Existence by David Brin: What Will It take to Survive?

by Mk

in Fiction,Science Fiction

I am a long-time fan of David Brin’s novels, so it’s not surprising that I jumped on the chance to read and review his latest novel, Existence. I was fortunate to be living in San Diego when he published his first novel, Sundiver, Book #1 in the Uplift Saga series. I mention that because at that time, he was a physics professor at San Diego State University and a post-Doctorate fellow at University of California at San Diego. He has won all of the highest awards for science fiction and his novels have consistently made the bestseller lists, and for a reason. He brings all of his scientific knowledge to his novels, lending them a verisimilitude that makes for one hell of a read.

Existence is set in the near dystopian future of 2050. It’s a future that’s only too believable, given the way our misuse of the planet’s resources is going. It asks the questions, “Do all planets make the same fatal mistakes?” and “What will it take for us to survive?

It’s 2050 and in many ways, we haven’t learned anything as a species. We teeter as a planet between hope and despair. The environment has continued its warming trend, with oceans rising and all of the other environmental tragedies predicted unfolding one by one. Scientists work frantically to find solutions while masses of people retreat to a wide variety of religions as a last hope for the planet’s salvation.

“Today, our means of self-destruction seem myriad. (Though Pandora’s Cornucopia will try to list them all!) We modern folk snort at the superstitions of our ancestors. We know they could never really wreck the world, but we can!…Oh we’re mighty. But are we so different from our forebears? Won’t our calamity (when it comes) also be blamed on some arrogant mistake? A flaw in judgment? Some obstinate belief? Culpa nostra. Won’t it be the same old plaint, echoing across the ruin of our hopes?”

Gerald Livingston is an astronaut with a very non-glamorous occupation. In essence he’s a garbage collector, capturing abandoned space debris before it can enter Earth’s atmosphere. During one of his shifts he spots an odd object spinning higher out than the normal garbage’s orbit. Curious about it, he maneuvers into position so he can grab it.

“Whatever the thing was, the time had come to bring it home before collision with other debris caused a cascade of secondary impacts – a runaway process that…forced weather and research satellites to be replaced or expensively armored.”

The only thing is that it’s not garbage. It’s elegant in its simplicity – it’s an alien capsule, an artifact, and it’s trying to communicate. Soon the world’s experts are working hard to decipher what the capsule is trying to tell us, arguing about its message, and frantically searching for its truth in hopes it will provide some key that can be used to help save the planet.

In Shanghai, Peng Xiang Bin and his wife live in a partially submerged mansion while Bin searches nearby submerged structures for salvage he can sell to keep them alive. During one of his forays, he stumbles across an object very similar to the space capsule Livingstone found. Oddly enough, this artifact seems to have a completely different message than the one Livingstone found.

“With a sigh, he put aside his meal and accepted the heavy thing, which was about the size and weight of his own head…maybe a bit longer…Abruptly the wood split along a grainy seam with a splintering crack. Murky water spilled across his lap, followed by a bulky object, so smooth and slippery that it almost squirted out of his grasp.”

Why conflicting messages? Which one is true? Could there be other objects with messages? Are they legit or is there a hidden agenda? What does “Join Us” really mean?

While scientists pour over the artifacts, a Renunciation movement is gathering more force and influence. This movement wants to slow down what they see as out of control technological advancements as a way to save the planet’s rapidly dwindling resources, at least until we’re wise enough to use such advancements more wisely. They aren’t happy with the rapid way social networking and communication has evolved into a truly transparent world society.

These are just two of the many factions presented who are working, often at cross purposes, to try desperately to save the planet and the life on it. And then there are the ever present prophets of doom, who have always been with us but who have gained an ever increasing following as people who see no hopeful way out of our planet’s crisis seek solace in ancient religions in the hopes that some external power will save them.

Existence is such a highly complex and well woven novel that no review can do it justice. What I’ve talked about above are just a few of the threads in this novel. As just a small example, one of the things Brin addresses, using a logical progression in current trends, is a near future autism plague. He also addresses how near-future technology will support people who’ve been born with autism (called aspies in this story) in becoming very valuable contributors to society. I loved that aspect of the novel and it’s only one of a number of such gems tucked away in Existence.

“Genes are wise. Our kind–crippled throwbacks–we did badly in tribes of homosap bullies…Panicked by buzzing lights and snarly machines…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!”

Existence contains a number of threads, each with a set of characters, that begin separately and are then interwoven to create the whole cloth of this amazing novel. For that reason, I’m not going to talk about the characters because I’d just be creating my own novel to do so. Each thread is incredibly interesting alone and as they are woven together, they become even stronger. I had a number of aha moments while reading, as I always have had when reading a David Brin novel. The man is just simply brilliant.

That said, this is not some lofty, preachy treatise of a novel. This is a thrill ride that grabs you by the seat of your pants and doesn’t let go. Brin uses his vast scientific and sociological knowledge in subtle ways that make everything so believable, given the state of our current world. Brin is back and he’s better than ever! If you’re a scifi fan and/or like dystopian novels with an underlying optimistic bent then I hope you like this one as much as I did! I highly recommend it!

Can’t wait to read it?

Existence was published on June 19, 2012, so it should be available from your favorite bookseller below. Just click the button to go there to get it.

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