Existence: a review

I believe this is the sort of novel that people might be thinking of when they suggest science fiction is ideas heavy but character and/or plot light. I’d never really understood that accusation of modern SF… until now. (I would have given it 3.5 if I could.)

It took me more than a fortnight to finish reading this. For fewer than 550 pages, that’s… well, for me that’s positively an age. I did consider giving up on it, several times in fact. But the ideas kept me coming back and made me determined to see it through, to see what Brin did with this sprawling, messy saga. And I think I’m glad that I did. Not absolutely positive, but probably.

Anyway, let me first talk about the positives. There are some really, really awesome ideas here. The basic premise that drives the plot is a first-contact one, but done in a fairly unusual way: a crystal snatched from orbit, activated by human touch and sunlight, that appears to contain alien life of some sort. The unfolding drama of the knowledge revealed – and how it changes, or at least develops, over time – and how humanity deals with it is a genuinely fascinating take on Fermi and all the other variations on “where are the aliens, what will they do when they get here, and how will we respond?” That’s the plot, boiled down to its essentials; and it was fairly intriguing.

Also intriguing was the world Brin set this alien contact against. If there’s a clear explanation of when this is occurring I missed it, but it seems to start only a few decades from now. Complete climate collapse has not occurred but is still very much on the cards; technology has continued to advance in leaps and bounds, towards smart-specs and similar toys imagined by cyberpunk so many decades ago but which still seem elusive in 2012; AI appears to have been achieved, along with other technological wizardry. I liked that there appeared to be variety in this world, in how people dealt with technology at least. I did not especially like the world itself, though – although this is not in itself one of the novel’s negatives. The world is not quite dysfunctional enough to be a dystopia – although that would perversely probably have been easier to read. Instead this is a world apparently divided into ten Estates not just determined by wealth but by allegiance to such abstracts as Science and The Media; a world where inequality is as, if not more, entrenched than today, with apparently few people acting against it, and added fears of technology on the one hand and the ‘Autism Plague’ on the other; frankly, a world that I hope does not come to pass. From an objective point of view, this is a fairly well-described world, although I am unconvinced of its realism.

The novel’s structure is linear chronologically and inconsistent in perspective. Numerous characters act as the focus over the 550 pages: the most prominent are a novelist, a journalist, a society lady, an astronaut, and a peasant. There are also excerpts of such non-plot devices as books and talk shows thrown in, which generally works. These different perspectives serve to give just that, of course – different perspectives on the world and on the events unfolding. Over the course of the novel, there was only one character that I particularly liked, and who did manage to get a word in for the entire length of the novel: the journalist, Tor. She had a fun role to play as the inquisitive, poking-nose-in type, despite various problems hampering her abilities.

This brings me to one of the problems in this novel – two, actually. One is the characters. Most of them weren’t necessarily unlikeable so much as they were unapproachable or uninteresting. Additionally there were a few characters who promised to be or do quite interesting things who just… disappeared. Their narrative stopped popping up, occasionally with little or no resolution to their particular quandary or arc. This was intensely frustrating. This is definitely not a novel for those who prefer their story to be character driven.

The second problem was the structure itself. It was often unclear, at the opening of a new section, exactly who was speaking or where the events were happening. Sometimes that was cleared up, and at other times it was left opaque and mysterious. And sometimes these mysteries resolved with later revelations, but there are still some bits that don’t seem to fit in at all, and really that just seems like a waste of words and my time.

Thirdly, there’s the world itself. I felt like Frank Poole, the dead astronaut who wakes up at the start of 3001: The Final Odyssey to find it’s a millennium later, and suffers a fair amount of culture shock. Now I love cyberpunk and far future stuff, so culture shock isn’t necessarily an unpleasant experience for me. But here, it just made me tired, and irritable. A new piece of technology? Cue eye-rolling and mutters of ‘really? more?’ – because it seems to be set in the near future (as someone one said, near future is within the reviewer’s lifetime), and therefore improbable. The technology may not have been so overwhelming, though, if it wasn’t for the language. Brin has messed with a lot of language to indicate how heavily reliant this version of the future is on computers, frequently turning ‘a’s into ‘ai’: aissistant, for example; or adding ‘v’, as in virtisement; or even combining both in vraiffiti. Add in a whole bunch of gobbledy acronyms (tsoosu=to see ourselves as other see us=viewing yourself through one of the innumerable cams in place in this world; hello, panopticon Big Brother), and I simply found it overwhelming.

Overall, then, this is a big-ideas novel that is let down by two-dimensional characterisation and what occasionally feels like deliberately obfuscating language.

2 responses

  1. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Brin’s earlier work, so this is one I want to read. Just might be getting it from the library instead of putting out mucho bucks for the hardback!

    1. So, I do think it’s worth reading, especially if his previous stuff has worked for you… I have Sundiver (I think?) on the TBR shelf, and I will certainly still give that a go; I’ll be interested to see whether this was just too ambitious, or whether it is indicative of his stuff overall! Look forward to hearing your thoughts 🙂

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