Review: Existence by David Brin

I think it was during my extremely short collaboration with Harlan Ellison that I was introduced to the term “Speculative Fiction“.

When I was growing up in a little town in North Carolina, I fell in love with what we called Science Fiction. I devoured Asimov and Niven and Pohl, and while the local library held little in the way of such books, I spent the money I made mowing lawns on books from the Science Fiction Book Club, one of those mail order (I originally wrote “on-line” – sigh) “Book of the Month” companies that sold cheaply printed hardbacks at a discount. They also included a genre called “Fantasy” which included Tolkien, Zelzany and others.

As the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre grew, a new subgenre of books and stories arose that were much better defined by the term Speculative Fiction, although that term currently acts as an umbrella over all sorts of writing including horror and alternate histories. Descendants of the “hard” science fiction of Asimov, speculative fiction strives not only to entertain, but to predict. The plots of these stories tend to arise out of reactions to changes in technology, and they differed from regular Science Fiction by increasing the “plausibility” of the scenarios they portrayed.

One of my favorite books of this sort is the 1989 novel Earth by David Brin. Brin is probably best known for his Uplift series of novels. In them, the Earth is contacted by a large interstellar community of beings, ranked by their age and the number of beings they have “uplifted” into sentience. This uplifting service is not without a price: the uplifted species is indentured to a long period of service to the uplifting race. This can be quite profitable, so the competition to find potential species to uplift is fierce. When Earth is contacted, the human race has already uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees, which prevents them from becoming indentured, but this form of “bootstrapped” sentience is unknown in the galaxy and so the other races are suspicious, and some become downright hostile. What I love most about the books is the imagination that went into creating the different alien species. Imagine a life form made up of stacked rings, where each ring is a small chemical plant? Different combinations of rings produce different types of individuals. That’s just one of the many aliens that populate these books.

In the novel Earth, Brin put that imagination to use by setting it 50 years in the future. I’ve purchased a number of copies of that book over the years to give away just because of the number of predictions that have come true, such as the Internet, global warming and the erosion of privacy. There is a strong focus on the environment that I knew would appeal to several of my friends.

In Existence, Brin returns to those roots with a massive 800+ page novel that takes place roughly 40 years from now. It will be interesting to see which of his predictions comes true from this book.

Like Earth, the book is a little hard to start. He has a cast of characters that would make George R. R. Martin blush, and it wasn’t until about page 100 that I really got into it.

The book starts off with Gerald Livingstone, an astronaut/janitor tasked with clearing out space junk. Using an electromagnetic tether tens of kilometers in length, his job is grab onto space junk and fling it into the atmosphere so it will burn up before colliding with something important. Only this time he grabs an unknown object, an object of extraterrestrial origin, that causes great shifts in power and culture on Earth.

All of this takes place on an Earth that *could be*.

The main theme, and hence the name of the book, involves the extinction of the human race. One answer to the Fermi Paradox, which asks the question “if the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence is so high, why hasn’t it contacted us?” is that all species that approach the ability to travel across space end up self destructing. This book examines numerous scenarios that would cause that, and the possibility to avoid them.

One scenario is that we blow ourselves up. There is a quote from the book:

One sage who helped build the first atom bomb put it pun-gently “When has a man, bloody down to his soul, invented a new weapon and foresworn using it?”

Think North Korea and a possible US response to the use of nuclear weapons.

Another scenario is that we turn inward. In the wonderful non-fiction book 1493, I learned about the Chinese explorer Zheng He, who is also mentioned in Extinction. China had a technologically advanced civilization centuries before the West, but they rarely ventured outside of their borders. In one exception to that, Zheng He took a huge fleet of ships around the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but with the death of his Emperor those stopped. Perhaps that will happen to the human race, we’ll turn inward and stop looking out.

It is hard to write about the book without spoilers, but I am going to try not to give away the plot. Like many of his books, it reads like a thriller, which makes the presentations of all of these doomsday scenarios and ways to avoid them pretty entertaining. Once I got past page 100 I couldn’t put the book down.

It also happened that I was reading it while on holiday on the island of Roatán off the coast of Honduras.

The ocean plays a role in many of his works, and I liked reading about dolphins while being near them. One of my criticisms of the book is that there are a number of story lines that just seem to end. One involves the Uplift Project for dolphins, so in a small way this book could serve a prequel to that series, but I see it more like J.J. Abrams reimagining of the Star Trek universe than a true prequel, as Uplift aliens don’t play a role.

He does address one of my concerns, although not thoroughly. As this viral video explains, the distribution of wealth in the United States is getting heavily skewed.

Now I am certain that at least two of my three readers are thinking, “Yeah, but in American anyone can aspire to be in that 1%”. The truth is that it is becoming much harder, as factors such as contacts made while in school and family heritage start to erect barriers toward crossing into that zone where 1% of the population controls 20% or more of the total wealth. In other words, it ain’t based on merit and hard work any more. The political system has been gamed to make sure that percentage stays right where it is, if not increasing.

What usually happens in periods when a society’s wealth is skewed like this is revolution. The poor, with nothing to lose, simply take from the rich. Now, as Brin puts it in his book, the surveillance state may be able to locate a stop a potential Robespierre, but there are plenty of scenarios where no amount of surveillance could stop a revolution from happening.

In Existence, there was a cataclysmic event called “Awfulday” that isn’t described in detail, but it resulted in something called “the Big Deal”. The world was classified into 12 “Estates”, or castes, and rules were put in place to insure a smooth interaction between Estates in order to avoid such a revolution. The First Estate is made up of the wealthy, but instead of being in the 99%, these people measure there wealth in seven to eight “9s”. They play a role in the plot of the book, and although he doesn’t offer any real solutions toward wealth inequality, the Big Deal does offer some ways to mitigate it.

I enjoyed this book immensely and would recommend it to anyone who likes these sort of things. I do have some criticisms, however. When you hit Part Seven, there is a large gap in time between it and Part Six. Since this is on page 663 of the book, Brin can be forgiven for wanting to wrap things up, but I found the transition jarring. Plus there were a number of story lines that just seem to peter out. While it was important to describe the kinds of activities those of the First Estate would be able to engage in as technology progresses, for example, it would have been nice to have some sort of way to bring those stories back into the conclusion instead of dismissing them.

But that could also be just a personal bias. The main criticism I receive about my writing is that I’m too detailed and I want to explain everything, and part of the magic is to leave some up that up to the reader. But in this case I think Brin just got tired. This had to be a hard book to write, as there are hundreds of ideas here, each one a “noggin’ scratcher” and could drive a story in its own right.

The only thing I found missing was a thought I had about fixing the issues that plague us today. Note that when it comes to things like the environment, I’m not a “Save the Earth” kind of guy, but more of a “Save the Humans” kind of guy. I think the Earth will always find a way to support life until the sun swallows it up in several billion years. Almost every issue we have facing us is due to too many people being on the planet. In Earth there is an organization that wants to take this to the extreme, where they estimate that the carrying capacity for humans is around 400,000 people, and they have come up with plan to sharply decrease the number of humans to make it closer to that goal.

As purely a thought experiment I wonder: what if we sterilized 99% of all humans on the planet today (randomly, of course, to avoid any taint of eugenics)? Assuming it could be done, we would take the current population of seven billion down to seventy million in about 80 years – about twice the size of the Tokyo metropolitan area. Imagine today’s resources spread across so few people. I can’t help but think it would be a paradise. Of course the path to getting there would be hell – toward the end of that span you’d end up with billions of elderly supported by a small amount of youth, and the drive to reproduce is so ingrained in our genes that most would find the idea abhorrent on moral grounds (There is also evidence to suggest that the world’s population will start to plateau but even if that happens at the ten billion mark, that is still a whole lot of people).

If I had a fraction of the talent of Brin, there would be a book in that idea.