Friday, June 22, 2012

Existence, by David Brin

It's been long enough since I read one of David Brin's novels that I had forgotten how much fun he is to read! It's been more than 10 years since I read Earth, The Postman, and some of the Uplift novels. Existence exceeds the accomplishments of those. Set a generation or so in the future, Existence follows the impact on society of the discovery of an artifact from another world. An astronaut collecting space junk runs across a crystal orb that turns out to be a communication device with a message for the people of Earth. As it turns out, there are similar objects on Earth and in orbit already, and they all suddenly have something to say.

Brin follows several plot lines, which eventually weave in and out of each other. For most of the book, I was taken in, and just when I started wondering what was happening to another character, the story would shift to another plot line. Brin's scientific and sociological ideas are challenging and always relevant to the story, but he does make the story his priority. I do admit though, that when, about 3/4 of the way in, he shifts 20 years into the future, and then another 20 years or so, the character and momentum of the story changed a bit too much for my taste. I read to the end, and enjoyed it, but that last 1/4 was less compelling than the first 3/4.

One of Brin's strengths in Existence is the near-future use of data and communication. He takes cell phones and social networking down a very believable path, where people have the internet in their glasses or contacts, where information flows like water, and where everyone can know just about everything about everyone. In fact, what he describes in Existence is what he predicts in his non-fiction book The Transparent Society, in which his answer to the problem of too much surveillance by the state is for people to have the ability to surveil the state in return. When cameras are literally everywhere, on everyone, you can't get away with much. He hints at what that does to morality. I'm reminded of the saying, Integrity is who you are when no one's looking. When everyone is potentially looking at you all the time, you have some serious motivation to act with integrity!

One minor thread in Existence that stood out to me was the experience of individuals with autism. A boy with autism explains, "Genes are wise. Our kind--crippled throwbacks--we did badly in tribes of homosap bullies. Even worse in villages, towns, kingdoms . . . cities full of angry cars! Panicked by buzzing lights and snarly machines. Boggled by your mating rituals an' nuanced courtesies an' complicated facial expressions . . . . An' so we died. Throttled in the crib. Stuck in filthy corners to babble and count flies. We died. . . . Til your kind--with aspie help--came up with this!" [referring to technological devices] When asked why more children with autism are being born: "It is not because of pollution . . . or mutation . . . or any kind of 'plague.' The world is finally ready for us. Needy for us." Wow. If you know anything about autism, about the marginalization and institutionalization of people with autism and other disabilities, this is an exciting passage. The ways technology has helped people with disabilities already boggles the mind, and Brin extends it even further, imagining ways technology can help "the portion of humanity that spent ten thousand tragic years awaiting virtual reality and ai [artificial intelligence] to set them free."

A major theme, of course, is first contact and the exploration of Fermi's Paradox, in which Fermi argued that if there were intelligent life in the universe, we would have heard from them by now. In Existence, Brin answers that what if, with a what if of his own: what if no organic life traveled across space, but only machines sent as envoys? Hmmm. . . . With some sci-fi, you just have to check reality at the door. In Existence, Brin not only presents near-future Earth in a believable, compelling way, but gives the reader believable scenarios for contact with life from other planets.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the free electronic review copy.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I have not read any of his books. One I might want to read.