Existence by David Brin
Posted 02 July 2012 - 04:12 PM
After almost twenty years as an important and relatively prolific voice in the hard SF field, David Brin dropped out of the genre in 2001 after the publication of Kil'n People. He's remained active, penning non-fiction and the occasional short story as well as working in comics and doing consulting work, but no more novels have appeared, either stand-alone or in his Uplift universe. Now he's back with Existence, a self-contained, epic SF novel about mankind, our place in the cosmos, why we seem to be alone and where our destiny lies. Certainly if you're going to mount a comeback, there's no better way than doing so with your most ambitious work to date.
Existence revisits the Fermi Paradox, that familiar problem of how, given the sheer size and age of our galaxy, it is implausible that intelligent life has not arisen elsewhere and left visible traces of its presence. Brin's solution to the paradox is both intelligent and, initially, deeply depressing: that the minefield of threats that each race must survive to reach the starts is so extensive that very, very few make it. The novel's opening sections dwell deeply on the threats to mankind's own existence, from climate change and the threat of nuclear war to the possible 'threat' of super-advanced AI. The discovery of the alien 'guidestones' then provides a possible answer, but one which is not to our liking.
The novel unfolds on a large scale, with characters in America, in undersea habitats in the Gulf of Mexico, in floating bases above drowned Pacific island nations and in ruined mansions in Shanghai having their own part to play in the global mystery that unfolds. Our protagonists include a spoiled rich kid who races suborbital rockets for fun, a Chinese sailor who lives on the salvage he dredges out of the sea, a hotshot reporter caught up in a horrendous disaster and a self-obsessed, politically-motivated novelist who slums it as a Hollywood script writer (any similarities to the late Michael Crichton being presumably coincidental). Brin's skills with characterisation - something that set him apart from his fellow 'Killer Bs' back in the day (the Gregs Bear and Benford) - are on full display here as he develops his characters through the unexpected events that engulf them whilst keeping his thematic and philosophical musings integrated with the plot.
In fact, this is what sets Brin's novel apart from Kim Stanley Robinson's recent and equally epic portrait of the future, 2312. Where Robinson seems to have wanted to create a mood piece and then felt compelled to tack on an undercooked thriller plot, Brin keeps his plot, characters and musings all on track simultaneously, developing them all in tandem. This is helped by Brin's prose which has always been above average for hard SF, but in Existence hits new heights. His skill to move between harsh pessimism (the universe is cold and empty and we are a fluke who will soon splutter and die) and tremendous optimism (we can do whatever we want with the universe, if we try) is particularly impressive.
For a novel more than 500 pages long in hardcover, Existence has verve and pace. It's hard SF but done with a light touch and a sense of humour. It's not set in the Uplift universe but Brin drops in parallel-universe versions of some elements of that setting just for fun (those who enjoy Brin's depiction of futuristic dolphins will find some more that on display here). Some of Brin's moments of whimsy backfire - 'Awfulday' seems like an odd nickname for the anniversary of a terrorist attack - and some plot elements feel left behind when several time-jumps take place late in the novel, propelling us decades further into the future. But these are less than niggles.
Existence (****½) moves between being exuberant and fun and serious and contemplative (even maudlin). It asks big questions and proposes a variety of intelligent answers but doesn't resort to over-simplicity. It's definitely as good a comeback as we could have hoped for from Brin. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Posted 02 July 2012 - 04:38 PM
Posted 02 July 2012 - 04:53 PM
Posted 02 July 2012 - 05:09 PM
Well, it's more that I have so many partially read books around me I'm beginning to feel like I'm pulling a Gatsby.
Posted 02 July 2012 - 09:32 PM
Posted 03 July 2012 - 12:33 AM
Okay, I'm sold.
Posted 03 July 2012 - 05:49 PM
Anybody know of novels that feel like Earth or John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar? The latter is one of my favorite books, and Earth is like its progeny.
Posted 04 July 2012 - 06:34 AM
Edited by Serious Callers Only, 04 July 2012 - 06:35 AM.
Posted 04 July 2012 - 11:08 AM
Looking forward to this one.
I always enjoy Brin's books, Kiln was amazingly fun, I thought.
Posted 04 July 2012 - 04:25 PM
And turned a apparent turn-coat event completely pointless.
Not to mention the dolphins.
It seems vast parts of the narrative were not exicised by the editor when they should have, being more digressions for the author to toy with some (irrelevant) character, idea or red herring.
I mean it's neat and all, but please, some plot relevance if you will.
Edited by Serious Callers Only, 04 July 2012 - 04:33 PM.
Posted 05 July 2012 - 05:54 AM
Posted 05 July 2012 - 06:23 AM
What?! It's an awesome book. I read it with chills up my spine.
Posted 05 July 2012 - 06:51 AM
'Yeah, that was a tense time. Everything worked out though'.
It happens again at the end with Seeker.
Edited by Serious Callers Only, 05 July 2012 - 06:51 AM.
Posted 06 July 2012 - 12:15 AM
This is where I am right now:
How in the name of Bahamut is this spine-chilling?
Posted 06 July 2012 - 09:00 AM
How in the name of Bahamut is this spine-chilling?
Dude, it's Datepalm. I'm surprised she didn't quote sections of that book in the erotica thread. ;-P
Posted 06 July 2012 - 03:13 PM
Seriously, I did really enjoy the book. Taken paragraph by paragraph I suppose it can be a bit dry, but I felt like it really managed to build up a sort of sense of...coherence or a statement or a sense of history that was genuinely epic, from the title on down. (Whether this is a good thing to do is another question, since I suppose it's more of a case of skilled writing than some inherent logic of history, but it was interesting to consider whether there was such a thing.) And some of it I really did think was just amazing reading, like the first few chapters about the immediate aftermath of the war, or the end of the cold war.
Posted 06 July 2012 - 04:59 PM