David Brin has created some of the greatest classics of recent science fiction, including Startide Rising, plus the short stories “The Crystal Spheres” and “Thor Meets Captain America,” the latter of which was the basis of the graphic novel The Life Eaters. So Brin’s first novel in a decade is cause for celebration.
The other good news? Brin’s Existence is bursting with ideas, including near-future tech, first contact with aliens, and the exploration of what it means to be human. It’s the sort of novel that runs the risk of being overstuffed — but Existence pulls it off.
Existence begins with short sections that follow multiple plots, dipping momentarily into different characters’ lives. And jumping from Earth to space, and back. Like John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar it includes fictional non-fiction books that throw out big ideas in micro-lecture form (also, in a nod to Brunner, there are sections entitled “Scanalyzer”). Eventually a handful of plots do shake out from this broad overview. These plots sometimes intersect and sometimes don’t — but when they cross over, it’s always in surprising ways.
It’s the 2050s and the earth is in thrall to “the mesh,” a virtual reality that exists on top of the real world and is viewable through glasses, contacts and eye implants collectively, and punningly, known as ai-ware. This vision of the near future reads as though popular nerd sites were brought to life, minus the zombies and cats, and then tossed in a blender.
Brin has clearly been saving up ideas for the past decade. If something’s ever made a stir on the internet, it’s in here: micropayments, smart mobs, universal internet-provided reputations, seasteading governments, ad hoc scientists, the “Age of Amateurs”, bioluminescent tattoos, Disney themeparks, dirigibles, memes, Von Neumann machines, cryopreserving the rich, SETI, urban reclamation, the phrase “the 99 percent,” behavior modification, Darwinism, vat grown meat, altruism, transparency, the danger of over-specialization, phosphorus shortages, Temple Grandin, biofeedback as a drug, the end of the tyranny of geography, neurodiversity, uncountable doomsday scenarios, resurrecting extinct megafauna, Ayn Rand and psychic octopuses.
Everything is bigger in this world — there are sixty-two U.S. States, thirty-one amendments, 10 estates (The first estate is the super-rich, the tenth is the ais) and thirteen internets. And yet, to the people in Brin’s world, the future still hasn’t arrived: There’s still political infighting and poverty; there are smart computer programs they call A.I.s, but they aren’t really sentient; robots can almost mimic people, but not quite; space travel is still limited, goods are still made in factories and shipped, and people still die.
Brin introduces characters who might very well be at the center of some near-future thriller: There’s Hacker Sander, a trillionaire adrenaline junkie type. There’s Tor Povlov, a daring young investigative reporter who is on the outs with her boyfriend. And then there’s Lacey Donaldson-Sander, Hacker’s mom who supports telescopes searching for extra-terrestrial life. And finally, Hamish Brookeman, a thinly veiled Michael Crichton science-is-scary type novelist (you can tell he’s supposed to be Crichton, because he creates thinly veiled characters based on his political enemies, and offs them in gruesome ways — which is a thinly veiled description of Crichton did to Mike Crowley).
Brookeman is working for the head of the “Renunciation” movement that wants to curb scientific progress. His boss is preparing to meet with trillionaire families that are part of Lacey and Hacker’s clade, which neither of them feels any particular fealty for. The anti-technologists and the clade are on the verge of striking a deal that will end democracy and the enlightenment, in favor of an aristocracy that will tightly control scientific progress. Someone has just poisoned (or cured) a U.S. Senator, making him act like a lunatic on television. A group of autistic people or “Auties” are searching the mesh for something called the Basque Chimera. Hacker goes missing, due to possible sabotage. Tor is injured in a terrorist attack and though she is transformed, she continues her journalistic work.
And all of this intrigue is shaken to the core when astronaut Gerald Livingstone, working on a space-junk cleaning crew, discovers a crystal alien artifact. The object turns out to be filled with the Autonomous Uploaded Personalities of nearly 100 aliens. Other parts of life continue, but first and foremost, the world’s attention is on the Artifact, and the aliens’ message: Join Us.
But things are not that simple. Another crystal has been found and is calling the first group of aliens “Liars!” But this crystal is being held in secret, putting the life of its discoverer, Peng Xiang Bin, in danger. Bin is a Chinese national who wants nothing more than to finish his shoresteading reclamation and achieve citizenship. Though he’s had no formal education, Bin grasps the implications of this second crystal that others do not.
It’s not just a book that could have been a techno thriller about the wealthy putting an end to scientific exploration, or about first contact. It’s also, technically, a post-apocalyptic book in which the apocalypse didn’t really cause that much trouble. The book is filled with disasters. The Mississippi River changed course. Florida has almost disappeared. The Gulf Stream has quit flowing. The supervolcano under Yellowstone erupted, though only a little. The Water Wars, Big Kudzu, the Zheng He disaster, the Big Melt, the Caste Wars, the Soggy Decade, the internet three meltdown — all are just things that happened, that may have killed a ton of people or ruined things, but were not enough to end civilization or stop human progress. China is building a new Great Wall — a sea wall. The Midwest depopulated, as did parts of the South. Looming beyond all of these horrors is Awfulday, some unspecified nuclear disaster. It’s an interesting motif, especially considering the recent debates about the optimism, or lack thereof, in science fiction. Brin is willing to admit, embrace even, the litany of disasters that can and might impact humanity — but a laundry list of disasters cannot win out against humanity.
While all science fiction books are about ideas, this isn’t a book about one big idea. It’s a book full of little ideas. Full enough to burst. There’s coherent worldbuilding, certainly — but it’s a world made almost entirely of ideas, concepts, arguments, and realizations. Not a page goes by without multiple ideas being batted around and explored. No matter what the ideas are.
For instance, Brookeman’s anti-science stance is thoroughly fleshed out. He is one of the more compelling, clever and well-spoken characters. You understand that his anti-authoritarian bent comes down to the sheer cussedness of not wanting to do whatever he is told to do. The arguments he (and Brin) collect, that ruling elites best control technology, that the appearance of meritocracy is enough to make the medicine of oligarchy go down, that we should stop and think about the side effects if technology, are thorough and compelling. Whatever your feelings on the subject, you believe that Brookeman believes what he’s saying. But when we’re presented with this new world of alien artifacts his ideology is revealed as hollow, incapable of rising to the challenges, the way a smart mob or even a dedicated individual can.
Brin’s “just the facts ma’am” prose keeps you delving further into his world, even as the worldbuilding gets more and more out there. The words “ai,” “virt,” “holo,” and “inter” are constantly used as prefixes and suffixes, way more blithely than “i-” or “e-” ever have been in the real world. You’d never describe Brin as a humorous writer, but some moments in the book are too absurd to be anything but laugh-out-loud funny. Like when the dolphins start training a person to speak dolphin, by rewarding him with fish. Or when they ask the psychic octopus about the aliens. The Auties communicate in a sort of dada-ist style poetry, as do the uplifted dolphins. Both of these things will feel familiar to the reader of Startide Rising or the Uplift War books. Other parts of the book will feel familiar to the devoted Brinian as well — parts of several of his short stories have been recycled into Existence. Most notably the short story “Lungfish,” which has been only slightly modified and appears toward the end of the book.
In the last third of the book, the plots narrow down again, to just a couple of storylines: Tor and an android scouring asteroids for alien artifacts left by long ago interstellar travelers, and Gerald and his compatriots traveling to Mars on a survey mission. While these pieces are fascinating, it’s a little disappointing to leave the other characters and stories. Though the book probably would have become 1,000 page monster, had he continued to follow everyone.
The story shrinks again, this time literally, and you finally get a sense of what it is that Brin is doing. The story is about life — though he’s calling it Existence, since not all the characters are alive in a biological sense. It’s all about the chaos and passion of adolescence — the designs we make for our lives when we’re young, before unforeseeable events send us spinning into strange new orbits. It’s about the way the world narrows and focuses, as hobbies turn to avocations, legacies are considered and the afterlife looms. All of which is reflected in the structure of the book: hundreds of frantic pages sometimes covering merely days — and then decades are dispensed with in a single page, and are barely alluded to at all. So many plots and characters — so many possible ways for the story to go — but eventually the important things win out.
Even after we learn the truth behind the crystals and their missions, there is more to understand. The history of the galaxy, which like all history is messy and complex, is floating about our own solar system. The book proposes that there is not one answer to Fermi’s paradox, but hundreds of answers, ranging from the quotidian to the weird. It also proposes that the best way to confront these answers is deeply human: to be creative, diverse, compromising, curious. That to reach Heaven — or something like it — requires that we look beyond ourselves, beyond humanity (all six species of it), and into the universe beyond.