It’s not often that you come across a novel of such immense scope as this one. In fact I’m not sure I ever have. Existence makes The Lord of the Rings look like a short story. Not in terms of length, of course. At 560 pages, it’s long but hardly epic-fantasy long. But in those 560 pages, David Brin has given us a detailed and realistic future world, a large cast of characters, a decades-long story, articles on topics such as the apocalypse, first contact and artificial intelligence, and a discourse on humanity, the universe and the very nature of existence. Reading it was something like the literary equivalent of boarding a spaceship and, after a long journey, finding myself floating before the star-dusted canvas of space. Not that I know what that’s really like, but you get my point – it’s requires some effort, but it’s really impressive.
Existence begins in the late 2040s or 2050s. Gerald Livingston is an astronaut garbage collector whose job it is to clean up the trash orbiting the Earth. One day he finds an alien artefact and humanity finally realises that long-pondered possibility of alien contact. The world is awestruck, and debates immediately begin to rage across the globe. What do the aliens want? Do they want to invade our planet, colonise us, enslave us? Or are they friendly, looking only for company and the chance to share knowledge? Are they supreme beings or monsters or both? What should we do about it?
The story is told from the perspectives of multiple narrators. Gerald Livingston is one of them, of course, since his discovery is the very basis of the novel. There’s Peng Xiang Bin, a Chinese peasant who makes a meagre living scavenging junk on a drowned coastline and makes an equally epic discovery. On the other side of the wealth spectrum is trillionaire altruist Lacey Hacker-Sander and her adventure seeking son Hacker. Tor Povlov is a young rising star in online journalism in a world where journalists can have their thoughts recorded and instantly uploaded during events. Hamish Brookman is a novelist whose works always warned against technological and scientific hubris. He acts as a spokesperson from a movement that believes humanity should halt technological progress and revert to a simpler life in order to avert inevitable disaster.
There are more narrators, some with only small parts. With this multitude of perspectives, Brin not only shows you different views of the main story, but also builds a complex, realistic world and offers diverse thoughts on existence, intelligence, and what it is to be human. For example, one of the narrators is autistic and speaks in a manner that is difficult for the average person to understand. His perspective is part of a larger debate about “auties” – is autism a disability or is it another (higher?) form of intelligence? This comes after an event or epidemic known as the Autism Plague.
There’s also a good deal of fictional non-fiction in the form of short essays/articles on related topics – ways in which the apocalypse might come about, debates about artificial intelligence, immortality, and, obviously, the aliens. Basically the kinds of articles you might expect to read in Brin’s vision of the future. It gives his world incredible depth, and offers some delectable food for thought for idea fetishists and philosophically minded sf readers. Existence even quotes and comments on science fiction and other literature from our time, as that would naturally become part of the discussion.
The articles and the discussions about the aliens were my favourite parts of the book. At first, no one is entirely sure what the aliens’ motives are, and people make whatever guesses they can. There are the familiar scenarios that we’ve come across in books and movies – that the aliens want to invade; that the aliens are practically deities and in comparison humans are barbarians who could never understand such sophisticated beings.
However, these ideas are basically just given an honourable mention amidst much more complex, carefully considered theories that are constantly modified as people learn more about the alien artefact. Why should they fall into such simple categories as monsters or gods? What if, unlike most alien contact scenarios, we proved perfectly capable of interacting with aliens in a peaceful, intelligent and productive manner? The aliens invite humanity to “join us”, and people around the world are inspired by the thought of joining an interstellar community, but what if “join us” means join our religion, or join our army? What if the aliens charge a price for any technology they might have? How might their technology affect our own industries and economies? What will happen to human culture if it comes into contact with an alien one? And what kinds of being are the aliens themselves? Why do they behave the way they do?
The theories evolve as people learn more, and there’s always a plurality of possibilities. As the novel progresses, humanity changes, and ideas of existence acquire new facets and depths. What if, what if, what if? The novel never stops asking this, really flexing the speculative abilities of the sf genre. It’s as much a thought experiment as a story, and that’s the beauty of it. It gave me far more than I anticipated.
The downside is that it can be tedious at times. Some parts are bound to be less interesting to you than others. Given the scope of Brin’s project, it’s probably unavoidable. Deciding on my rating required a bit of personal debate – how does ease of reading and enjoyment weigh up against the novel’s scope and ideas? I considered giving the novel a 7 (or a 6, during some boring bits) simply because it was often so damn hard to read. With nothing even resembling a scientific background, plus having a relationship with sf that’s less than a decade old, I struggle with hard sf (and I consider this to be hard sf, although it incorporates many of the things I love about soft sf too). The technical details often go right over my head, and Existence has good deal of those. If I knew more about information technology or space travel, I might have had an easier time.
Admittedly, these are my shortcomings rather than the novel’s but to add to that, you’re also dropped into the depths of a future world without the benefit of info dumps. Brin’s worldbuilding is excellent and has the sense of realism that comes from treating his future as the norm, in the same way that an author writing a contemporary novel wouldn’t explain things like Facebook and Twitter to his readers. Which is great in some ways, but also means that you’ll probably struggle to get a grasp on the technological, ecological, and social changes that distinguish this world from our current version. Naturally, there’s a lot of sophisticated technology, most of which is used to immerse humans in the digital world. There are plenty of neologisms. For example, AI is known as ai, and the two letters are placed in words that denote the use of such technology, eg. aissistant, aintity. Characters also frequently make reference to fictional events or concepts such as Awfulday or the Basque Chimera, but without offering any explanation to the reader. Even when there are detailed explanations or demonstrations of tech, they may only come much later in the book.
Add to this a multitude of characters and several series of speculative essays, and you can begin to understand what I mean when I say this isn’t an easy read. At times it isn’t even a particularly enjoyable one so (to get back to the rating issue) I couldn’t give it a 9 or 10, at least not on a first read. But 7 felt too low, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s so ambitious, and I have to admire what Brin has achieved. Secondly it has a spectacularly satisfying ending that achieves a stunning balance of optimism, gravity, and excitement. At times I wondered if I was ever going to finish this, but at the end I just thought “WOW. That’s brilliant. That’s better than I’d ever expected. I have to read this again one day.”