A Complicated Existence

By M. Keith BookerAugust 13, 2012

Existence by David Brin

DESPITE BEING SET mostly on earth and in this century, David Brin’s Existence is science fiction on a grand scale. Brin has long been one of the leading American writers of hard SF, his work informed by his own strong scientific background, which includes a PhD in astrophysics from UC San Diego. While one of his novels, The Postman, was developed into a major Hollywood film in 1997 (with somewhat unfortunate results), he is best known as the author of the imaginative “Uplift” series, set in a universe in which advanced races use their knowledge to “uplift” less developed species to the fulfillment of their potential as intelligent spacefaring beings. Brin’s latest novel, Existence, is in many ways less optimistic about the future of galactic civilization, though it is perhaps the most ambitious of all his novels in a literary sense. Those ambitions are largely fulfilled, and, as a result, Existence may be Brin’s masterwork.

Set mostly in the mid-twenty-first century (though the plot extends for several decades), Existence is, among other things, a veritable encyclopedia of SF concepts and subgenres. An inventive alien-contact story lies at the heart of the novel, while much of its science-fictional technology derives from the legacy of cyberpunk but moves beyond most cyberpunk to contemplate the potential of a genuinely posthuman future. Along the way, Brin also injects elements of political intrigue, space opera, media satire, class warfare, and post-disaster (economic, environmental, and nuclear) recovery efforts. Existence even includes one plot strand related to the Uplift series, though this novel appears to take place in a different universe in which human efforts to uplift dolphins have hit a snag due to lack of funding and in which interstellar species mostly strive to destroy, rather than uplift, each other.

All of this thematic and generic complexity is conveyed by means of an intricate narrative: each of the major characters is involved in his or her own subplot, which is often only loosely and incidentally related to the others. Perhaps the central character is one Hamish Brookeman, a science-fiction writer who might in some ways be taken as a stand-in for Brin himself, though in this future world different media have thoroughly converged so that Brookeman creates not just novels but also films and video-games, without much sense of a distinction between these different forms. Meanwhile, most of Brookeman’s works are (unlike Brin’s) cautionary tales of technology gone wrong, and the author himself is, through much of the book, in league with a conspiracy of trillionaire oligarchs to seize power and establish a feudal political system in which technological progress is disavowed in the name of greater stability, with themselves serving as the aristocratic rulers. It is not clear how the economy would work under such a set-up, while this emphasis on wealthy neo-aristocratic individuals seems to underestimate actually existing corporate power. Nevertheless, Brin’s portrayal of the super-rich is surely one of the book’s strengths, and his satirical treatment of their feelings of entitlement is not only effective but timely.

Another particularly important character is Tor Povlov, an online journalist whose body is virtually destroyed in a would-be terrorist attack but who is able to live on encased in a “survival capsule” while her mind continues to roam free in the virtual world — though eventually she receives a new robotic body and is able to move about physically as well as virtually. Povlov allows Brin to explore the workings of the media in this future world, which again involves an intermingling of different realms, with professional journalism now being inseparable from social networks where individuals coalesce into online “smart mobs,” sharing resources and expertise to investigate and comment on various phenomena.

Another key, but less compelling, character is American astronaut Gerald Livingstone, who begins the book with the rather mundane assignment of cleaning up orbiting space junk. Other characters starring in their own subplots include the poor Chinese “shoresteader” Pen Xiang Bin, who scratches out a living from a derelict, mostly underwater mansion destroyed in coastal flooding caused by global warming. His wife Mei Ling also stars in some of her own segments. Lady Lacey Donaldson-Sander, one of the rich aristocrats in the cabal with which Brookeman becomes involved, also has several of her own sequences, as does her son Hacker Sander, who is rescued by some partly uplifted dolphins while lost at sea (indeed, his main purpose seems to be to introduce the uplift motif into the text). In addition, a plethora of minor characters provides a strong and diverse supporting cast.

Meanwhile, the multi-part nature of the narrative is further complicated by the inclusion of numerous non-narrative inserts that involve passages from a number of different sources (such as “Pandora’s Cornucopia,” a sort of future Wikipedia). Most of these inserts do not comment on the narrative(s) directly but instead flesh out the picture of what life is like in this future society, while also offering commentaries on a variety of science-fictional concepts and motifs, such as artificial intelligence and the Singularity (which in this world seems to have fizzled out).

The plot of Existence begins when Livingstone, going about his work of collecting space garbage, finds a strange, oblong, crystalline object among the orbiting junk. This artifact turns out to be an emissary probe, launched long ago from some distant planet, still waiting to deliver its message. It contains the virtual-reality personae of the representatives of numerous alien species, come to deliver a seemingly positive and hopeful message: “Join us.” Like most things in Existence, however, this joining is not a simple matter, as we (and the characters) spend a considerable amount of time figuring out just what it means. Ultimately, the characters conclude that this seemingly benign overture is an invitation to disaster that could lead to the downfall of human civilization.

In the meantime, the book reveals that many such crystalline space capsules have visited earth over the centuries, though most were damaged or destroyed on impact with the atmosphere or the planetary surface. In China, however, Bin recovers, in one of his underwater salvage efforts, an intact capsule that seems to be a rival to Livingstone’s. Other capsules are soon found orbiting in the asteroid belt, along with a number of older mechanical probes, all of which seem to have been essentially dormant since roughly the time of the dinosaurs. The discovery (and interrogation) of Livingstone’s emissary somehow reactivates these other probes, many of which promptly destroy each other in a quick but deadly space war that renews eons-old rivalries whose initiating civilizations appear to be long extinct. It’s a grim galaxy out there, and the people of earth, at least for the time being, ultimately avoid destruction by declining to join it, opting instead for a stepped-up program of observation to find out just what is going on outside the solar system.

As the title implies, Existence strives to present an unusually comprehensive picture of the future fictional world in which its events take place, though some readers will no doubt find the presence of so many disparate elements a bit distracting, especially as some of the plot strands are left hanging in the second half of the book, which involves a couple of sudden leaps forward in time. Moreover, Existence, after moving slowly, even ploddingly, for more than 500 pages, then ends inconclusively, the powers that be in this future world having decided to delay definitive action until they can gather more data, a process that might take hundreds of years. On the other hand, many of the characters have now become virtual entities that can live indefinitely (as one of millions of copies of themselves sent out on this galactic information-gathering mission). Readers with shorter lives will just have to wait for the sequels to determine the results of the mission. Indeed, Existence presents a future world that is clearly rich enough in concept to support further development, despite the messy and inconclusive plot of the current book.

After all, existence in the real world is also messy and inconclusive, a complex conglomeration of events that cannot be wrapped up into neat narrative arcs with well-defined issues that are resolved in definitive ways. The plot of Existence, then, might be more realistic than those of most SF novels (or most novels), but it is probably more to the point to say that Existence simply relies less on plot to achieve its effects. Existence does, however, offer a few choice nuggets that should make it particularly enjoyable to dedicated SF fans. For example, its periodic allusions to or quotes from earlier SF writers and texts will undoubtedly flatter the community of SF congoscenti for which the novel is clearly designed. Science-fiction authors alluded to (or quoted in the epigraphs that begin major sections of the book) include Isaac Asimov and Kim Stanley Robinson, and there is a reference to “one of the great comic books of the 1980s” — which in context is clearly Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Brin’s wide-ranging literary allusions include such authors as Tom Robbins and Richard Brautigan, not to mention a variety of figures from science, politics, and other cultural arenas. The text also references film and television, including Kubrick’s 2001 and the original Outer Limits tv series.

Existence offers other entertainments as well, as in its frequently clever (but nerdy) forays into humor — mostly deadpan toss-offs (without commentary) like the information that, in the future, the main U.S. Senate offices are housed in the Franken Office Building (presumably named for Minnesota Senator Al Franken), or the mention of the fact that one of the leading manufacturers of robots is a company called Capek Robotics. At one point Mei Ling, on the run from shadowy forces, takes refuge in a Disney theme park in China over which the presiding anthropomorphic figure is one “Mickey Mau.” Some of this humor is fairly lame, but almost unavoidable, as when Brin grants Livingstone an honorary doctorate just so a virtual version of Brookeman can greet him with “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Brin even pokes fun at himself late in the text when he has Brookeman scoff at one of the book’s motifs, noting that “I would never have stooped to using that in a novel.”

Despite its warnings that multiple-pronged disasters lie ahead, that sinister forces will attempt to seize global power in the wake of such disasters, and that most civilizations in the galactic past seem to have been exterminated, Existence is ultimately a hopeful and positive book, filled with a refreshing sense that the Enlightenment is not dead and that its rationalistic view can still serve us well going forward. This is perhaps best seen in the vision of the earth with which we are left at the end of the book (roughly the end of this century), in which the notion of the “human” has been radically redefined and complicated. Dolphins, for example, have been uplifted after all and now have full citizenship, along with Homo sapiens. But full humanity is also granted to Neanderthals (who reappear in the course of the narrative), certain kinds of artificial intelligences, and “auties” — i.e., autistics, who turn out to be a major new mutation of the human race with special abilities well adapted to aspects of this complex future world. In addition, using alien technology, scientists on earth have been able to resurrect physical versions of many of the alien species stored inside the crystals, adding further diversity and enrichment to life on this future earth.

Some readers will find the slow, even ponderous, movement of the plot off-putting. But for those who are willing to stick with it, the book provides exactly the kind of rewards one expects from the best science fiction — a richly thought-provoking and imaginative vision of another world that is ultimately most interesting for the light it sheds on our own. The future presented in the book is sometimes messy and disjointed, but always interesting and diverse, complicated and exhilarating.

LARB Contributor

M. Keith Booker is a professor of English at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He is the author or editor of more than 50 books on literature and culture.


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