. One box bears a warning: Inhabited by demons.
"Tor Povlov is a new-era reporter, a genius at trolling Web and street for exciting and heartbreaking 'you are there' reports. On a cross-country zeppelin tour she documents an America and world fracturing apart, torn between a future promising godlike powers for all... and a beguiling past that might offer the only sanctuary. She does not expect to find herself--and her million-member smart posse--snagged by the biggest story ever.
"From a tribe of beleaguered dolphins to the highest mountain observatory, Existence asks the question: Are we alone in the universe? Does every bright new race stumble over the same pitfalls? The same, entrapping seven hundred ways to fail?
"Thrown into this maelstrom of worldwide shared experience and tension over human destiny, the Artifact is a game changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate... but for good or ill? The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity."
With the book's own synopsis covering nearly the entire plot, I have little more to add to it. However, the book is awkwardly split into three notable time periods:
(1) Parts 1-6 [pages 7-420] revolve around Earth's reaction to the artifact found in Earth's orbit. There are actually two crystal artifacts found and both tell different stories about their history in the system, in the galaxy. Collaboration is needed to filter the truth from the lies, a tricky process when dealing with alien intelligences. There is open hostility towards the alien probe but there is also open, progressive dialogue with it in an attempt to learn what is needed. Unfortunately, the probe is unwilling to divulge any technological information, an earlier promise which was conveyed through the discoverer, Gerald Livingston. The personal message, however, does not apply to everyone. Revelation after revelation, human begin to understand the true nature of the probe.
(2) Part 7 [pages 421-508] shifts its timeframe tens of years after the discovery of the probe. For want of limiting spoilers, I may simply add that the once Earth-based plot shifts, like the timeframe, beyond the touch-base of Earthly domain. It's an uncomfortable transition. The idea of the second plot is wonderfully interesting but a little too action-packed, yet feels artificially inserted into the flow of the entire novel. Brin admits in the acknowledgments section that an earlier version of the adventure in this section was previously published in the 1980s under the title "Lungfish." So, there's little doubt why the first and second section feel like stitch-up story!
(3) Part 8 [pages 509-553] takes another leap into the future, yet another gap which leaves the reader uncomfortable. Like section two, the third plot is wonderful in its ideas of hard science and the importance to the greater plot. When Brin states that "...the humans are up to something" (490-22), he really goes all out with what humanity will possibly be capable in the future. Where the aliens races found in the crystal were clever in their own right, humanity finds that curiosity won't be the trait that kills them; rather, it'll be the trait that propels them above the technological plain above all other galactic races.
Studded throughout section one, Brin prints excepts from a fictional books in the book's history, the most notable is Pandora's Cornucopia, which reads like Brin's fascination with all that could go wrong that leads to Earth's demise: "...our means of self-destruction seem myriad" (13): "Surviving as a technological civilization is like crossing a vast minefield [...] too many mistakes and pitfalls lie in wait--bad trade-offs or ineludiable paths of self-destruction" (345).
Besides Pandora's Cornucopia highlighted between chapters, there are other tasty orts of perspective from the "Toralyzer," quotes from Professor Noozone, news briefs, dialogue from the Scanalyzer (à la Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar) quotes from other fictional sources, and even quotes from modern sources. These perspectives lighted upon the nuances of the plot are more relevant that Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, which had a plethora of data and snippets to overwhelm this reader. Brin's perspective additions were pertinent to the greater picture he was trying to paint within.
In the introduction, I mentioned the backslapping performed throughout the novel towards science fiction greats (which I'll soon address), but Brin also dips his metaphorical toes into the waters of modern thinkers and morals: Ralph Nader's environmentalism, Adam Smith's moral sentiments, anti-technological Luddism, and Ted Kaczynski's neo-Luddism. Brin also refers to other scientists: Carl Sagan, Akimasa Nakamura, and Allen Tough; other author's ideas: Brunner's Scanalyzer, Charles Stross's Singularity Era, and Kim Stanley Robinson's shying away from extremes; and modern references to Paul the Octopus of 2010 World Cup fame (351-355) and cheeky nudge towards Charlton's Heston's role in Planet of the Apes (1968).
The real geeky delight found in Existence is when it comes to blatant and subtle references to other science fiction authors and their respective works, some great, some obscure. For the sake of science fiction history, I'll recognize the novels below, but if this isn't your field of interest then you might as well pass this section up:
Greg Bear's Slant (1998) [p. 64]
Isaac Asimov's I, Robot (1950) [p. 96]
Frederik's Pohl The Cool War (1981) [p. 142]
Niven & Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye (1974) [p. 218, 489]
George Orwell's 1984 (1949) [p. 246]
Iain Banks' The Business (1999) [p. 284]
H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) [p. 286]
Pierre Boulle's Monkey Planet (1963) [p. 286]
Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia (1975) [p. 286]
John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968) [p. 401]
Isaac Asimov's Foundation (1951) [p. 431]
James Blish's They Shall Have Stars (1956) [p. 489]
Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide (1979) [p. 490]
One most notable backslap is with Iain Banks' The Business. In a Scanalyzer sequence, a person using the pseudonym of Hagar describes a scene at the Holy Kaaba which is beginning to glow because of the meteorite its made from, the aliens begin to wake up to the fact that another crystal has been found on Earth. This is the exact scenario which is found in a fictional movie plot in The Business, which Jebbet Dessous outlines. A small tribute to Banks... or just a coincidence?
Even including all the geek-dom wonderfulness and the opinion that each section, in itself, is a great read, ultimately the three section don't mesh together very well. I would have loved to have seen the first section have a conclusion in its own timeframe, rather than having to jump decades at a time to some far-flung conclusion. The first 420 pages are captivating and rightly deserve five stars for the detail and effort within, but the follow-up detachment is disappointing.
Existence could quite possibly be the best subjective SF novel of 2012, a close contender with Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth and the future releases of Iain M. Banks' The Hydrogen Sonata (October 4, 2012) and Peter Hamilton's Great North Road (September 27, 2012). Nothing this year has really astounded me, but many parts of Existence surely had be pleasurably wallowing between the viscous pages of Brin's tour de force.