DATARAMA

Existence

October 5, 2014
David Brin

Unfortunately, I haven't exactly been impressed with what I've read by Brin so far — particularly those of his works that for incomprehensible reasons get hailed as great science fiction masterpieces. However, he also writes really interesting blog posts in which he absolutely nails everything that's good and right about science fiction. So why did his books suck so much?

Well… it occurred to me that the Brin I've read has all been his 80's stuff, so perhaps my judgment of him hasn't really been fair. And so I went into his most recent work, Existence with a combination of dread (please, please, Mr. Brin, can we have a book in which you don't plant demented images of a chimpanzee lap dance or dolphin sex predators in my already tortured mind? I code in JavaScript, I have enough eldritch horrors stealing my sleep already!) and curiosity.

This one, however, is actually good.

It does have its flaws. Stylistically, Brin's writing hasn't changed much since Uplift: Most of the characters think and speak as if they have cybernetic thesaurus implants, and he sure likes him some exclamation marks!!! Some of the names are hard to take seriously (they had a nuclear terrorism event, and named it Awfulday?). More substantially, nearly the first third of the book is basically a giant intro, which seems to primarily exist to deliver exposition on the future world. There are entire chapters, in fact, entire subplots, that seem to have no bearing on the actual story. Like in The Uplift War, we have lots of POV characters, and we switch back and forth between them in quick succession — to such an extent that it's easy to lose track of them. Cliffhangers are overused to the extent that they become a source of annoyance, rather than suspense.

Also. Dolphins. What is it with Brin and those fucking dolphins? There's a subplot involving dolphins that goes nowhere and adds absolutely nothing to the story — it seemed to be in there solely because Brin likes dolphins, or tries to capitalize on his reputation as "that guy who writes sf stories about creepy dolphin sex predators". To be fair, these dolphins didn't do anything creepy (although, hilariously, they did try to teach a human to speak dolphin by rewarding him with fish when he responded correctly), and I'd be a world-class asshole if I assumed them to be creepy sex predators just because they happen to be dolphins in a David Brin story. #notalldolphins

The setting is a quite plausible near-future scenario: It's vaguely post-cyberpunkish, with environmental disaster, nuclear terrorism, all-encompassing media surveillance-from-below (there's no Big Brother state, rather everyone is watching everyone else using Internet-connected eyeglasses, drones and similar gadgetry). There's some space industry, but nobody permanently lives off-Earth. Political factions are constantly squabbling — lurking behind the scenes of the chaotic landscape is a conspiracy of ultra-rich conservatives, poised to slam the brakes on scientific progress that they have no control over (and less understanding of). There's an "autism epidemic", and autistic activists are railing against being classified as defective. Strange genetic experiments are carried out by both companies, private researchers and political activists. The world has been utterly consumed by social networking.

But on the other hand, people are flying Zeppelins, so there's that.

It's a world that I can certainly imagine growing from ours. It's also one I'm very, very grateful I don't live in. Into this world comes an alien artifact — an orbital debris collector accidentally finds a little crystal object, containing the uploaded personalities of a community of alien beings. It is the implications of this find that drives the main story of the book and concept of the book.

That story — when it actually gets told — is fantastic. Utterly fantastic. Top-class science fiction. It's difficult to describe much of it without destroying everything with spoilers, but the ultra-condensed version is that it's about the galactic-scale evolutionary competition of intelligence and civilization (and the resolution of the Fermi paradox). It actually does the grandiose title of the book justice; it gives an extremely imaginative and detailed vision of the cycle of "life" (or, rather, existence) of technological civilizations — including how these can self-destruct, or indeed how they can conceptually exist forever. Particularly intriguing is that it primarily focuses on the implications of the means by which civilizations (and even individuals) can maintain perpetual existence.

The final third of the book primarily concerns teams of xenoarchaeologists (including humans, cyborgs, neanderthals and AIs and, thankfully, no dolphins) — exploring the remains of alien civilizations, and beginning the political and scientific process to decide the future of humanity. If this part had comprised the majority of the book and the rest condensed into the intro it feels like it should rightfully have been, I'd have forgiven this book all its flaws and probably considered it among the best sf reads of my year (although it'd probably still be behind Diaspora).

As it is, I can still definitely recommend it. It's a good book. If you slog through the first (boring and meandering) part of it and get to the good stuff, there's a shiny reward for you. It's by far the best Brin I've read so far.

 
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