A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review via NetGalley.
Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector. For a hundred years, people have been abandoning things in space, and someone has to clean it up. But there’s something spinning a little bit higher than he expects, something that isn’t on the decades’ old orbital maps. An hour after he grabs it and brings it in, rumors fill Earth’s infomesh about an “alien artifact.”
Thrown into the maelstrom of worldwide shared experience, the Artifact is a game-changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate. The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity.
It took me a long time to read this book – partially because I wanted to saviour its brilliance and partially because it is so dense that I had to take long breaks from it. That’s a contradictory statement, because Existence is a contradictory book and has spawned a complimentary review. This could either be a very long review where I recount every aspect of the novel (and there are many) and how they affected me, or a short review where I don’t tell you much about the story, but let you know what impressed me most about it. I’m opting for the latter.
Singularly, each aspect of the novel is superb, but brought together in a 550 page plus manuscript, they languish. Existence explores humanity’s First Contact with an intelligent species in the context of a world gone to hell. An Earth where humanity tethers on the brink of (self-inflicted) destruction and turns eagerly to the salvation offered by advanced beings. And humanity’s natural reaction – equal parts fear and curiosity – bring out the best, and worst in all of us. Within this grand experience are several smaller, but no less epic, subplots – the long awaited emergence of Artificial Intelligence and the slow decline of personal privacy at the expense of “security”. Survival on a planet plagued with natural disasters, growing deserts and limited tracts of agriculturally viable land. The abandonment of space programs and astronomy in general due to centuries of Galactic silence and growing evidence that the Fermi Paradox is real: we are truly alone. Somewhere along the way I started feeling like the author had just taken on too much – that an exploration of all that, and more, even in a large novel such as this, is simply too ambitious.
But David brin pulls it off. The first quarter or so of the book introduces us to a myriad of interesting characters and to a bizarre world that I can see glimpses of our future in, but cannot fathom. The discovery by Gerald Livingstone of an alien artefacts gets things rolling and before long all of humanity is waiting to see what it has to reveal to us. What follows is an increasingly philosophical look at human nature, punctuated with a little action, and everything is examined from at least three differing perspectives. Not that this part of the book is boring – there’s a zeppelin explosion, seismic shifts all over the world, a Chinese conspiracy and, to top it all off, we learn the aliens aren’t being entirely truthful. But it feels lacking. The last 100 or so pages of the book are different again, written almost on a completely different style to the rest of the novel as humans take a few steps towards unravelling the mystery of their place in the universe. And the conclusion, while absolutely not what I had expected, brings a sense of closure intermingled with sheepish irony.
So, should you read Existence? If you need action, clear-cut stories and cannot abide philosophical debate, then this is not the book for you. But if you are interested in a comprehensive discourse on human nature at its most fundamental levels in the context of our First Contact with intelligent life, then I believe you will enjoy Existence. While the over-reaching plot elements fade very quickly from ones mind, the wonder and adventure David Brin brings to his book linger.
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