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Existence Mass Market Paperback – February 26, 2013
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Bestselling, award-winning futurist David Brin returns to globe-spanning, high concept SF with Existence.
Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector. For a hundred years, people have been abandoning things in space, and someone has to clean it up. But there's something spinning a little bit higher than he expects, something that isn't on the decades' old orbital maps. An hour after he grabs it and brings it in, rumors fill Earth's infomesh about an "alien artifact."
Thrown into the maelstrom of worldwide shared experience, the Artifact is a game-changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate. The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity.
This edition of the book is the deluxe, tall rack mass market paperback.
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“Take a world soaked in near-future strangeness and complexity... Add a beautiful alien artifact that turns out to be the spearpoint of a very dangerous, very ancient invasion... Hotwire with wisdom and wonder... Existence is as urgent and as relevant as anything by Stross or Doctorow, but with the cosmic vision of Bear or Benford. Brin is back.” ―Stephen Baxter, bestselling author of Ark and The Time Ships
“In Existence, David Brin takes on one of the fundamental themes in science fiction--and what is also one of the fundamental questions humanity faces in this century. Since Brin is both a great storyteller and one of the most imaginative writers around, Existence is not to be missed.” ―Vernor Vinge, bestselling author of Fire Upon the Deep and The Children of the Sky
“Existence is a book that makes you think deeply about both the future and life's most important issues. I found it fascinating and could not put it down.” ―Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures
From the Inside Flap
- Publisher : Tor Science Fiction; First edition (February 26, 2013)
- Language : English
- Mass Market Paperback : 896 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0765342626
- ISBN-13 : 978-0765342621
- Item Weight : 15.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 4.27 x 1.47 x 7.5 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,038,124 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on January 21, 2016
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While reading Existence, I was reminded of Heinlein in some respects. Brin explores political, philosophical, scientific, religious, moral and ethical considerations from a number of different perspectives. His musings are truly kaleidoscopic. This is, of course, both good and bad: the positive perspective is that Brin criticizes modernity, particularly its politics and more parochial tendencies, thus providing the reader with a refreshing or perhaps more refined understanding of polemical issues, while challenging everyday "post-modern" platitudes; the negative flip side is that all of Brin's introspection, questioning and pontificating becomes repetitive, if not a bit tiresome, depending on your interest in these more existential questions, along with your attention span.
Indeed, Existence has been written--make no mistake--for avid science fiction readers. The language is, in addition to pedantic, somewhat turgid, even pretentious, so make sure you are prepared to read a book whose author isn't afraid to challenge your vocabulary; if this turns you off, then there are times when the writing will bother you.
The plot itself is rather straightforward: Gerald, aboard a spaceship orbiting Earth, encounters an anomalous object: is it alien; is it a hoax; where did it come from? Immediately after apprehending this object, later dubbed the "Artifact," Brin explores the various reactions humans have toward the object. He provides the full gamut of human reaction, which courses through every nook and cranny in society. However, Brin is principally concerned with the Artifact's effect on society as a whole; Brin's characters, being sort of one-dimensional and easily forgettable, serve as symbols for greater collective cliques. You've got the inquisitive scientist, the ultra-rich elitist, the conservative and reactionary politician, and so on. But none of these characters seem very real. Character development is altogether lacking, although there are a few characters who are more indelible than others.
As a work of science fiction, Brin has a rather optimistic perspective of humanity's future, in spite of the many predictable and inevitable potholes ahead. Existence takes place around 2040, then jumps ahead to 2060 or so, and again toward the end of the twenty-first century. Most of the novel takes place around 2040, or the time frame near which time the Singularity, and the dawn of transhumanism, is hypothesized to take place. Like in the real world, Existence captures both the wonderment and anxious nostalgia revolving around transhumanism, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and so forth. If you recall what Arthur C. Clarke writes in his Space Odyssey saga, the material out of which a being is made is immaterial; what we humans identify as truly special is our intelligence, and if that intelligence is manifested by biological beings, technological-silicon cyborgs, or hybrids between the two is of lesser concern than the possibility of a harmonious or commensal relationship between like-minded sentient beings. A federation of intellectual and moral beings, if you will. This lofty yet satisfying goal of a federation encompassing an panoply of sentient beings reminds me of Star Wars wherein every being, regardless of species, is accepted. Brin breathes life into this quasi-utopian but nonetheless noble possibility: he, in short, merges the morality of progressivism with the politics and technology of futurism, if you will.
Moreover, Brin's society incorporates many of modernity's predictions of the future: escalated sea levels, virtual reality (albeit with a more unique flavor), a fragmented United States (not unsimilar to Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games, though not dystopic), an autism pandemic, etc. Amid the partisan politics, basically boiled down to conservative versus moderate versus progressive-"futurist," Brin weaves a tapestry of narratives that coincide--or sometimes even wither away prematurely, on the other hand--all the while raising important questions about the Artifact, from which questions about the nature of intelligent life, extraterrestrial beings, the feasibility of interstellar space travel arise, and receive startling answers. Aside from all these big questions, Brin somewhat solemnly tackles the quandary that has been irking sci-fi aficionados for possibly decades, if not centuries: Are we alone in our galaxy, or even in the entire cosmos? Have we yet, or will we ever, encounter intelligent life elsewhere? If not, what does this say about humanity? Do we have a responsibility to mother and husband up-and-coming civilizations, once we have mastered the science of interstellar space travel? But what if we destroy ourselves first? What does this say about the possibility of intelligent life in general? Is it a spoof?
As you can see, these questions are a bit arresting: and yet these are the questions you will encounter throughout Existence.
A great deal of Existence is spent trying to figure out what the Artifact is, what it wants, what utilitarian purpose can it serve humans, etc. Brin provides many cliffhangars, however: after you're starting to figure things out, Brin leaves you hanging for several chapters, until, almost randomly, one of those lingering, nagging questions at the back of your mind is finally answered. In this regard the plot, at times, feels somewhat anticlimactic: I felt no intense, adrenaline-filled anticipation for something to ever happen with Existence. The big questions are answered, but kind of schizophrenically: Brin takes you out to sea, slams multiple waves into your seafaring ship, some of which are unexpected while others are redundant and therefore superfluous, then brings you out of the storm, into calm waters, finally satisfies some of your curiosity by showing you the "land ahead," but then seemingly makes a roundabout turn before you ever get to see that land, taking you off to sea again--sometimes through the same waters, leading to more redundancy and therefore boring superfluity.
However, eventually Brin does offer an exciting plot twist, that dwarfs the importance of the "Artifact." After much skepticism and waffling, your spirit for adventure is whetted again. But Brin, nevertheless, provides the same formula: rephrasing of the same questions, answering them from a number of perspectives, and eventually providing a resolution.
What sets Existence apart from many First Encounter sci-fi novels is its ultimate optimism. This isn't a work for Cassandras. You'll be reminded of "The Rational Optimist" by Matt Ridley in some ways.
So, for a work with such an ambitious title as Existence, is it worth reading? Well, if you don't mind existential musings and shallow characters, while having your patience tested at times, then yes. If you want thrillers, horrors, tons of action and constant plot twists like many sci-fi novels today, then no: this isn't for you. Whatever your predilections may be, Existence offers a new, more intelligent-than-usual, and engrossing take on the first contact sci-fi genre. Still, for a book named Existence, you'd expect something truly marvelous; unfortunately, Brin's latest work is too ambitious, contains much redundancy, and is ultimately more about the possibilities of the existence of extraterrestrial life rather than course of human existence.
Like Battlefield Earth, though, this book is rambling, all over the place. The writing is of course superior to Hubbard's--but then, again, so is mine--so is anyone's, so that isn't saying much...;) The central premise doesn't seem rational, though I kept rationalizing it until I discovered it did not, in fact, ever become rational...! It seems to be all about rationalizing why ET hasn't shown up yet, as well as presenting the image of a truly bizarre future for humanity. So many things to say that I did not like, it's hard to remember them all, so I will list just a few:
*The notion that all civilizations inevitably destroy themselves, categorically, without exception, is itself a bit bizarre--as there are always exceptions to any rule. But resting on that dubious foundation is the incredibly strange notion that the only hope for all individuals and civilizations in "existence," is individual salvation which *consists of making copies* of one's self (so in the reality the book constructs, the individual actually dies, along with the civilization.) But Brin interprets the survival of the copy of the individual as "individual salvation," which it of course it cannot be, anymore so than 100% genetically identical twins have shared minds, experiences, etc. The notion that if you can copy yourself infinitely, then you live forever, even though many copies of yourself may cease to exist, strikes me as loony...;) As I see it, each copy would be an individual, not *the same* individual--as people do not exist "collectively," etc.
*But it gets much hairier than that, I'm afraid. Brin doesn't speak of "physical copies," but rather of "downloaded copies" of mind, which the ETs place inside ET-built Von Neumann *probes* of some kind, sent out to seed the universe with these "copies". The *probes* in effect are missionaries, sent out with the Gospel of Destruction to proselytize every sentient species contacted with the fact that their destruction is imminent and there is only one hope--to manufacture more probes with some copies of themselves aboard (for their individual salvation even though the individuals copied themselves will perish.) Brin's reality has it, at least according to the "inhabitants" inside the tiny "probes", that every civilization exposed to this Gospel believes it almost immediately and jumps on board and starts making probes--including some copies of a few individuals from each civilization contacted. The Probes supply everyone with the blueprints and schematics necessary to make their own Von Neumann probes, guide them, make people-copiers, etc. (I'm leaving much out here in case you want to read the book--don't want to spoil everything--so don't worry--this review doesn't come close to being exhaustive.)
*Brin raises the possibility that the "inhabitants" of the probes might be lying--as several much older civilizations apparently sent out similar but "competing" probes. Brin raises the possibility that they might be malevolent. Or, rather, some of them might be. Really, David? Gosh, I'd never guessed that...;)
*Brin projects the future of the human race as "plastic and steel." Robots, cyborgs, etc. Why? Because only an AI (artificial person) could stand voyages of thousands of years in a space craft headed out to nowhere to see if anything is there. Brin doesn't say why he considers that a necessary requirement for the advancement of the human species--deep space exploration by robots, or if he did then I missed it or have forgotten about it in the jumble of half-formed ideas that permeate this book. Brin underscores the worn ideal of a future where robots and men cohabit the planet as equals. Along with "uplifted" animals and fish of all kinds, autistic people Brin dubs "another branch of humanity," and well...I can't remember them all.
*Brin constantly it seems to me confuses biological imperatives with AIs and robot "evolution." He lightly touches on the reality that computers aren't actually "sentient" or "alive" but just made to appear that way, I guess because we like kidding ourselves so much--but the fact doesn't seem important to him. He likes calling them "human" even if they are not. Can you say "anthropomorphic projection" with me? That much, I think, fits right in with actual human nature...;) Sort of "PC" in science--which I don't much think fits with science very much, but that is just me.
*Last thing: The Lurkers. OMG. Brin just blew me away with this nonsense--half-baked and utterly silly theories as to why robot AIs hiding in our solar system unobserved for the last *seventy million* years, listening to re-runs of Mister Ed the talking horse and whatnot, have remained there without contact. Or maybe they have. Maybe they've written books, even, and maybe Brin is one of them, etc...;) Maybe Mr. ED was an ET! How he wrote this tripe without spewing his milkshake all over his computer screen laughing beats me--it really made me want to puke, to be honest. I felt as if I was flogging myself by reading it! Gaaaa! Shades of Battlefield Earth!
So, if any of the above sounds interesting to you be sure and read this book because there is plenty more where that came from...;)
She who is struggling mightily to labor through the last 50 or so pages.
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The extent of Brin's imagination is fantastic, the world is built very consistently and really hangs together with great depth and there is an interesting variety of people across the different plot threads. The ending is very clever and not one I saw coming.
I read the Uplift series many years ago and have been meaning to re-read for a while. I could see some foreshadowing of the Uplift in this book and am now heading straight to read the Uplift books as I want to do that while this one is fresh in my mind.
Brinn has clearly researched the central Fermi paradox plot device in great depth but the individual narrative threads interspersed with worthy lectures completely fails to create a coherent tale. The lamentable pace and the over-clever and annoying neologisms (forcing `ai' into every possible word) further interrupts the already stuttering narrative flow making for a very hard read - not that everything should rip along at a break-neck page-turning pace but it should at least be a pleasurable experience. This book isn't; it is a slog. I don't really know why, but I'm currently slogging through the `Uplift Trilogy' - another massive Brinn tome which, although less preachy, slightly better paced and more operatic in feel is still far tooo sllloooww. I can't wait to finish it and get on to `Abaddon's Gate' for a bit of light relief.
However, I have to agree with a couple of the comments about extraneous characters and material. Some of the background is just that - great background (Awfulday, the Big Deal) but some I don't get ... the Basque Chimera, most of the sequences involving the Chinese character's wife.
Then there were the events that were glossed over or left to the imagination. I don't want to give spoilers, but the resolution of the 'Seeker' thread was - for me - missing a few scenes I'd like to have seen.
Anyway, as I said, there were some great aspects to this book and I think it will warrant a second read, knowing which bits I can skim through and which I can focus on.
The characters are shallowly drawn and uninteresting, the direction and focus of the plot changes continuously and jumps about all the time leaving no real plot in the end.
This is an academic exercise in the exploration of alien contact ideas giving reasons why they might not have happened yet and running them together to form a timescape of thought on contact.
There is some intellectual interest in the book but it is not a real novel and that makes it, by far, Brin's worst book.