Existence by David Brin

The opening scene of Existence, David Brin’s long-awaited return to novel-length science fiction, is a great set piece that’s meaningful in a number of ways: astronaut Gerald Livingstone is working on the border of Earth and deep space, literally between heaven and earth—and helped by a monkey, no less. The symbolism couldn’t be clearer if he waved a flag depicting the Sistine Chapel’s God’s-hand-reaching-down-from-Heaven scene.

What Gerald actually does in orbit seems, at first, much less uplifting (sorry): he’s essentially a glorified garbage collector, gathering pieces of floating space junk for disposal—until he finds a mysterious glowing stone, which soon proves to be an alien artifact. This sets off a long and complex plot that will change life on Earth forever.

That opening paragraph may give the incorrect impression that Existence is a straightforward first contact story. It isn’t. Over nearly 100 chapters and almost as many brief excerpts between those chapters, David Brin skips back and forth between a multitude of viewpoints. After a few pages of Gerald Livingstone, we get the first of a set of recurring faux non-fiction pieces from “Pandora’s Cornucopia”, which describe some of the myriad ways humanity may self-destruct in the future. Then we switch to the ultra-rich Hacker Sander and his recreational sub-orbital rocket launch that sets off a second plot line, followed by the first recurring WAIST (as in “Wow, Ain’t It Strange That…”) non-fiction fragment. Then the third major character is introduced: a reporter called Tor who is embarking on a cross-country reporting trip that will lead her much further than merely coast-to-coast. (I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel in which a character and the publisher share names, by the way. Anyone?)

After another stop for a “Pandora’s Cornucopia” section, we meet major character nr. 4, a doomsayer SF novelist named Hamish Brookeman who is on his way to a meeting with a recently discredited US Senator, and just a few chapters later, the fifth main player appears: a Chinese “shoresteader” who ekes out a living by salvaging metals from the drowned buildings on China’s submerged coastline. That’s all just in the first 50 or so pages, and only listing the point-of-view characters.

To be fair, that summary does include all the major characters, so after the initial onslaught you’ll know more or less everyone who matters. Things settle down just a bit. Still, to be absolutely clear: if you don’t like novels with frequent p.o.v. changes, Existence isn’t for you. If you usually don’t mind them, it may still rub you the wrong way here, simply because they happen too often here: counting the sections between the numbered chapters, Existence stops and starts nearly 200 times over the course of its 550 or so pages. The end result is that, despite everything it does right, Existence is simply too fragmented to be a truly enjoyable reading experience.

This is a shame, because the novel brings some great ideas to the table. I’m trying to be as vague as possible about the actual nature of the alien artifact so as not to spoil the plot for you, but David Brin works his way to a Big Revelation that really hits home, introducing a concept I hadn’t encountered before in SF. That alone makes up for some of the issues I had with the novel. Even better, that concept (unique as it is) then proves to be just part of a larger puzzle. Basically, Existence repositions the markers a few times along the way with a set of “But wait, there’s more! What’s actually going on is… ” twists. It doesn’t always work as well as that first time, but when it does, it makes for a stimulating read. This is old-fashioned Big Idea SF, mostly centered around the Fermi Paradox, and if that’s your thing, Existence will be right up your alley. Even if you don’t agree with some of Brin’s theories and solutions, they’ll provide great food for debate.

The Big Revelations that position Earth in the broader scope of the universe are one major aspect of Existence, but equally importantly, the second main focus is life on the planet itself. Much like in his earlier novel Earth, Brin hypothesizes the future technological and sociological changes on our planet in great detail. Time will tell whether some of those predictions will come true again, as they famously did with Earth. (It’s hard to believe that novel is already over two decades old now!) Once again, discovering the setup of this future is a large part of the fun, so I won’t spoil it for you here. There’s too much to mention in one review anyway, from mind uploads to an “autism plague” to posse-driven citizen journalism to a vastly restructured United States, just to name a few. Personally, I could have done with much less tech jargon and fewer neologisms, especially the endless series of words that incorporate the letters “ai” such as aissistant, aixpert, and so on. On the plus side, it was thrilling to see Brin incorporate what appear to be the seeds of Uplift technology in Existence.

The basic concept of the plot is fascinating, and the number of ideas Brin displays here is astounding, but Existence unfortunately lacks drive because, all too frequently, it feels like it’s wandering around, not going anywhere. Aside from a few happy exceptions, the story rarely manages to grab you and force you to keep reading. Even with all the perspective changes, some sections simply drag on for too long, especially in the second half of the novel. Some dialogues devolve into back-and-forth science lectures. Not all of the characters are equally interesting. Actually, some are simply annoying, especially a certain professor who you’ll meet early on and who very rapidly reaches Jar-Jar Binksian levels of Please Lord Let This Be The Last Time We See This Guy.

Still, those issues are relatively minor, compared to what I’d consider the novel’s biggest flaw: it’s simply too fragmented. Kim Stanley Robinson just recently published 2312, a gorgeous novel (my review) that’s a carefully constructed set of very different styles and elements.  In 2312, those elements become a beautiful, cohesive whole. There’s symmetry. There’s structure. It all works together. By contrast, Existence—maybe appropriately, given its title—feels chaotic. Too many moving bits and pieces that lack cohesion. Even the two major poles of the novel—the alien plot on the one hand, and the near-future Earth setting on the other—somehow overshadow each other, making the novel feel as if it’s stuck between two extremes.

Which brings us back to the opening scene of the novel. Much like Gerald Livingstone had to manipulate a miles-long cable to remotely grasp elusive pieces of orbital space junk, it feels like David Brin occasionally lost the handle on this story, trying to turn its many components into a coherent novel. Taking a look at the Acknowledgments section in the back of this book, you’ll see that some parts of Existence are repurposed: several characters and scenes appeared in Brin’s writings before. This adds to the impression that Existence just tried to incorporate too many elements. It’s an ambitious project, which in itself is admirable, and it’s full to the brim of interesting concepts, but its execution is flawed. Somewhere along the way, I came to a surprising but painful realization: if not for the author’s name on the book’s cover, I probably wouldn’t have finished reading Existence.

Check back here soon for a chance to win a hardcover copy of Existence! Details of the giveaway will be announced later this week.

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16 Responses to Existence by David Brin

  1. Justin says:

    I can’t imagine why you didn’t give this review to Tor.com….. 😉

  2. Gerry M. Allen says:

    Just received my copy of this book from Amazon. Will return to give my review later.

  3. Dave says:

    While I haven’t read ‘Existence’ yet, I’m surprised that so many reviewers are complaining about the disjointedness of the book. ‘Earth’ was exactly the same way, as was Brunner’s ‘Stand on Zanzibar’, which Brin has repeated acknowledged as an influence.

    • I think it’s a matter of degree. Disjointed is fine. Changing perspectives is fine. I really don’t mind it. But almost 200 times (98 chapters + as many excerpts between the chapters) in 550 pages is too much, at least for me.
      I can’t find my copy of Earth, and it’s been more than a decade since I last reread it, but I don’t remember it having quite as many switches. I might be wrong, though.
      As for Brunner, where did Brin acknowledge Stand on Zanzibar as an influence? I saw Kim Stanley Robinson do that many times when talking about his new novel 2312 (including in an interview on this site, about 2 weeks ago) but not Brin. KSR switched perspectives several times too in 2312, but nowhere near as many times as Existence. Not that there’s a number I would go by as a limit – it just felt like too much in this novel.
      Of course I felt that Existence had other problems than just being too fragmentary (I list them later in the review), but that one was the biggest one for me.

  4. Dave says:

    Brin specifically mentions ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ as an influence in the rather long Afterward to ‘Earth’, as well as Brunner’s ‘The Sheep Look Up’.

    In a quick check of ‘Earth’, I found 185 changes of perspective in 652 pages. And if I recall, both ‘Startide Rising’ and ‘The Uplift War’ contain 100+ chapters in about 500 pages. Its just the way the man writes.

    • Interesting. I’ve read all three of those books, and with none of them the fragmentation didn’t feel as annoying as it was with Existence. This, admittedly, was around the time they were released – so quite a while ago. Maybe my taste has changed since then, or maybe it’s a matter of the degree of fragmentation — 185 changes in 652 pages is a little less than Existence, and 100 in 500 pages is about half. Don’t know. All I can say is that it drove me up the wall while I was reading Existence, although, again, it wasn’t the only thing I found lacking about the novel.

      As for the Brunner reference: thanks for letting me know about the afterword to Earth. I knew I should have dug my copy up! It’s interesting that both of these authors chose to call this out as an influence. I felt that Kim Stanley Robinson did a better job honoring the influence than Brin in his recent novel 2312, mainly because I consider KSR the better writer when it comes to storytelling skills.

      Thanks for pointing all of this out. Interesting discussion.

  5. Dave says:

    Oops. That first sentence is a little unclear. It should read:

    “Brin specifically mentions ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ – as well as Brunner’s ‘The Sheep Look Up’ – as influences in the rather long Afterward to ‘Earth.'”

  6. Redhead says:

    Stefan, i’m about to post my second progress post, and I should finish Existence in the next day or so. So I felt I could read your review with no worry for spoilers! the “ai” smushed into every word is annoying the crap out of me, although i have a guess as to why Brin did it. the fragmenting, especially the sharp change for the final section was the final straw in the fragmentation issue.

    “Somewhere along the way, I came to a surprising but painful realization: if not for the author’s name on the book’s cover, I probably wouldn’t have finished reading Existence.”

    also, that. 😦

    • I’ll keep an eye out of your review/progress report. I took a tremendous amount of crap for my review (not here, but in places where it was crossposted, e.g. on Reddit), to the point of people speculating if I had ADHD or some other developmental disorder for not being able to handle the viewpoint changes. Mostly before they read the actual book, of course. Anyway, I stand by the review – the man has great ideas, but he didn’t turn them into a good novel.

      • Redhead says:

        ahh, nothing beats complete strangers on the internet judging you for not liking a book that they haven’t read, especially the, um, always friendly folks on Reddit. I’m guilty of being judgmental towards fans of 50 Shades, so maybe I shouldn’t talk! 😉

        I’m just so saddened by such a brilliant SFnal idea getting bogged down with so much distraction. I’ll go back and reread older Brin titles, but I don’t see myself ever picking a future novel of his.

        • I agree. At a certain point, I think authors just get more leeway than they should. I firmly believe that, if a debut author had sent this in as a manuscript, it would have gone back with a note saying “great concept, but it needs better structure and flow”.

        • Jay says:

          Knowing who likes 50 Shades and Twilight just helps us know who amongst us is mentally handicapped so we can watch out for their safety.

  7. Jay says:

    I thought the reference to the Uplift Series was clever until I realized that was the only purpose for Hacker’s storyline. Now I think it should have been left out.

  8. Pingback: Release Week: David Brin’s Existence and Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth | The AudioBookaneers

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