Book review: Existence by David Brin

What a bargain! Two and a half books for the price of one! But wait; there is more! You get three different sub-genres of science fiction, biting commentary on current social issues, environmentalism, uplift of species, first contact with aliens, space battles, disposable protagonists and so much more. Existence is an intriguing mess that drags on for way too long and has a myriad of problems especially with how it handles its characters. Thanks to these issues the book may never reach the cult status of John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, which it tries so hard to emulate, but it still may offer something to everyone, and disappointing all at the same time.

Gerald Livingstone is part of a crew of astronauts in Earth’s near orbit, tasked with cleaning up discarded debris from previous space expeditions and satellites. He happens upon an object that hints at extraterrestrial origins. On his way down to Earth, he touches it and triggers a response. Aliens appear within the crystal and begin communicating with him. NASA, unable to keep this discovery under a lid, convenes an international research committee, which studies the artifact. Livingstone, as the only person the artifact would answer to, is instrumental at finding out that the artifact contains numerous digitized alien lifeforms. Due to the vast distances in space, direct communication is not feasible, so aliens spend all their resources creating these artifacts, filling them with representatives of their species and flinging them across the universe. Mankind is invited to add another person to their crew, duplicate the stone and shoot it to the nearest million or more stars.

At that time, Peng Xiang Bin, a peasant on the Chinese coast who makes his living salvaging usable materials from ocean garbage, finds a cache of minerals, including a stone that shines and contains a mysterious being that tries to communicate with him when he touches it. He sends out inquiries on the Internet, regarding the sale of the stone, and when NASA’s artifact is revealed to the public, he is confronted by a robot, instructing him to take the stone to a secret laboratory. It turns out that Livingstone’s artifact is not the only one in existence. Its activation prompts thousands of other stones, both on Earth and in space, to communicate with humanity, and various groups and governments are trying to snatch them for themselves. While Bin is hiding in the secret lab, his wife and child are trying to avoid government agents, with the help of a group of autists.

In a parallel thread, Hacker Sander crashes while participating in illicit rocket racing, but is rescued by a group of dolphins that show signs of extraordinary intelligence. He later finds out that scientists performed experiments on them, trying to uplift them to full sentience, and largely succeeded. Hacker, heir to one of the biggest fortunes on Earth, takes up their cause and hopes to finance more research in this direction. While he is still frolicking with the dolphins, though, his mother is leading search and rescue efforts for him, while also participating in the study of the Livingstone’s artifact.

In a yet another parallel story, Tor Povlov, a journalist and videographer, whom we’d call a vlogger today, is on board of an airship headed to Washington DC, when she uncovers, with the help of a smart mob (think of a virtual think tank of thousands with a distilled consensus opinion) that the zeppelin will act as a massive bomb, aimed to disrupt the research of the space rock. She prevents the explosion, but at the cost of massive damage to her body, and she spends the rest of the first part in a hospital, still following up on stories that would otherwise slip through the cracks, with the help of the smart mob.

Finally, there is Hamish Brookeman, one of the world’s most successful authors and movie makers, who focuses on warning about the dangers of technology and unchecked scientific progress. He himself is living a somewhat old-fashioned life, so he is caught off guard when the artifact is revealed. He works on behalf of the rejectionist movement, but when the existence of intelligent alien life is revealed and new technologies start pouring from the various artifacts, he becomes a contrarian, to the point where he invents a hoax, to convince the public that the alien artifacts aren’t real.

All these stories come to a head… well, they don’t. Without wrapping the character arcs up, the first part abruptly ends, and we are thrown a few decades into the future, where Gerard Livingstone is commanding a spaceship that sets up large telescopes in the asteroid belt, and Tor is exploring the asteroids for the remains for alien space probes, which all seem to have been destroyed in some kind of an ancient war. Tor, whose body was never restored and looks now more as an android than her android companion, comes across a promising find, only to be attacked by a functioning probe. A battle ensues, in which they barely prevail, and they end up discovering a large cache of more artifacts, along with a series of tunnels with the remains of real biological aliens and their records explaining the probe war of millions of years ago.

They load their ship with as many samples as they can and head back home, when the action jumps once again, to another unspecified future time. There, Hamish wakes up and quickly figures out that he is stuck inside one of the crystals. He meets some of the original aliens, but also fellow humans, in particular Hacker’s mother, Lacey. Other inhabitants of the crystal are concerned that they aren’t traveling fast enough to escape the Sun’s gravity on their way to other stars. Hamish, acting as the contrarian, is instrumental in figuring out how to access a compartment that is promising to hold some answers. Once opened, they encounter a simulation or Gerard Livingstone, who explains to them that they are not meant to reach other stars but are part of an enormous telescopic array on the outskirts of Kuiper Belt. At that point, the book ends.

The story summary above is not coming close to the entire scope of the narrative. I left out almost all side stories or threads where different characters encounter each other. Even with those, however, the narrative comprises a small portion of the book. The majority of the novel is worldbuilding and Brin’s thoughts on current social, economic, political and environmental issues, and their implications for the near future. The first “book” in this novel, which revolves around the discovery of the alien artifacts is particularly full of ideas about the near future, extrapolated from current trends. In particular, mankind’s obsession with the Internet and social media, decreasing attention span and zoning out, as well as the copious use of augmented reality sound so real it’s scary. The smart mob idea is intriguing and very plausible. In addition, Brin is digging deep into environmental issues, especially recycling and trash disposal. To load the book with such a vast amount of information, Brin emulates John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar in structure and language. Storylines of the various protagonists alternate, each chapter has a very distinct voice, and frequent expositions are inserted at the beginnings or ends of the chapters. The language may be a little easier to digest than Brunner’s, but the effect is almost the same: a dense prose that threatens to overwhelm the reader.

I enjoyed this change of pace from my usual reads, especially techno-thrillers by Neal Stephenson (who may have found some inspiration in Existence) and environmental science fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi (whom Brin may have found inspiring). Unfortunately, the second “book” changed the style so much that it felt like reading an entirely different novel. The narrative is a simple linear space opera, with very little of the philosophizing Brin displayed before. It still tries to maintain a structure similar to the first part, with alternating chapters from three points of view, but there is very little disconnect between the chapters, and reading them is not challenging at all. That let me realize that this section of the novel is relatively shallow, without the feature-rich society or worldbuilding.

The third section, inside the artifact, reads like a short novelette, slapped at the end of the book. It serves just to reintroduce a few of the more prominent characters from the first part and “tie up” their stories by mentioning that they had been, in fact, dead for several decades. The idea of a giant distributed space telescope is nice, but not developed enough for me to care.

Ultimately, Existence is a book of ideas. Ideas that Brin presented in the past as well, such as his obsession with the Fermi paradox, his richly detailed future history of uplift, and others. There are many more ideas, however, and the author is throwing them at a wall and seeing what would stick. I personally believe that many, if not most, of Brins predictions will stick. This abundance of ideas makes the second and third parts of the novel so jarring. However, it’s not only ideas that are missing in the latter parts. Brin abandons story strands and most of his characters without a moment of thought. I, for instance, would have loved to learn more about the secret society of autists and the Neanderthals. Same goes regarding the crash Hacker experienced, and his later attempts to uplift the dolphins. Speaking of the dolphins, they found an artifact as well, and then the entire story thread fizzled out. There are many such examples throughout the book. The characters disappear as well. Bin and his family are there one moment and gone the next. The last I read about him, he was being rescued by Tor, and then nothing. Only a mention that the stone he’s been protecting became one of the most prominent stones a few decades later. His wife and child disappeared when they were hiding from unnamed agents, and the story never even mentions whether they survived or even profited from Bin’s discovery. This wanton disregard for protagonists and side stories left me unfulfilled, and in retrospect convinced me that Existence was indeed a book of disconnected ideas, rather than a coherent story. That, by itself, is not bad, if the reader expects it. However, approaching this novel as a science fiction book may leave many readers disappointed.

Overall, I’d rate Existence as interesting. There are plenty of ideas and predictions that I tend to agree with, and the rest at least made me think. Ostensibly, the novel is about first contact with alien races, but this is getting drowned out by the worldbuilding. Moreover, Brin either collates ideas into one complex narrative or writes almost sterile linear stories, but nothing in between. This establishes clear and jarring boundaries between the three main narrative arcs in this book, and the contrast between these only exposes the lacking qualities in each section. This book is for everybody to dislike, one way or another. I cannot recommend the entire book, but I do believe that almost anyone will find something to their liking. For me, it was the first part; others may find the second or third parts more along their preferences. If you read this book, you will certainly be disappointed at some point, but that is the price I was willing to pay, and you may be inclined to do so as well.

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