Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review of Existence, by David Brin

Some of the best futuristic SF ever comes from the pen of David
Brin, Startide Rising, Earth, and Kiln People, to name a few. I
don't know why--perhaps it was reading this as an ebook--but I found
Brin's latest effort, "Existence," to be a cluttered melange of
trendy SF tropes. It's set in the near future, when any number of
things might be possible, and the author seems to want to make sure that he
has turned over every rock.

Each section is book-ended by essays about the myriad ways the world
could end, or humans could end it, or aliens could end it, or disease
could end it, or disaster could end it, or. . .

Brin uses a common "parallel thread" structure designed to keep the
reader dangling on the hook. You read a bit about character A
(astronaut/space garbage collector Gerald Livingston), then on to
character B (Tor Povlov, "ai"ce reporter), C (Hacker Sander, a rich
kid who dabbles in high tech), D (Lacey, Hacker's rich mother, a
member of the secret ruling clade), E (Xiang Bin, a poor shoresteader
off Hong Kong), and F (Hamish Brookeman, famous disillusioned
novelist--Michael Crichton, maybe?), then loop. But we're never sure
these characters will have anything in common when the plot finally

Humanity has suffered numerous setbacks and disasters, but none
sufficient to bring the world to an end. Gradually we've learned that
aliens are making first contact via a couple of recently discovered
stone artifacts. Earth is suddenly finding thousands of similar
artifacts, some apparently here for thousands of years, others just
arriving. And, uh, the aliens are mentioning something about life
everlasting. . . you just have to give up your biological body.

Very near the end, the story makes an abrupt jump 25 years into the
future. Is this an attempt to do a Kim Stanley Robinson Mars trilogy
in one book? Now, dolphins and neanderthals are under the umbrella of
"human," and a lot of people are android or cyborg, including Tor the
reporter. Humans are trying to help the alien 'bots see if the worlds
they left tens of thousands of years ago still exist. They discover
that Earth has been a contact battleground not for just millennia but
for eons, as they unearth a deadly rogue killer from the Old Wars in
the asteroid belt. Now we see the stone aliens as
johnny-come-latelies, spreading through the galaxy like a virus. And
an old race of lurkers is watching it all unfold ... silently, for

Faced with this new knowledge, what should humanity do? Become
cybernetic space seeds? Go back to its primitive days, hiding so the
dangerous galaxy loses interest? Or fight our way out?

Ultimately, I felt the ending was kind of a cop-out. On the other hand, no one
swims with the dolphins like Brin. It's just a bit of a disappointment that the
characters we invest so much time in never decisively resolve anything for
either themselves or their newly discovered AI and biological galactic neighbors.

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