Existence

Existence
David Brin

The first review I read of Existence didn’t rate it very highly. This is odd, because most of the reviews I’ve seen since have been beside themselves with joy; and unfortunate, because this opinion dampened my enthusiasm for one of this year’s biggest new books. (I won’t say who, because I like him personally, even if I think he was wrong this time.) There were no real world ramifications however, since the line for a library copy wasn’t responsive to my feelings and it took quite awhile for my turn to roll around anyway.

Three things stand out immediately. I remember reading a blog post by or interview with Brin some time ago, saying that he would never again write a back-breakingly thick tome like Glory Season. He may want to rethink that pledge, because Existence is quite the doorstop. The second, related, reaction is that Brin hasn’t published a novel in many years. The ideas must have been bottled up for quite some time in his head, because they come out in a barely contained torrent. In many ways, this is a culmination of his thinking and agitating for the past decade or so; compressing this much into a single novel seems to require the massive word count. Finally, the timing and setting of the novel are going to spark inevitable comparisons with Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, though they are very different books. More on all of these later, after some background and technical summaries.

Existence takes place over several unspecified years around 2050. The Earth is more or less what any scientifically literate person can expect, in terms of climate change, technological advancement, population, and whatnot. Rising ocean levels and global warming have inflicted the expected havoc and people are facing resource depletion, though science has advanced just enough to hold Armageddon at bay. Just barely. Politically, Brin’s society requires more of a leap, though not nearly as large a leap as some of us might hope. He envisions a global stratification based more on class than on race or gender, where we have taken several steps forward with intolerance problems, but perhaps a few steps back on economic equality. The world is loosely controlled by the very richest of the rich, where families measure their wealth by the numbers coming after the decimal point of the 99th percentile. (Lest one think Brin supports a full-born Illuminati style conspiracy, at least one of the characters wonders aloud if the people supposedly running the show have nearly as much power as they think they do.) The book is written in a multi-perspective third person, with interludes excerpted from “books,” “news reports,” and other miscellanea. Again, this reminds the reader of 2312.

Brin is an activist writer, something that is clear to anyone who follows his online persona. This implies a political agenda, which Brin has, but politics is only a part of his grander philosophy. Things are partially summed up by the political axis he creates, assessing resistance to technological progress and the tendency towards oligarchy as the respective x and y. He has little use for the current US Left-Richt dichotomy, arguing instead that the true fulcrums of policy are the older, deeper rivalries of the Enlightenment – Romanticism and Feudalism – Egalitarianism. (He names this partially after the Satsuma clan, the major source of leadership in Meiji Japan, because this axis frames their policies accurately.) Brin readers will notice the relationship to his oft-discussed definitions of science fiction and fantasy. I don’t fully share Brin’s opinion of our innate longings for feudalism, though I agree that this is a far better way to view public policy than the current US split.

Existence is more than just political navel-gazing. Brin’s activism extends to the genre itself; he uses this book as part of a broader call to action to the SF community. Several authors, among them Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson, have called for SF to regain its status as a hopeful, encouraging genre, with books that once again inspire a generation of scientists to go out and fix problems. I don’t know if any other genre spends so much time talking about itself and bemoaning its own demise, but in this case I support the introspection. I appreciate the aims of literary SF and Mundane SF, enjoy a lot of the darker stuff out there, and am fully sympathetic to those who respond to the last decade or so with pessimism. Like Brin I remain a futurist though, convinced that we can overcome (or at least survive) the impending challenges if we create a framework that lets science attack our problems. Books that promote the futurist agenda, like Existence and 2312, are an important part, maybe my favorite part, of science fiction.

Back to the story. Brin is firmly in the Hard SF camp, and Existence is overflowing with ideas. He careens through information technology, environmental science, rocketry, transportation, energy, and astronomy, while dealing with geopolitics, economics, journalism, crowd sourcing, and a host of other topics. Brin is clearly keeping up with current technology, rather than relying on the tropes that carried SF in the 80s, when he first came on the scene with the other Three B’s. (Benford, Brin and Bear.) This is clear with his depiction of the internet and augmented reality, but also in the environmentalism, space travel limitation, and machine consciousness. All of these new ideas labor in service of that most classic of SF themes, First Contact, building a bridge between the current generation of new writers and the Golden Age. The Fermi Paradox is also tied integrally to the narrative, with the answers Brin proposes to both hoary tropes wildly inventive. This particular future is far cry from the bright colors and optimism of the Uplift series, but Brin retains his flair for storytelling. It is this storytelling where Existence really breaks from 2312, despite thematic similarity: Robinson is a painter, creating a series of scenic vistas, while Brin is a Hard SF yarn spinner.

My only real complaint with the book is its balance from start to finish. Existence to me felt more like a book and a half, with the first volume concluding neatly, but the second not quite fleshed out enough to stand on its own. It’s not enough to detract from the book’s impact, though I would have preferred to hear more of the later story. Aside from that, this is Brin at the height of his considerable powers. He will never be a lyricist or poet, but this is Hard SF taken to its logical conclusion.

In a year of heavyweight contenders, Existence has to stand near the top of the 2012 SF pile. It is ambitious, outspoken, stimulating, and entertaining. My review is barely scratching the surface of what’s on offer. There is a character that some think is Bring inserting himself, but canny readers will call The Redemption of Michael Crichton. There are zeppelins. There is a nod to Startide Rising. There are a thousand and one ways humanity could extinguish itself, and possible answers to most of them. Brin largely delivers with his years in the making call to action that is equal parts entertaining, visionary, and inspiring. I don’t know if it will win the Hugo, but it will be on the ballot if I have any say in the matter.

Rating: The Houston Dynamo for two reasons. First, at time of writing, the Dynamo are in the finals for the MSL Championship. Second, everything is bigger in Texas.

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15 thoughts on “Existence

  1. I admired this novel for its scope and its Big Ideas, but I strongly disliked the way Brin executed it. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is comparable in terms of its scope and solid hard SF goodies, but where KSR delivers a beautifully paced, symmetrically structured tale full of lyrical prose, Brin just kinda throws all his ideas and characters at the reader as if he’s emptying a bucket. Some of it he used before, some of it just doesn’t go anywhere – and some of it is brilliant, but taken all together, I felt it was unbalanced, unstructured, and way too fragmented. Which, I guess, is three ways of saying the same thing: that it’s a mess. I don’t think a debut author would have gotten this book through the editorial process without significant rewriting, but you probably get a lot more leeway and a lot less editorial pushback if you’re one of the former Killer B’s.

    • I think someone just spilled the beans for which review I was talking about. :d
      I certainly understand your viewpoint, though I obviously felt differently. I don’t claim to be an educated, discriminating reader though, in fact I’m an archetypal Hard SF fan, so I suspect we have different standards for books.
      I’m also likely more responsive to the politico-economic frameworks in these books, but that once again goes back to training and vocation.

  2. Mm. I used to read 50% SF, 50% fantasy, but it seems to lean a bit more towards fantasy lately, for some reason. It all depends on the assignments. In either case, I don’t have a problem with hard SF, as long as it’s well-written hard SF. e.g. there’s a hard SF novel in my top 3 of 2012!

    (sorry for dominating the comments section of this review. I guess I got such strong reactions to my review of this novel that I’m still eager to discuss it)

    • Worry not! As you may have noticed, the readership here is pretty quiet, so I am happy to have someone to talk to. You’re also forcing me to sharpen my own ideas of the book and making me a better writer, so I appreciate the free lessons.

  3. Hey Two Dudes,

    I’ve been out of town for a few days (and survived internet detox!) and am just now catching up on the conversation between you and Stefan. You are welcome and invited to comment on my blog anytime.

    My favorite part of Existence was all the SFnal ideas, especially the twist of how to send messages through the galaxy without depending on faster than light technology. There were incredible ideas on every single page, discussions on how humanity has escaped it’s own demise. Existence is one of the more optimistic novels I’ve read in a while.

    Stefan puts it more elegantly than I managed to, and he knows I agree completely with his review, we both found Existence to be a muddled mess. I wonder if the response in the SF community might have been different had Brin’s timing against 2312 been different.

    Ten years ago I would have considered myself to be a Hard SF fan above all else. Perhaps I have grown out of it?

    • Thanks! I will no doubt visit and make a (small, polite) ruckus on your blog once in awhile. I’m also planning on diving into the Vintage SF Extravaganza next month.
      As for the book, I’m trying to decide why the parts that annoy you and Stefan don’t bother me at all. I suppose that I took things as a pastiche used for illustrative, rather than narrative purpose. This may just be background and training (shaping disparate and conflicting sources into a poly sci narrative vs. lit criticism), or may just be my willingness as a reader to be carried along willy-nilly, missing critical parts when I’m looking around wondering if my bus stop is coming up. It’s definitely something to think about.

      • Vintage SF will be a blast, I know you’ll get a kick out of.

        There have been other books I’ve read that were more illustrative and I loved them. I wish I knew why those books worked for me, and this one didn’t. Single POV is my favorite, but I don’t usually mind multiple POVs or rambling stories. I’m too close to my own tastes to know when something will work for me and when it won’t. And I’ve been on the other side of it as well, where I instantly become a huge fan of a certain author or style, and others don’t care for it at all, and none of us can explain why.

  4. After reading this book I feel like the itch I’ve had since reading A Fire upon the Deep (Vinge) and Speaker for the Dead (Scott-Card) has been scratched. It was then followed up with a warm mind bath that scratched the rash of itches that would have affected my imagination tomorrow and years into the future. It has a truly gripping story that pummels the mind with new questions.
    I would agree that the second half could be extended, the dolphin story seemed to be forgotten at a crucial moment and towards the end the time-jumps forward occasionally left out explanations.
    Still, I have rarely had so much raw future speculation to let my imagination run with. After reading this book dinner conversations could get very much more interesting.

  5. Pingback: Books of 2012 « Two Dudes in an Attic
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