Existence

I’ve been reading David Brin’s books for years. I devoured the Uplift books when I was younger and lately I’ve been following his ramblings on the internet as he talks about technology and transparency and the future. I got my hands on an advance copy of Existence, and I am glad that I did. Brin’s vision of our future selves coming into first contact with aliens resonates with the present in wonderful ways.

The novel opens with rich dilettantes racing rockets to low orbit and back as an excessively frivolous hobby. From there, we cut to Gerald Livingstone, an unglamorous astronaut. He is basically a garbage man, collecting and disposing of orbital debris circling high above the Earth. His life, and the world, changes dramatically when he discovers something of a decidedly non-terrestrial origin. Almost immediately we see a catalog of human reactions as various groups react to the arrival of an alien probe and try to figure out how to turn the situation to their advantage.

Things become stranger though, as the messages that the probe carries pass from being vaguely friendly to foreboding with dark divination. From here Brin unfurls a tale of intrigue and wonder as humanity tries to understand and survive a first contact that could well lead to the kind of collapse that played out with over many of our terrestrial first contacts. The story weaves about and juggles a number of characters, some of whom are only important for a minor plot line and others who recur in the strangest places, showing importance far beyond their initial introductions.

I’ve heard it said that all science fiction is about the time when it was written. That is very true with Existence. Brin has imagined a future with all of the same socio-economic problems that fill our news today. Great disparities of wealth and education abound. His many storylines follow the fates of aristocrats and creatives and peasants as they jostle about in this future-present, trying to better themselves and find or maintain control over their fates. Very aptly timed for our present, where we are turning our attention to the pervasive income disparities and the oligarchy that it has created.

Another interesting trait of this book is the degree to which Brin has cannibalized his own work, drawing from previous short stories and incorporating them into the narrative. One of his other contact stories is included with very few changes from the original that I read decades ago. Beyond this, he has drawn from a number of contemporaries and often references science fiction writers and other futurists that are writing today. I especially liked the heavy nod to Stand on Zanzibar.

This is definitely a big concept novel and Brin juggles a lot of concepts in order to give his future an authenticity and optimism. This is a great book, one that I can’t recommend enough. Go get a copy already!

Buy: [Powell’s] [Amazon]