Existence by David Brin
Existence is playing with some big ideas, as you would expect from a book by David Brin (TOR, 2012). Against a fascinating array of problems, the world is having to come to terms with major physical and ethical problems. Just how far should we use technology in protecting selected communities from inundation following global warming when the majority are marginalised at best? Similarly, if there was a way to enhance human intelligence, should this possibility be restricted to the already elite? What would the consequences be if such a development was released to the general population? Then we come to the old chestnuts of artificial intelligence and uplift. If machines did become more self-ware and we created intelligence in “animals”, how should those with access relate to them? For a single world, such questions would be of major importance, but if an alien artifact was discovered. . . Just think of a bottle washing up on our Earthly shores except, instead of it containing a written message, it could talk. That really would be a game-changer, a disrupter of the status quo.
This book describes an Earth on which global warming has done its work, leaving chaos for the majority. The rich survivors enjoy the benefits of sophisticated technology, both physical and intellectual with computers approaching levels of artificial intelligence. Some elites live in fear the people may get tired of merely surviving. A revolution is not impossible, if not by the downtrodden masses, then by the prospective AIs. All this begs the question, just how many threats does it take to terminate human existence? It could be wars or some disease. Or, if we could have our intelligence enhanced, would we stand a better chance of extending our existence? What are the dangers on the way to transhumanity?
We start off in upper orbit where Gerald Livingston, a garbage man, picks up the space debris that may someday collide with a spacecraft on a vital mission. Except he lays his “hand” on something rather more interesting than mere rubbish. On Earth and despite the protests of environmentalists, there’s a space launch for what’s politely called orbital hopping (missing the dangerous rubbish, of course) but that goes wrong when Hacker Sander and another go missing — there’s the option of interspecies assistance coming into play, if there was an uplift project, that is. Tor Povlov, investigative reporter, pursues the news wherever it may be found, while Hamish Brookeman lines up to see the Senator with the intention of injecting a little sense into the man (actually a man he later identifies as Roger Betsby performs the injection and he has an ingenious, if somewhat self-righteous motive for this physical invasion). Then the impoverished Chinese shoresteader from Gateways finds a second artifact. That’s two different alien voices for Earth to listen to, except getting them together in the same room would require an unusual spirit of openness and co-operation between the different self-interested groups. All this assumes, of course, there are only two artifacts. What if there was more to the myths about crystal balls capable of prophesy or gemstones showing fantastic scenes from alien worlds? What if there were hundreds, no thousands, of these things waiting to be found? Then there might be an alien tower of Babel with each artifact saying something different. That would be disconcerting. Why might there be different messages? Well, the artifacts could be sent at different times by different civilisations with different agendas. Who knows in what order they might be found or deliver their messages.
Some of Brin’s set pieces are highly effective. The attack on the zeppelin is terrific. More interestingly, the text is littered with wonderful capsule thoughts, like, “Tomorrow welcomes the bold! And next Tuesday greets the gullible!” It’s true that some of it is a little preachy in its tone. After all it’s difficult to discuss where we came from and where we might be going without getting into religious and philosophical debate mode from time to time. Taken overall, Existence is a fascinating story but, for my taste, told at a slightly excessive length. No matter how interesting the many discussion are, they do become slightly repetitive and slow things down. That said, it does come to a rather different ending than the one I expected. There’s a fundamental cleverness about how all the key personalities fit together and are gradually manoevred so they are all in the right place at the right time to get a proper perspective on the past. Even the alien who acquires the name Om manages to find an appropriate role to play in planning for the future. That outcome, in particular, has a rather pleasingly ironic feel.
So here comes the decision for you readers. I’ve been a big fan of David Brin’s writing from his first book and, in scope, the spirit of this plot matches the scale of the earlier work. At times, I found it slightly heavy going but, with the benefit of hindsight, I can say Existence is a genuinely enjoyable experience. My advice for what it’s worth is that, if you want to read some science fiction by a major author with some provocative ideas in play, you should pick this up. If you prefer something more superficial and action-oriented, give this a miss.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.