Review of Existence by David Brin

Review of Existence by David Brin November 2, 2012

If you are among those who have complained that there is insufficient hard science fiction, imagining a future that is a realistic extrapolation based on what we now think are genuine possibilities and genuine constraints, David Brin’s novel Existence may be what you have been longing for. The future of the internet and our interaction with one another by technological means is incorporated throughout, while the impossibility of warp drive is simply taken for granted.

I will try in what follows to keep a balance between discussing the novel’s contents, and not offering so many spoilers as to spoil the twists, turns, and surprises that make the novel so engaging. You might well wonder whether a story some 553 pages in length can sustain its pace – or indeed, whether the reason for the length is ponderous asides that you could do without. My experience of the novel is that the initial introduction of the characters is rather like what one experiences when watching a brand new TV series. At the start, you wonder whether you can ever care about these characters the way you have come to care about others on your favorite shows. And then, before you know it, you can’t imagine your life without them. Brin throws the reader into the deep end of a near-future world with its technologies, its changed political landscapes, its economy, and much else that has clearly been given serious thought. But you are introduced to these aspects of the future Brin imagines not through lengthy descriptions, but by being set down and immersed in the midst of that future, already in full swing. And in my opinion, it works.

Against that backdrop, the story envisages a situation in which humans had detected distant worlds with rudimentary life, but as yet, no signs of intelligence. And then a discovery is made of a crystal object which had been flung into space eons earlier by sentient aliens. The story then revolves around discovering what the device is meant to accomplish, what dangers its message poses to humanity, and the question implicitly posed in the title: What is the hope for our future? Do sentient beings and their civilizations typically survive? If not, can we beat the odds?

That is all I will say for those seeking to avoid spoilers. But for those who’ve already read it, I have some more thoughts to share. Read on!

As one might expect in a story which explores the risk that humankind will meet its demise, there is a significant dose of religious imagery and religious references in the story. Even what may seem like superficial and obvious symbols of sci-fi religiosity – such as one character’s interactive crucifix which does double duty as emblem of their faith and their means of interacting with the virtual realm –  have more to them than may first be noticed. Through such details, mentioned in passing, we are led (if we stop to reflect on them) to ask whether and to what extent touching a  technologically-enhanced crucifix around one’s neck that can detect one’s non-verbal queries and provide answers in fact does not only what such religious accessories had been hoped to do – often vainly – by those who’ve worn them in the past, but also much more, and in reality.

The story has a strong and explicit element of the apocalyptic and millenarian, and the story not only touches on Biblical texts related to that subject, but also envisages several more end-times movements to have occurred between our time and that not-too-distant future in which the story unfolds. Those were centered around dates such as the 2,000th Easter (which seems quite likely to generate such a fervor about two decades from now). But the book’s actual focus in exploring these matters is in fact to ask whether, for all our focus on innumerable doomsday scenarios, we can in fact avoid the apocalypse and survive into the future.

The story’s main plot comes to the fore as an astronaut who works collecting space junk grabs hold of what turns out to be an alien artifact – a tiny stone which, it is later learned, is one of an incredibly large number of such stones which have been launched into space, containing virtual copies of individuals from a number of planets, aimed at other worlds and also carrying instruction on how to build still more such objects. They are, in essence, a sort of virus which has the tendency to consume civilizations which embrace their message that there is no long-term hope for survival, and thus the best that can be done is to preserve a representative of one’s species and civilization in future stones. Those stones, it should be added, have fallen to Earth throughout history, and have been treated as gods or gifts from the gods – some being damaged as they were carved into crystal skulls, another becoming the sacred stone of the Kaaba.

The question of whether we are alone in the universe gets a definitive answer in the book, but not through direct contact. The universe is still vast, and the inability to travel faster than light prevents the diverse civilizations that exist from encountering one another directly. The question that becomes the focus is whether humanity, even as it encounters a viral message insisting that civilizations do not survive, can find the faith and courage to believe otherwise, and chart a different path forward that avoids all the obvious and not-so-obvious perils for the long-term survival of sentient beings.

Brin being a futurist as well as a novelist, it is not surprising that his book explores a wide array of details about future technology. The attention to detail is impressive – from the discussion of exegetical specifics in the story of the Tower of Babel, to the idea that one can have a virtual avatar assigned the role of offering prayers on one’s behalf in cyberspace.

As I said at the beginning, there was a brief period early on when I wondered whether the story would really grab me. Hopefully you can tell be now that it did, and that by the end I was reading avidly and eagerly, wondering where the story would go and what ultimate vision – of hope, pessimism, or uncertainty – would be the enduring perspective and message of the book. I highly recommend Existence, whether simply for enjoyment, or as a starting point for discussions about big questions. Indeed, I will need to consider it for inclusion as one of the assigned texts in my course on Religion and Science Fiction which I will be teaching again in the next academic year. It really does get at questions as big as its title, Existence. After all, what is life but a means of replicating into the future – genetic material in the case of organisms, but also values and ideas in the case of persons, cultures, and civilizations? And what sort of existence is worthwhile? Is it better to pursue a course that maximizes the preservation of a few entities or species or memes even in a manner that is destructive of other living things? Or dare we to hope that a wiser, more diverse, more challenging but ultimately more rewarding course can be successfully navigated? Such questions are important ones, and Brin does a great job of posing them and getting his readers to join together with him and his characters in pondering them.

See also the author’s website dedicated to the novel, which has excerpts, reviews, and other related material.

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