NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Friday, August 10, 2012

REVIEW: Existence by David Brin [Full link to blog for email clients.]

David Brin is a contrarian - he says so right in his blog.  I don't always agree with him - heck, I don't often agree with him.

But I admire his writing.

Existence is Brin's first book in 10 years.  I can believe that it may have taken him that long to write it.  It's convoluted, jumps back and forth, leaves you guessing far too often, and juggles so many threads that seem totally disconnected that you wonder where the whole thing is going.

I loved it.

 - yeah, it was hard to follow at first.  Like John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar" and Brin's prior opus "Earth", Existence consists of short chapters of the main story line(s) (there's at least 4) interspersed with news, book quotes and internet-like excerpts.  However, the masterstroke of Brin's writing is that all of these seemingly disconnected parts come together in the end leaving the reader quite satisfied with not just the "past" of the storyline, but also the implied, unwritten "future" for the characters.

I must warn you, though, the book is long.  I read it on Kindle, which informs me that the book is over 14,000 "locations" long.  The Amazon listing says the hardback is 560 pages.  Looking at the Table of Contents reveal 8 major parts and 99 chapters, but as stated above, they're short and advance the story in small increments per major character or storyline.

Now onto the story:
It's 2050, the world is heating up and running out - of everything.  The rich seek any thrill they can afford while the poor eke out a living on yesterday's discards,  America is fractured even as it rebuilds from a spasm of terrorism some twenty years before.  Young people spend much of their time connected to computers that people walk around with artificial intelligences in their eyeglasses, coloring and commenting on everything they see.  From the bottom of the ocean to the top of the atmosphere, the Earth is overloaded with junk and people wonder what the point is to progress, to Existence, and whether the next industrial mishap, outbreak, natural disaster, computer construct or war will end human existence forever.  
Astronaut Gerald Livingstone wanted to be a hero, but instead he's a garbage collector, lassoing unwanted space junk out of orbit, but the latest object isn't junk, but a smooth, crystalline emissary from alien races far away in distance and time - but what do they mean by the enigmatic message?

Brin weaves many lives in parallel with Livingstone:
Tor Povlov is a journalist whose accident leads her to a different type of existence;
"Hacker" is a bored rich kid who discovers a new intelligence where he least expects it;
Hamish Brookeman is an author, director, celebrity and apologist for a movement that wants to renounce technological advancement;

Peng Xiang Bin is just trying to survive by reclaiming a home for his family from a drowned coastal mansion - until he discovers an artifact of his own which offers a startling counter viewpoint.
As I said, Brin weaves all of these lives and stories together - not always seamless - but that, too, is part of the story.  From beginning to ending, the story paints a sweeping epic that asks whether it is enough to simply exist, and what it is that defines that existence.

I was quite satisfied with the book, and felt a satisfying sense of closure at the end.  Not all mysteries were answered, and not all threads were knotted, but while the novel begins as a type of dystopia, it ends with Brin's characteristic sense of hope and energy which  always keeps me coming back for more.

If there is one major idea or concept that I will take away from Existence, it is Brin's treatment of the age-old question of how Mankind ensures that artificial intelligences, robots and androids don't turn on their creators (Terminator, anyone?).

Brin's answer?  We domesticate them.  We raise them as we would children, and teach them to be people, with all the rights and responsibilities of natural born humans.

Right.  Individual humans achieve immortality through their offspring.  In this manner, silico-intelligences would be our children, and can carry our legacy into a future even if our own Existence is less than certain.

Tell me that's not a reason for hope!

Well done, Dr. Brin.  Well done.

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