Existence by David Brin

Existence by David BrinA review by Rebecca Muir

Existence is an attention-grabbing book, before you even open the cover. It is a thick book with a stark black and white scene printed on a lenticular panel – one of those pieces of plastic with little ridges which show a different picture depending on what angle you look at it. The scene is of a vast city stretching into the distance, and because it is a lenticular picture it has a 3D quality to it. However, it looks almost like a barren lunar surface, until you look closer. It is a picture of teeming humanity but it conveys a feeling of barrenness and starkness. This is very apt considering the major themes of the book, which I will get to in a moment.

Existence is set primarily in the middle of the twenty-first century. Technology has developed and artificial intelligence is now becoming a reality. People walk around with AI powered virtual reality spectacles (or even eye implants) which provide access to virtual overlays of everything you look at, ranging from a map showing glowing dots to guide your steps to post it notes of the latest gossip about people you pass to fantasy layers which make it appear that you are walking through a fairytale landscape. The VR specs also allow you to access the internet and send and receive messages. They are what something like Google Glass might become in the future.

However, not everyone is happy with the pace of technological developments. There is a push to slow down progress to safeguard humanity from some unknown doom.

As this book opens, the arguments for and against ever increasing technology and further AI development come to a head. An astronaut, Gerald Livingstone, is on garbage collection duty in orbit above Earth. He retrieves a crystal object that starts to glow when he touches it. Words and faces appear on the surface. It claims to be an alien artefact sent to Earth to make contact from a group of far-off planets. The Artefact sends the world into a spin. Is it real or a hoax? If it is real, what are the aliens actually offering, and can they be believed? Is the world doomed? Should the humans embrace the aliens and their technological advancements, or would it be safer to stay quietly on Earth?

As the world stops to watch the interchange between Gerald (who seems to have been chosen by the crystal to be its handler) and the aliens, rumours begin to emerge of similar artefacts. Have the aliens come calling before? Where are these other crystals, and will finding any more make the situation clearer, or just more confused?

Existence jumps from character to character, from narrative thread to narrative thread. There is Hacker, a rich daredevil who spends his time and money on expensive pursuits of adrenaline. There is his mother, Lacey, who spends her money on expensive satellites and the search for extra-terrestrial life. There is Hamish, an author and movie maker who tells stories of impending doom for humanity. There is Tor, a rising star for MediaCorp – a journalist with a talent for sifting through the huge amount of information now available about everything and spotting the things worth paying attention to. There is Xiang Bin and his wife Mei Ling, poor Chinese shoresteaders trying to build a life in a building drowned by rising sea levels until they are caught up in world events. Xiang Bin is given an opportunity which may secure the future of him and his family or may bring doom upon them.

The book jumps around between these characters and others, sometimes after just a few paragraphs and sometimes after a longer piece of narrative. Interspersed with the narrative sections are quotes and reflective pieces. Notable among these are the quotations from “Pandora’s Cornucopia” which outlines a multitude of ways humanity might become extinct, and strange disjointed pieces from an autistic person communicating in virtual space in a way they can’t communicate in reality.

All these different threads come together to weave a complex picture of a society on the cusp of either greatness or destruction. The different threads provide a vehicle for introducing and exploring themes in a more direct way than simple narrative would provide. However, the first half of the book was quite hard to get into: the way it jumps around and the amount of different material introduced is a bit overwhelming at first. It wasn’t until a bit over halfway through the book that the threads all started to come together and the book felt a bit more cohesive. That was when I really got into the story.

The main questions Existence asks are “Where are all the other sentient races in the universe? Are we alone? If so, why? Is there some great mistake which every intelligent life form is doomed to make, which we are heading towards?” As the book opens, it seems Earth is indeed alone. Later on, it turns out that we are not quite so alone, but that the presence of aliens is in an unexpected form.

The issue of the vastness of space is dealt with in a realistic way — there are no sudden developments of wormhole travel or warp drive. Travel across the galaxy takes time and solutions are presented. Some science fiction uses big flights of fantasy to get humanity into space, but Existence is a less extravagant extrapolation of present reality. The book does make a few large leaps, however. For example, Existence takes as a premise that life itself is common in the universe, it’s just that intelligent life appears to be scarce. Apparently, by this stage humanity has found evidence of microbial life abounding in space.

The main theme of Existence is the future of humanity. Can humanity survive? The book reflects on what might need to happen for us to continue – there are obvious things like taking better care of the Earth and dealing with climate change. There are also questions about technology. One major point the book explores is the relationship between humans and machines as artificial intelligence becomes a reality. Will robots replace humans? Will they end up blending to become cybernetic humans?

The book explores the capacity humanity has to coexist with other sentient life. It takes as an example the disappearance of Neanderthal man – was that at the hand of Homo sapiens? If so, have we learnt anything? If we are faced with intelligent machines who exceed their creators, or intelligent life from outer space, or even genetically enhanced animals, what will our reaction be?

The development of the global village with the rise of the Internet is also explored in the book. The implications, both good and bad, for science, politics and economics are reflected on.

Artificial intelligence plays a major part in Existence; its potential is another theme. The language of society has changed to reflect the role of AI – for example, people talk about aississtants, aidvisors, forcaisters and aindroids. Sometimes this was a little over the top, but it did give a feel of the progression of society, the integration of new technology.

There are some interesting ideas in Existence, and the way the book is structured allows for them to be explored. There are some sections where the ideas are stated and discussed quite directly. If the book had been straight narrative, this would not have been as easy. Some of the characters are quite likeable and well written. However, there were a few too many different threads, and just as I was getting into a character’s story, the book would move on and not come back for quite a while. The book could have been a bit leaner – there are some sections, ideas or characters who could have been cut out while still retaining the main elements of the book. If David Brin had cut out those bits, the book would probably have been more readable. However, to be fair, I think he was trying to do something different with this book. It is a book which approaches its themes from numerous angles, painting a multilayered picture of where our society might be heading and daring to dream about what the future might hold.

I think Existence will retain a place on my bookshelf. I don’t know if I will ever sit down and read it all again – this book took the longest by far to read of any book I have tackled lately. However, I think I will read bits and pieces from time to time. Some sections are pretty much novellas in their own right. I do recommend Existence to people who like their science fiction with some depth, some philosophy behind it. However, don’t expect to sit down and read it in a weekend. Give yourself a month or so to get through it, and hang in there through the first part. It does get more cohesive towards the end.

ISBN: 9780356501727
Publisher: Orbit (Hachette)
Page count: 547