Existence is David Brin’s first novel in some time and while I’ve long bemoaned his absence, it’s hard to complain about the time he takes if this is what he ends up with. Existence is a big novel, bursting with ideas and filled to the rim with characters and plot. If not all of them play out fully; well, I’ll take that flaw happily considering the pay off here.
The novel is set in the next century in a world changed by a host of events, many of which come to us merely as evocative names or merest snippets of reference: Awfulday, major climate change, a (relatively) minor eruption of the supervolcano in Yellowstone, rivers shifting courses, the “Soggy Decade,” the kudzu disaster, the Zheng Me disaster, and so on. So many disasters, in fact, both natural and manmade, have befallen humanity that one wonders just how the species has managed to make it. Which is, it turns out, one of the themes of Existence — the way humanity (and by the end that word will be defined extremely broadly as is hinted at by the title) just keeps chugging along despite all the obstacles — many of which are cataloged in a series of interchapers — in its path. And for good measure, we’re also offered some evidence that the vast majority of intelligent species out there don’t make it, save in one unexpected fashion (and boy, have they got a product for you… ).
So yes, we’ve got some alien First Contact going on here. And some post-almost-apocalyptic stuff going on. We’ve got a technologically connected world filled with layers everywhere one looks (as in “augmented reality” layers), “crowd” reporting, AIs, avatars, and “smart mobs.” We’ve got class warfare, social criticism, Singularity, media criticism, terrorists, dirigibles and space stations, robots, talking parrots, psychic octopi, and transhumans. And for fans of Brin’s other work, we even meet some “Uplifted” dolphins.
Structurally, we have multiple points of view, some of which we don’t know the source of for some time after we’ve met the voice. The characters span a Chinese peasant trying to reclaim drowned land, an American astronaut, a nose-for-the-right-story journalist, a few trillionaires on differing sides of the class war, and Michael Crichton (OK, we don’t have Michael Crichton, but if the guy we do have isn’t Brin’s version of him I’ll feed myself to a raptor).
We have a host of non-narrative and semi-narrative segments (ones that aren’t actually connected to the plot or only slightly so), such as the aforementioned interchapters on all the possible tools the universe has to kill us off, via something called “Pandora’s Cornucopia.” Others include historical analysis in “The Movement Revealed,” and an examination of AI from a work entitled “The Blackjack Generation.” Brin also switches styles to offer up multiple epigraphs, journalist snippets, radio shows, dolphin-speech, songs, poems, and who knows what else I’ve missed.
And oh, there are so many little gifts buried throughout. Literary references, pop references, film references — some directly, some indirectly. Some will make you think; others will make you chuckle, still others will make you laugh out loud (the Franken Senate Office Building, anyone?).
Existence is an ambitious and sprawling work — thematically, architecturally, stylistically — and for the most part Brin handles it all extremely well, especially the different voices. Sure, a few of the plot strands are left hanging, drifting out there somewhere in his mind or maybe in cut scenes. There are a few sudden time jumps. Some characters aren’t as rich as others. But even when things don’t work, you’re more than willing to give him props for trying and then dive back in because you know something great is soon to come around the corner. And because Brin is asking big questions here and asking them seriously.
I absolutely loved Existence. I loved its sprawling, thought-provoking, “big book” nature — its big ideas, its big jumps in time and space, its richness of characters and voices and styles. Disjointed at times? Yes. Messy in places? Yes. Did some plots and characters disappear? Yes. But did I want Brin to cut those? Absolutely not — damn the extra 300 pages and full speed ahead is what I wanted. And I’m hoping maybe he does that down the road in another book. But just don’t take ten years to do it. Science fiction needs these kinds of books more often. Highly recommended, on my list for top ten of the year at this point, and a book I’d consider a “must read” for serious science fiction fans (and readers in general).