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.