After ten years of absence, David Brin is finally back with a new novel. Reading Existence, it is not difficult to imagine how that monster of a book took so much time to write. It is huge, not merely in terms of word count, but also in terms of conceptual volume. Brin’s 1990 book Earth is a similar creature – teeming with predictions, explorations and interpretations of the near future, ultimately succeeding on most levels. Existence has inherited that DNA, but the author has raised his latest brainchild with even greater ambition. It is not just the near future that is in focus here but the whole timeline of existence, its image refracted through the lens of human civilization. That’s right, the novel’s title aptly summarizes all the numerous threads that make the book, because they all eventually point to that very concept. What is the purpose of life and intelligence? Is survival in the cold universe possible? How do we even define different modes of existence and how do we understand them better? These are the questions that run throughout the text and the curiosity, meticulousness and imagination with which Brin tackles them on every page make Existence a notable event on the SF horizon.
The story takes place around the middle of the present century, I’m not even sure the precise year was mentioned at all in the book. The world has changed a lot but at the same time has remained surprisingly familiar. The Internet has evolved in the Mesh – a collection of Webs comprising of hundreds of info-levels where augmented reality has blossomed without check. The majority of people are constantly wired to it through interactive glasses and interface systems that allow them to subvocalize commands, exert control through tooth-clicks, design their own environments and tap into thousands of artificial eyes. AIs, not fully Turing-compliant but still incredibly smart, pervade everything, even language, as the “ai”-morpheme has become so productive that it can combine with almost any phonological template, forming words like “aixperts”, “waiste”, “aies”, “vaice”, “vraility”, etc. Awfulday, a catastrophe so horrible and memorable that it is never explicitly described, has left Washington irradiated, while America itself is fractured into a multitude of bickering states and republics. On a global scale, social engineering has led to the Big Deal – a compromise that has squashed hopes for a transparent society and differentiated the population into ten estates (or castes), ranging from the super rich trillionaires to the poorest citizens and even the AIs. Space exploration is now largely history, as nations focus on more immediate problems on the planet.
The plot of the novel is set in motion when Gerald Livingston – a lasso-wielding collector of space junk – retrieves a most amazing object from Earth’s orbit. A crystal ovoid exhibiting almost miraculous technological functionalities and, most importantly, claiming to be a messenger from an alien civilization. Earth quickly goes abuzz with this epochal discovery and a contact team is assembled to communicate with the simulated entities within the artifact. Meanwhile, Pen Xiang Bin, a menial caste shoresteader, desperately struggling to ensure the survival of his family, stumbles upon something just as curious and suddenly finds himself in a vortex of competing power players. Other agents of the story include: a super rich space jockey saved by a pack of super smart dolphins; his trillionaire astronomy-buff mother; a famous book/screen writer and director, consulting the prophet of the retroactive Renunciation movement; a tireless reporter fully immersed in the augmented and many-layered reality of the future; an autistic girl thinking in strangely beautiful non-linear poetry.
I hope these couple of paragraphs have given you a rough idea of the immensity of Existence, even though they capture merely the tip of a very large iceberg. This insanely ramified nature of the beast is the novel’s greatest strength and weakness at the same time, strange as it may sound. Brin has pulled off something that I would hardly imagine possible – he has written a polyphonic novel, whose polyphony is not composed of characters’ voices but of the myriad techspeaks and futurespeaks that buzz, murmur and boom across the story. Augmented reality layers, various breeds of AI, cyborgs and robots, machine learning tricks for whatnot, cognitive science and neuroscience, reality as simulation, nano-printing, Zeppelins made of smart polymers, encryption of long-distance communication through parrot brains, seven-dimensional Gestalt logic, rocket dives in the stratosphere, smart mobs forming on-line metaminds with god-like intelligences, the list can go on for pages, encompassing even the softest technologies of social and political engineering, and I’m not kidding. This novel is high on the future to come. Brin has sieved through the web and academic literatures so extensively and attentively, that Existence could easily be the wet dream of the entrepreneurial collective unconscious. The level and intensity of prognostication alone make the book exceptional, but Brin has gone further. He has managed to orchestrate these many voices, so that from the apparent cacophony emerges a motif and a unified, albeit constantly modulated, voice that at the end speaks for humanity as a whole. This defining song of our species, however, is not static and simplifying, but bold, imaginative and inclusive. The human spills over into the machine and vice versa, other species join us, while even intra-humanity speciation events are recognized as possible and possibly desirable. This is one of the thrilling bottled messages swimming in Existence: Why be a million species that pretend to be one species? Be a million species that are one despite their differences. As long as we recognize what existential traits will keep us moored to that infinitely more interesting family of sapients.
The novel is polyphonic in structure too. Every part is preceded by poignantly relevant quotes from various thinkers and almost every chapter is followed by excerpts from Brin’s fictional non-fiction. Some of them detailing the various ways humanity can come to an end, others discussing the Fermi paradox and the great cosmic silence, and still others sifting through the Mesh and meta-curving the text upon itself. The voice of Brin himself shines through here and there, at which moments it is difficult not to smile wholeheartedly in appreciation of his inexhaustible faith in our meaningful future existence and the fervor with which he has been envisaging it for decades.
Existence does not simply sing techsongs and futuresongs. It tries to cull the good from the bad, to expose hidden differences and pitfalls within the music of humanity, to show how unity could arise from diversity:
“The distinction between “one” and “many” can be ambiguous. The best models of a human mind portray it as a mélange of interests and subpersonalities, sometimes in conflict, often merging, overlapping, or recomposing with agile adaptability.
Sanity is viewed as a matter of getting these fluid portions of the self to play well together, without letting them become rigid or too well defined. In human beings, this is best achieved through interaction with other minds––other people––beyond the self. Without the push-back of external beings––outside communities and objective events––the subjective self can get lost in solipsism or fractured delusion.”
To explore these distinctions, we need more of those transparent arenas (science, the arts, media, social networks) where memes can battle and combine toward an ultimately mutual goal. We need more of those positive-sum games to function better as a species:
“But it seems deceit is nature’s coin. Among humans, animals, or across the cosmos. Unless you’re held accountable by opponents who know your tricks. And you’ll retaliate, shining light on theirs.”
But we shouldn’t forget that:
“Everyone’s different, I hear. Our inner images map onto the same reality as other people see––the same streetlights and billboards and such. Each of us claims to perceive identical surroundings. We all call the sky “blue”. And yet, the actual experience of sight––the “qualia”––is said to be peculiar to each person. Our brains are not logically planned. They evolve––every one of us, in that sense, becoming their own species.”
And that is where lies our greatest strength, which is so often stifled in the name of false or badly-phrased causes.
In line with the above paragraphs, I cannot but spare one more on two of Brin’s most exciting ideas: intelligent dolphins and auties. Existence can be seen as a prequel of sorts to his Uplift series, as it explores the first tentative steps in pushing animal cognition to human levels of intelligence. Fans of these earlier novels will surely enjoy that part. The one about autistic humans is even more striking, in its portrayal of autism not as a disease but as a marvelous difference between normal, attention-obsessed humans and non-linear, multi-integrating, synaesthetic, ever-tripping, ever-poetic auties. There already might be alien forms of intelligence lurking on our very planet, without us dull homosaps being able to recognize them for what they are! I wanted to share these two pieces of poetry, you figure out which one is dolphin, and which autie:
# If you’re good at diving––chase fish!
# If you have a fine voice––sing!
# If you’re great at leaping––bite the sun!
“nervous normalpeople +/- building careers +/- building houses – civilizations – families … breeders-breeders linear thinkers obsessed with time. reason-not-rhyme -/-”
I mentioned that the sheer immensity of the novel is also its Achilles’ tendon. Sadly, the characters of Existence are much too underdeveloped. That is not really due to a flaw in Brin’s writing, it is a result of the constraints he has set upon himself. There is simply too much to be told and far too little time to expand the narrative voices into high resolution human cameras, whose minds we can look through with confidence. And those are potentially very interesting characters, I have to say. Here and there, especially in Pen Xiang Bin’s chapters, Brin supplies the reader with tidbits about their lives that make them come fully alive. There are even a few moments of intensely beautiful character development, which show that, oh yeah, Brin knows how to control this writerly element. The prognostic and philosophical preoccupations are predominant, however, and characters are always talking, talking, talking, mostly in their heads, to explain, explain, explain. Had he succeeded in writing great, fully-fleshed protagonists as well, Brin would have given us a masterpiece.
Another problem of the novel has to do with structure. The first three quarters, messy as they are, somehow balance well enough between all the different character and story arks, that polyphonic quality provides the necessary warp and weft to the narrative. Parts seven and eight, however, jump even further ahead in the future and narrow the narrative focus so forcefully, that the clumsy characterization becomes a readerly obstacle and gives the text a bit too much of a didactic tone. Still, those parts contribute essential pieces to the puzzle of existence conjured by the author and they are pretty mind-bending too.
Despite all the quibbles (which would have been major complaints, had this been any other book), David Brin’s new novel delivers majestically. As a first contact story it is as impressive as Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, as an extrapolation of the near future it shares a league with Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, and as a wild exercise in imagination it is just as good as Brin’s other books. Don’t go looking for breathtaking wordsmithery, although the author sure can turn a pretty phrase (“At nights he felt more relaxed than he had in years, perhaps ever, dozing while the dolphins’ clickety gossip seemed to flow up his jaw and into his dreams.”). The memory of the protagonists won’t remain with you for too long, but they won’t turn you off either. What will probably stay is the profoundly-SF frame of mind that Brin fosters and advocates for. He must be one of the great living future shepherds and Existence is probably as good a manifesto as any we will collectively dream up as a species.