As my exploration of science fiction continues, David Brin’s Existence proved irresistible. It examines some of the biggest, most compelling themes. Is humanity alone in the universe, a mere freak of creation? If, on the other hand, there is intelligent life out there, why has it chosen to remain silent?
Brin’s focus is on several characters in the near future, a time when space exploration has stalled but leaps in technology are fast and ambitious. Gerald is one of the few humans in space, gathering debris from the orbit of earth and flicking it into the planet’s atmosphere for annihilation – he finds an Artefact, a non-human entity that communicates through him; Peng Xiang Bin lives on the margins of survival in Shanghai, a watery existence in the flooded ruins of devastated seaside mansions – he finds another artefact, which appears to be aware of the other found by Gerald. It doesn’t like it; Hacker is a rich man who seeks thrills. He finds them in space, in self-funded rockets that peek into space before falling back to earth; Hamish is a famous film maker and writer, a celebrity, who works for a confederation that seeks to turn from the stars and heal the earth through the abolishment of democracy and the emergence of a more basic society run by a rich elite; Tor is a journalist who speaks for the flashmob. Seeking to report the truth about the Artefact, Tor finds herself in the unique position of seeing humanity from the other side.
This cast, as well as many others who come and go through the pages, slowly begin to circle around the space artefact, its opposing earth artefact, and show us the world that earth has become. Hacker’s rocket, for instance, crashes into the sea and the only way he can survive is through the help of intelligence-developed dolphins, while his mother and others debate the merit of technology outstripping the ability of humans. It’s not long, though, before the alien voices of the artefact are added to the noise of unease and, above all, fear. The aliens bring a message and how to deal with that message is a theme of this novel. Humans, such as Hacker’s mother Lacey, may have spent millions trying to detect the existence of aliens but, once they’re noticed, what they have to say may not be what is expected.
Existence shows us how people behave when they learn that they, us, are not alone. Interspersed with the narrative are brief passages which examine, for example, potential methods of extinction – the other side of the coin to existence. We also hear hints of other beings, the reborn Neanderthal child, as well as pleas from one of the characters imploring alien life forms to reveal themselves.
These passages don’t particularly disturb the flow of the novel because that is already fragmented by the chopping and changing between characters. This is an issue with Existence. The stories are each so vividly told that the interruption as we move from one to another is felt keenly. The fact that this matters is testament to the quality of the story telling.
Thrown into this are some fascinating ideas – we hear about Awfulday, without being given details, but it is clear that this was some unspecified nuclear cataclysmic event. There has also been a plague that has resulted in Auties – vast numbers of autistic survivors. Artificially intelligent life forms are evolving. The oceans have risen, resulting in slums on the edges of the sea. There are hints throughout of great disasters. We also have glimpses of animal life. Amongst the extinctions, there is the monkey who works with Gerald to destroy space debris as well, of course, as those most marvellous dolphins, and the emptying waters fished by Peng.
Then we have the aliens within the artefact. I don’t want to spoil them and would urge you to read Existence for the surprises in store. They’re astonishing.
Existence is hard science fiction. There is a great deal of contemplation by characters and the narrator about the world and universe around them. Their self awareness increases and we are a part of the discovery. This is especially true of Tor who is transformed through the novel in almost every way. She is a fascinating character.
Existence is about 550 pages. However, don’t let that mislead you. The size of the font means that you may as well double the size. It’s not a fast read but it is an absorbing one. I found it extremely compelling and I didn’t want to be away from it too long. This was because of the characters – particularly Tor, Hamish and Gerald – but also because of some of the other themes we come across, some human and some alien. I didn’t miss a word, I didn’t skim a page. The fact that it was wordy and long stood in the novel’s favour. There was so much I wanted to read.
There were issues for me – especially, as mentioned, the leaping between characters and, as the novel goes on, the leaping between years. The latter led to characters disappearing and loose ends loosened further. I think the novel could have been made tighter. Nevertheless, I was mesmerised by the read. This is Brin’s first novel for ten years. After Existence I can only hope that we have to wait a mere fraction of this for the next.