I’m not quite halfway through Existence, by David Brin, but I’m enjoying it so much I have to start talking about it now. For one thing, it’s such a change from the Last Chronicles, which was a hard slog with a disappointing ending. (Still worth the journey, though.)
The novel is a standalone, not part of his Uplift Universe, but it apparently can be viewed as a kind of prequel to that reality. However: so far no alien contact, humanity is still on Earth, and computers are not conscious (but AI is very, very good). The year, as far as I can tell, seems to be in the 2040s or 2050s.
At heart, the novel’s theme is the Fermi Paradox; it examines many of the potential Great Filters that might end an intelligent species. But now an alien artifact has been found, a kind of message in a bottle that appears to contain a crowd of alien minds…
I’ve been a Brin fan since I first read Startide Rising back in the 1980s.
I’m a sucker for decent hard SF, and I’ve enjoyed everything of his I’ve read, but I’m especially enjoying this one. Until I started reading Existence, I would have said Sundiver was my favorite (although I though Kiln People was pretty good).
What I’m loving about Existence is that Brin writes about some of the same things I’ve written about here (going on eight years) and discussed with (or ranted at) people for over four decades.
It’s comforting to know someone as smart and capable as Brin sees the same things I do. It means I’m not the crazy one.
Other people see it, too.
I’m not going to go into the plot or the characters, at least not in this post.
As I said, I’m not even halfway through, so I’m not sure what this alien artifact (found in orbit by a garbage collector) actually is. Neither are the characters in the book, at this point.
It does appear (to them) too advanced to be a hoax.
One thing Brin points out is that SETI is premised on the idea of an alien civilization deliberately and constantly broadcasting.
But economically speaking, it’s asking a lot to expect a civilization to broadcast a powerful signal in all directions all the time.
Brin suggests (assuming it’s smart in the first place to announce your presence in what might be a hostile galaxy) that messages in bottles, despite being much slower, can be far more productive.
For instance, powerful ground based lasers can accelerate an array of light sail equipped smart message bottles towards likely systems. The bottle can lurk in that system until life is produced. It can even, potentially, avoid hostile intent and keep your location secret.
The bottle we find, orbiting Earth among our junk, seems very old. It seems to absorb energy from light and to be activated by human touch. Inside, apparently, are a variety of alien… minds? AIs?
I love how Brin explores the Fermi Paradox. He considers some angles I’d never thought about…
Consider the problem of specialization.
It starts, first with hunters and tool-makers and home-keepers. Skills that extend the power and reach of a tribe. As they grow, we have blacksmiths and bakers and other skills and crafts. Professions that allow a whole society to advance.
But over time specializations become narrower and narrower. People know more and more about less and less. Knowledge becomes increasingly inaccessible to all but the specialists.
In the worst case scenario, society fragments and stagnates: think termite hive with specialized members doing their tasks.
What saved humanity was the internet. In retrospect, it seems an obvious solution, but Brin asks:
“Which of our past military or commercial or hereditary empires would have unleashed something as powerful as the Internet, letting it spread — unfettered and free — to every tower and hovel? Or allow so many skilled tasks to be performed by the unlicensed?”
Looked at that way, perhaps we were lucky! An alien civilization might not come up with an open democracy like ours.
In Existence, Brin takes the tactic of appending chapters with a self-contained flow of mini-essays not directly connected with his plot.
Asimov and Herbert used the more common form of the tactic in Foundation and Dune, respectively. The common form starts chapters with, in Asimov’s case, entries from Encyclopedia Galactica or, in Herbert’s case, various excerpts from various texts.
It allows the author to do info dumps without having to awkwardly insert them into character dialog (or do a dialog-halting digression). And because they’re meant to be info dumps, they can be dense.
These differ from the info found in an appendix in being, usually, more relevant to the action, which is why the author stuck them in. The info in an appendix can often be completely ignored without damaging the plot or theme.
Brin expands the tactic into one- to four-page segments that primarily (so far) explore the Fermi Paradox and the Great Silence.
The bits I’m quoting all come from these post-chapter sections. They’re the bits that are especially grabbing me. (I’ve done lots of highlighting and bookmarking!)
The bulk of the book, the characters and plot, involves the discovery of this active alien artifact in orbit. So far the story follows six key characters on six separate paths (although two are mother and son, and I foresee other paths merging).
The story takes place 25 or 30 years from now, and I think Brin does a very nice job projecting AI and communications technology.
AI is very advanced, although (with one exception) not conscious. AR glasses, goggles, even eyeball implants are almost as necessary as a cell phone is today. The World Mesh layers AR level zero (base reality) with hundreds of layers utilitarian and artistic.
One can walk through a world where all the buildings are covered in flowers, for instance. Myriad artists contribute to creating these reality overlays.
Advanced sensors and AI detect sub-vocal commands, iris dilation, gaze direction and timing, to anticipate their users’ wishes. It’s a pretty neat reality Brin has constructed.
The one exception, the one conscious AI, is a rat mind. A young girl uploaded her rat’s brain and it did what rats do: got into everything.
Brin has only mentioned it in passing so far, but apparently Portifino is seeking a mate, and he’s looking everywhere. Meanwhile, the young girl is keeping her technique a secret.
Brin points out something about first contact we might not expect:
An alien civilization, whatever they are, almost certainly has some sense of commerce. Even in a society of plenty, there is always a need for new experience and new information.
What if an advanced alien race shows up some day, a species that has solved problems we face and discovered technology we crave. And what if they’re perfectly friendly and careful of our culture and very willing to share…
For a price.
Hey, Humanity! Got what you need! Got what you want! How you gonna pay?
Talking about the promises of technology, especially of technological fixes, Brin writes:
“Ponder an irony. Your premise is that average folk can be trusted with complex/dangerous future. You say people = smart! People adapt. Can handle coming transformation into gods! How libertarian of you.
“Yet, you sneer at the majority of human societies, who disagreed! Romans, Persians, Inca, Han, and others who said fragile humanity can’t take much change.”
And goes on to point out that, if people really are wise, then their opinion about the dangers of technology must be respected, not disdained.
But if people are not wise, then why would we trust them with technology?
Brin points out another funny irony: We may say democracy is the best, but:
“Feudalism was the prevalent human condition erupting in all eras and cultures, since history began to be recorded on clay tablets. Even in modern films and popular culture, the theme resonated. Millions who were descended from enlightenment revolutionaries, now devoured tales about kings, wizards, and secret hierarchies. Superheroes and demigods. Celebrities, august families, and inherited privilege.”
Which gives me a whole new spin on underpants movies. Not to mention Game of Thrones!
Apparently, Plato hated the idea of a democracy. These days ya gotta wonder if he had a point.
So, between a plot and a background reality that I’m digging, plus some really on-point mini-essays that seriously tickle my fancy, I’m all ten proverbial thumbs up on Existence!
No doubt I’ll post part 2 when I finish.
Stay reading, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.