Its been too long since I immersed myself in a big science fiction novel where world-building and ideas hold sway, prompting me to think big thoughts and muse about the fundamental purposes of human life. David Brin’s novels and short stories have often provoked those emotions in me, an example of the sense of wonder that is so key to good science fiction. I have read most of his novels and two of his non-fiction books and enjoyed reading his most recent novel, Existence (Tor, 2012) (ebook).
This is a long novel (I estimate 300,000 words), a sprawling epic, scientifically-grounded and optimistic, similar in scope and intent to his 1990 novel Earth (ebook) A large cast of characters and events occur over the course of the next hundred years or so, though the exact time frame is only vaguely described. The plot centers around the discovery of large crystals which contain the virtual remains of extinct aliens. Brin imagines a world with virtual overlays, instant information, a rapid rate of change, and human civilization striving to make the right decisions and avoid possible civilization-ending traps. As is common with his writing, he focuses on themes of how alien civilizations might evolve, humans adding other intelligent species to our planet by genetically modifying dolphins and chimpanzees, and issues about privacy, transparency, and how political power works.
His characterization is good, particularly in showing how people can get excited about science. His portrayal of autistic people, as a type of new human with different capabilities, is intriguing and heartfelt. One character is obviously based on the late Michael Chrichton, well-known for his thrillers based on science gone wrong. For Brin, the greatest human traits are curiosity, problem-solving, and diversity.
Brin ends the Afterword of the book with an ode to humans, decrying the idea that humans are a pox on the environment.
We aren’t a curse upon the world. We are her new eyes. Her brain, testes, ovaries . . . her ambition and her heart. Her voice. So sing. (556)
While it is not a popular idea among some circles, I personally believe that humans are the culmination of life on Earth and give the Earth meaning. In the best science fiction, we see these ideas discussed and dissected, a useful activity for all of us, because these issues will someday become burning issues of the present day.
Posted: 16 November 2013