Author: David Brin
Publisher: Tor Books
I’ve been trying to catch up on classic science fiction as of late. Recently, I read through Isaac Asimov’s I Robot collection, which was written to an audience with a different set of expectations than readers today. Fifty-plus years ago, science fiction was largely a genre of ideas — where plot and characters took a back seat to shear innovation. In I Robot, the short stories serve mainly as a series of logic puzzles that explore the what-ifs of robot psychology. Today’s reader, on the other hand, has a greater concern for plot and character development. If a science fiction author is seeking to predict or in some way encourage the future of humanity, it can only be successful if the story itself entertains or instills emotion in the reader. Ideas alone are not satisfying enough. Plot and character development must stand on at least equal footing with the ideas being expressed or the modern reader will lose interest.
And so begins my review.
Existence is a novel about humanity’s first contact with an alien species. It begins with Gerald Livingstone, an outer space trash collector, encountering a strange artifact. He recognizes it not as an ordinary piece of space junk, but as an object with power that wants to communicate with him. It is a fitting introduction, as Gerald is not an elitist by prestige, class, or intelligence. He is an everyman, blue-collar worker, whose discovery could change the fate of humanity.
The point of view shifts in the coming chapters and we encounter Hacker, a rich playboy who is saved by dolphins after crashing his rocket into the ocean; Tor, a field correspondent who must come to terms with an event that changes her way of life; Hamish, an apocalyptic novelist; and Bin, a man who salvages material from drowned buildings and homes along China’s shore. In later chapters, we encounter even more viewpoint characters (perhaps ten in all?) who all play a role in humanity’s first contact.
As my introduction suggests, Existence is not a novel about a plot or really about characters either. It is more philosophical in nature, examining the possible ways that technology can benefit or bring the collapse to human civilization. Much of the doomsday predictions are told through excerpts at the end of chapters. In particular, a non-fictional work, Pandora’s Cornucopia is referenced with its several doomsday predictions.
David Brin is certainly ambitious in this work. His pursuit to understand humanity in Existence (an ambitious title itself) is in a sense an undertaking as large as the many physicists’ pursuit of the Theory of Everything. He examines history of human civilizations and tries to understand how our progress and innovation either assists or hinders us in thriving in the future. On one hand, I want to call this novel remarkable and brilliant, but on another, the narrative is fragmented, characters are severely underdeveloped, and the plot is loose and disconnected.
I think what frustrated me most was the constant diverging from the central storyline. I found the use of extracts to be burdensome in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, but his use of them was much more palatable than in Existence. 2312 managed to also be a science fiction novel of ideas, but was successful in interweaving innovation with plot and the characters. Robinson’s ambition was in the plausibility of inhabiting the entire solar system. Brin’s ambition is much broader — examining the plausibility of human existence itself, not just how and where we live. But without a satisfying story or characters I could cling onto, many of the concepts of Existence were swept away with the tide.
For those who are looking for a deep, philosophical look at humanity in the context of science fiction, you may find full satisfaction with what Brin has achieved in this novel. For those who are looking for an entertaining story with characters who have internal and external conflicts to overcome, this novel is entirely lacking. For myself, I am left somewhere in the middle, admiring Brin’s ambition and conceptualization, but being somewhat apathetic toward the lives of the characters within.