David Brin: Existence

Aug 14, 2015

There’s a lot that can be said about Existence by David Brin. A lot has been said in the reviews on GoodReads; they’re very polarized. Personally, I fall into the excited category, but admit some of the criticisms listed.

What is Existence about? Many things: humankind in the near future, technology growing through every aspect of human activity not necessarily for its benefit, society and governments, fear and hope. To sketch out the plot (or plots) at least a little bit: in not that distant future and after avoiding an apocalypse by a hair’s width the growing human population gets restructured into a cast based system and tries to avoid another catastrophe. The effort is by no means concentrated or directed and resembles a drunkard stumbling down the street while miraculously and obliviously avoiding all the dog presents on the sidewalk. A powerful group pushes for a planet-wide technological downgrade as a way to survive and uses a famous writer/producer/entertainer as a spokesman. A space dustman discovers an alien message in a bottle in a form of a stone and brings it to Earth.

Spoilers ahead

The stone turns out to be a little cryptic for anyone’s liking but it sure stirs things up. Some see it a as hope while others as a threat. Some try to gain knowledge from it, others try to destroy it. More messages are found and gathered. The most accessible by a shoresteader in China. This event throws him into the hands of powerful groups who fight over the stone while his wife is introduced to a group of autistic and Neanderthal children. Fear fuels radical deniers into terrorist acts and nearly kills Tor Pavlov, a journalist and one of the POVs, but leads to her becoming only a mind on the Internet and later an android. A billionaire playboy gets crash lands in an ocean and is saved by a pod of genetically manipulated intelligent dolphins. The stones turn out to be part of an intergalactic meme-like/virus-like colonization on enormous time scale. The end is optimistic, humanity becomes more inclusive and tries to use the good that came from the stones while casting the bad aside. However, everything happens on a background of sleeper machines left in the whole galaxy after a war millenia ago.

Spoilers above

The story is presented on 670 pages (Czech translation, hardcover) split into very short chapters. Brin switches between POVs but almost each chapter is accompanied by an excerpt from a fictional book, interview or discussion as well. These snippets explore and explain the world in more detail and widen the breath of the story. Some readers are annoyed by these backstories; I was fascinated. Admittedly, it gives more space to world building than to characters, but Brin’s vision is fascinating! The character development, or lack thereof, is more worrisome: the characters, including the POVs, are not as developed as we got used to in the genre in recent decades; more knowledgeable people liken in it old sci-fi authors like Asimov, who used the characters only as props to explore an idea, a world or a vision. I didn’t perceive all the characters as completely flat - the number of pages varies greatly - but found that the casting aside of the used characters was disappointing. For example, the whole Hacker’s plot with the dolphins (which in itself is an intriguing concept) doesn’t pay off: the dolphins find one of the artifacts and are referenced in a joke in the last 20-years-in-the-future part. Not really worth it. The last section of the book is shifted by two decades into the future. This casts some of the characters aside completely, gives a different roles to others and introduces new ones for just a few chapters.

Another often criticized aspect of Existence are new words and Brin’s insistence on sticking -ai- into common words. I don’t find this particularly exciting, but it didn’t turn me off either. I have to congratulate the translator Jakub Němeček for his excellent work. He took liberties and adapted the original English text to Czech with grace. He tracked the etymology of made up words to find reasonable equivalents and completely avoided anglicized Czech, a common plague of translations. Even though Existence wasn’t as linguistically daunting as for example Miéville’s Embassy Town, it must have been hard and he did a wonderful job.

Brin’s future world is a pretty bleak place: starvation, ecological devastation, food shortages, terrorism, class system etc. That isn’t anything unique on its own - look at The Windup Girl which gives a similar vibe as Bin’s plotline with one major difference - ubiquity of technology. I’m not completely sure how to feel about this point. On one hand Bacigalupi’s world seems more logical: get rid of luxury and stick to necessities like food. On the other hand, one can argue that technology is a necessity even now (what would I do without the Internet? really, what?) and its propagation into every aspect of our lives 24/7 is just a logical extension. In any case, it is an important aspect of the story and it wouldn’t work otherwise. This contradictory setup of the world, in my view, doesn’t warrant the sudden change and unity depicted in the last section of the book. No matter how interesting the concept, I found it unbelievable, that humanity would suddenly band together to one goal and become more inclusive at the same time.

In summary, I can recommend Existence to anyone who likes big ideas and isn’t scared by pessimistic visions of future. The grand scheme of things, lucky avoidance of tragedies, the insignificance of a single (only?) species just becoming aware of galaxy-spanning war fought for eons; curiosity and desire to better than our predecessors make for an interesting read.