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.