Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, July 12, 2012

2012: Existence (Brin, David)

"...the humans are up to something." (4/5)

My exposure to David Brin has been limited to five novels: the three Uplift series novels from Sundiver (1980), The Postman (1985), and Earth (1990). So Earth is the most recent novel of Brin's which I've read and given its twenty-two year age, Brin's style still resonates with me--a style which is cleanly composed and indulgently intelligent. The 244,000 word novel is hefty in page count and even loftier in the implementation of the imagination; each page blossoming with careful thought, each idea stewed in applicable thought... the combination invigorates the mind of the reader. With the keen eye of a science fiction aficionado, there's even more thought behind the tome of Existence than the plot and ideas, but there's also a slew of backslapping towards the greats of science fiction (some subtle, some blatant). The title of the review is a quote from the book (490-22) which gave me a chuckle and quite tidily summed up the entire novel.

Inside flap synopsis:
"Telepresence. Global security. Everyone is watching everyone, all the time. Anything interesting draws a flash crowd of ten million eyes. One man in Afghanistan live-tweets a special forces attack, and the world tunes in. Revolutions coordinate online. And that's today! Tomorrow, you'll wear the Web, immersed in augmented overlays. Your aiware glasses will ID, name-tage, and tattle on each person you walk by, in a global village of ten billions souls.

"But instant access to all of human knowledge only widens the gulf between those eager for tomorrow... and those fearing an end to human existence.

"Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector, clearing a hundred-year mess, when we spots something unexpected--a glinting crystal, unmapped and strange. An hour after he captures it, rumors fill Earth's infomesh about an 'alien artifact.'

"Peng Xiang Bin is a shoresteader off the Chinese coast, salvaging homes abandoned to the rising tides. Under one mansion, Bin finds a secret treasure cache. One box bears a warning: Inhabited by demons.

"Tor Povlov is a new-era reporter, a genius at trolling Web and street for exciting and heartbreaking 'you are there' reports. On a cross-country zeppelin tour she documents an America and world fracturing apart, torn between a future promising godlike powers for all... and a beguiling past that might offer the only sanctuary. She does not expect to find herself--and her million-member smart posse--snagged by the biggest story ever.

"From a tribe of beleaguered dolphins to the highest mountain observatory, Existence asks the question: Are we alone in the universe? Does every bright new race stumble over the same pitfalls? The same, entrapping seven hundred ways to fail?

"Thrown into this maelstrom of worldwide shared experience and tension over human destiny, the Artifact is a game changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate... but for good or ill? The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity."


With the book's own synopsis covering nearly the entire plot, I have little more to add to it. However, the book is awkwardly split into three notable time periods:

(1) Parts 1-6 [pages 7-420] revolve around Earth's reaction to the artifact found in Earth's orbit. There are actually two crystal artifacts found and both tell different stories about their history in the system, in the galaxy. Collaboration is needed to filter the truth from the lies, a tricky process when dealing with alien intelligences. There is open hostility towards the alien probe but there is also open, progressive dialogue with it in an attempt to learn what is needed. Unfortunately, the probe is unwilling to divulge any technological information, an earlier promise which was conveyed through the discoverer, Gerald Livingston. The personal message, however, does not apply to everyone. Revelation after revelation, human begin to understand the true nature of the probe.

(2) Part 7 [pages 421-508] shifts its timeframe tens of years after the discovery of the probe. For want of limiting spoilers, I may simply add that the once Earth-based plot shifts, like the timeframe, beyond the touch-base of Earthly domain. It's an uncomfortable transition. The idea of the second plot is wonderfully interesting but a little too action-packed, yet feels artificially inserted into the flow of the entire novel. Brin admits in the acknowledgments section that an earlier version of the adventure in this section was previously published in the 1980s under the title "Lungfish." So, there's little doubt why the first and second section feel like stitch-up story!

(3) Part 8 [pages 509-553] takes another leap into the future, yet another gap which leaves the reader uncomfortable. Like section two, the third plot is wonderful in its ideas of hard science and the importance to the greater plot. When Brin states that "...the humans are up to something" (490-22), he really goes all out with what humanity will possibly be capable in the future. Where the aliens races found in the crystal were clever in their own right, humanity finds that curiosity won't be the trait that kills them; rather, it'll be the trait that propels them above the technological plain above all other galactic races.

Studded throughout section one, Brin prints excepts from a fictional books in the book's history, the most notable is Pandora's Cornucopia, which reads like Brin's fascination with all that could go wrong that leads to Earth's demise: "...our means of self-destruction seem myriad" (13): "Surviving as a technological civilization is like crossing a vast minefield [...] too many mistakes and pitfalls lie in wait--bad trade-offs or ineludiable paths of self-destruction" (345).

Besides Pandora's Cornucopia highlighted between chapters, there are other tasty orts of perspective from the "Toralyzer," quotes from Professor Noozone, news briefs, dialogue from the Scanalyzer (à la Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar) quotes from other fictional sources, and even quotes from modern sources. These perspectives lighted upon the nuances of the plot are more relevant that Brunner's Stand on Zanibar, which had a plethora of data and snippets to overwhelm this reader. Brin's perspective additions were pertinent to the greater picture he was trying to paint within.

In the introduction, I mentioned the backslapping performed throughout the novel towards science fiction greats (which I'll soon address), but Brin also dips his metaphorical toes into the waters of modern thinkers and morals: Ralph Nader's environmentalism, Adam Smith's moral sentiments, anti-technological Luddism, and Ted Kaczynski's neo-Luddism. Brin also refers to other scientists: Carl Sagan, Akimasa Nakamura, and Allen Tough; other author's ideas: Brunner's Scanalyzer, Charles Stross's Singularity Era, and Kim Stanley Robinson's shying away from extremes; and modern references to Paul the Octopus of 2010 World Cup fame (351-355) and cheeky nudge towards Charlton's Heston's role in Planet of the Apes (1968).

The real geeky delight found in Existence is when it comes to blatant and subtle references to other science fiction authors and their respective works, some great, some obscure. For the sake of science fiction history, I'll recognize the novels below, but if this isn't your field of interest then you might as well pass this section up:
Greg Bear's Slant (1998) [p. 64]
Isaac Asimov's I, Robot (1950) [p. 96]
Frederik's Pohl The Cool War (1981) [p. 142]
Niven & Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye (1974) [p. 218, 489]
George Orwell's 1984 (1949) [p. 246]
Iain Banks' The Business (1999) [p. 284]
H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) [p. 286]
Pierre Boulle's Monkey Planet (1963) [p. 286]
Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia (1975) [p. 286]
John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968) [p. 401]
Isaac Asimov's Foundation (1951) [p. 431]
James Blish's They Shall Have Stars (1956) [p. 489]
Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide (1979) [p. 490]

One most notable backslaps is with Iain Banks' The Business. In a Scanalyzer sequence, a person using the pseudonym of Hagar describes a scene at the Holy Kaaba which is beginning to glow because of the meteorite its made from... the aliens begin to wake up to the fact that another crystal has been found on Earth. This is the exact scenario which is found in a fictional movie plot in The Business, which Jebbet Dessous outlines. A small tribute to Banks... or just a coincidence?


Even including all the geek-dom wonderfulness and the opinion that each section, in itself, is a great read, ultimately the three section don't mesh together very well. I would have loved to have seen the first section have a conclusion in its own timeframe, rather than having to jump decades at a time to some far-flung conclusion. The first 420 pages are captivating and rightly deserve five stars for the detail and effort within, but the follow-up detachment is disappointing.

Existence could quite possibly be the best subjective SF novel of 2012, a close contender with Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth and the future releases of Iain M. Banks' The Hydrogen Sonata (October 4, 2012) and Peter Hamilton's Great North Road (September 27, 2012). Nothing this year has really astounded me, but many parts of Existence surely had be pleasurably wallowing between the viscous pages of Brin's tour de force.

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