Existence by David Brin
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|Existence by David Brin|
|Category: Science Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A mammoth undertaking - for writer and reader - as the definitions of mankind get surveyed by this dense, literary but ultimately most worthwhile sci-fi.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 560||Date: June 2012|
We are a few decades further into the 21st Century at the start of this sci-fi novel. The world is buckling under climate change, and over-population. Those with enough funds are completely wired into a virtual world, but wherever they live out their existence things are going to be changed, when a space-based labourer, clearing space junk from orbit, finds an alien artifact containing contact with various races in a sort of memory bank cum virtual reality. Where are the aliens that had previously been so silent while we sought for them with our Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence? What is the purpose and message behind this capsule? And who can be sure that this alleged First Contact was actually the first?
Make no bones about it, this is a hefty chunk of sci-fi. It comes as little surprise given its very size to see the author started work on elements of it well over twenty years ago, and I'll state my claim now that if he has anything more to say about the nature of mankind and humanity that he has included here, then he truly is at the forefront of his genre. In this hi-tech near future the nature of man is very debatable, whether you mean a resurrected Neanderthal, a common or garden scavenger, or Tor, a journalist who like many have become virtually cyborg, using AI constructs so small they can be controlled by flicks of the tongue against your teeth, and use a processor unit and display built into a solitary contact lens.
There is also a welter of sci-fi tropes, from the nature of alien contact, the truthful reality that we're seeing scant results (at time of writing) in our hunting them out, and how we react when we perceive alien life. The structure of the book - every chapter is separated by a section in a second font, dressed as non-fiction, which can take some getting used to due to the undefined author of those for the most part - allows Brin to factor all of this in, in a highly educational way, without it ever being laboriously encyclopaedic in exposition.
That said, it can be quite laborious. This is a complete existence, and given that we scatter from various characters to others chapter by chapter (and don't be surprised if some vanish at certain points, never to be seen again) there is so much here to take in. To repeat, Brin seems to have left nothing out when he comes to his themes. His AI world with its controls, virtually overlaying our reality with levels and levels of adjustments, scanning options, adverts, graffiti et al, the culture of this version of the Internet, with flash mobs built up regarding potential cause to be a living Wiki with a hive mind, and influencing both the real and the electronic world by peer pressure, fits surprisingly well into the marathon chase we have for the climax to the alien side of things.
This is definitely hard sci-fi, of the kind many people might have assumed had died a death. With Brin's VR world it completely reboots the cyberpunk novel for a new generation of reader, and in combining a lot of 2001, Greg Bear's Eon and Doctor Who quotes, it gives us an absorbing Big Issue story about humanity. I did think at times the future world was too close time-wise to our current world, for the advances made. I did also think the really gritty, gripping oo-er bits about Contact could be far too far apart, given the book's size and depth, although there are definitely a few. In fact you could pluck a percentage out the air and say this could still be incredibly readable if it were reduced in length by that amount. But the fact remains this is an imperious example of its kind, and few with the stamina will condemn the time taken to read it as a bad investment.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
A similarly daunting piece of hard-SF we can recommend to the right reader is 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Existence by David Brin at Amazon.com.
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