Hardcover review copy courtesy of the Publisher, Tor
David Brin is one of the biggest names in American Science Fiction. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, his books – especially those set in The Uplift Universe – were receiving awards, award nominations, and hitting genre bestsellers. His output has slowed down over the past 15 years or so, though he’s been quite visible participating in a few high-profile shows on The History Channel and The Science Channel. In 2002, he published Kil’n People with Tor after many years with Bantam Spectra and in 2012, his second novel since switching publishers – Existence is among the most anticipated SF novels of the year for reasons at which I’ve just hinted. For myself, this is the second David Brin novel I’ve read after The Postman, but it most definitely will not be my last.
The novel begins about a half a century in the future in a world not too dissimilar to our own, save for a slightly changed US, and a world hit with a destructive nuclear event. The Mesh, which is one of the many internets us viewable all times with special glasses like Google Glasses and AI is an every day fact of life. Although the world has suffered catastrophes, like the aforementioned war and a melting of polar ice caps, and changed drastically, Existence is not a dystopian novel even if it is set in a somewhat post-apocalyptic environment. Early on, one of the points Brin makes through his characters and the world-building is that people survive and persevere. Though bad things have happened, people will continue on and adjust. It is both a novel of ends and beginnings, a novel of first contact and a novel that approaches an answer to the question partially framed by the Fermi Paradox “Are we alone in the universe?”
Brin casts a fairly wide net of viewpoint characters in Existence, the first of which is where the events of the novel are set in motion - Gerald Livingstone, a space garbage collector, happens upon a strange crystal that is much more than it initially appears. When he hauls it in, he and the world come to realize it is an alien artifact that allows humanity realize it is not alone in the universe.
Peng Xiang Bin a Chinese man who scavenges the drowned coasts finds something equally mysterious and alien. Hamish Brookeman, an author with a bombastic personality is cast as not quite a villain, but one who seems opposed to what the alien artifacts represent. Hacker Sander, a rich boy without purpose who crashes into the ocean and is saved by dolphins, provides a point of reference for humanity’s own god complex and meddling with the advancement of lesser intelligences. Tor Povlov is a journalist who gets injuring in the process of a heroic deed early in the novel only to become a more prominent and important figure in the dissemination of facts about humanity’s relationship with the outer universe.
To divulge more of the twists and turns the plot takes from the initial artifact discovery would rob the reader of the novel’s enjoyment. I will say; however, the paths upon which Brin set his characters, and indeed Earth and Humanity in Existence were surprising and believable.
What worked very well for me in making this a believable future was Brin’s method of relaying the world through his characters not in huge dumps of information, though some elements of the ‘current’ world were divulged in sizeable chunks, but rather the inferences and casual mentions of the past events as if it were common knowledge.
Part of this world-building is achieved through snippets cushioning each relatively short chapter. These snippet chapters range in content from debates about the artifact between two prominent figures, journalistic entries from Tor, and other such passages to give an authentic feel to the world. For my reading sensibilities, this structure worked well to impart authenticity and keep the pace of the novel at a nice level. The structural element that was a bit jarring was the abrupt leap in time in some sections, particularly from the first ¾ or so of the novel to the chapters that conclude the novel.
While Brin did cast a wide net and painted the story and a grand epic canvas, at times I felt a tighter focus may have led to a greater enjoyment for me. Maybe there was just one too many characters in the novel, but I honestly can’t saw which character should be pulled.
In all; however, those negative elements are very minor compared to how much I enjoyed this remarkable novel. I would consider Existence to be a triumphant, epic Science Fiction novel on many levels. It stayed with me after I set it aside for the day, continues to simmer in my mind now that I’ve finished reading it, and has opened up a gateway to Brin’s novels I’d wanted to enter for a while. Brin achieved an excellent gestalt of character, big ideas, and narrative energy. Existence is my top SF novel of 2012 and I recommend it without hesitation.
© 2012 Rob H. Bedford
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