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).
(Brin, by the way, is one of three authors entrusted to write a novel in the extended Foundation series. Not a bad credential, in my book.)
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.
April 13th, 2019 at 1:50 pm
Sounds like yet another book I need to inspect!
April 13th, 2019 at 3:01 pm
Because of the little essays, the future visualization, or the first contact plot? (Or, of course, some combination thereof.)
April 13th, 2019 at 3:03 pm
It just seemed an intriguing book and since I grew up on watching Star Trek.
April 13th, 2019 at 3:14 pm
Do you read much SF? If not, this might be a decent way to start. It doesn’t connect to his other universe, so there isn’t a lot of background to have to catch up on (or a bunch of other books you have to read). Yeah, could be worth a look, indeed! (It has intelligent dolphins! 😀 )
April 13th, 2019 at 3:17 pm
All dolphins are intelligent ain’t they? If they know about the destruction of earth before us but are arrogant enough to just say thanks for all the fish?
Not anymore I don’t but it’s always good to have a wide variety of reading material.
April 13th, 2019 at 3:24 pm
True, indeed. At least they left us a nice crystal bowl! (They weren’t arrogant so much as they just didn’t recognize us as being as intelligent as them. 😀 )
I’m very much in favor of a wide variety of reading material!!
April 13th, 2019 at 3:26 pm
If only we were capable of space travel then we could have viewed the plans on alpha centauri and not have to suffer through vogan poetry.
April 13th, 2019 at 5:02 pm
Let alone having to make way for a hyperspace bypass!
Those are some of my all-time favorite books. I re-read the “trilogy” every few years. One of my very favorite bits is when Ford compares hyper-drive to being drunk and Arthur asks what’s so bad about being drunk. Ford replies, “Ask a glass of water.” 😀
I once went to a Halloween party dressed as Arthur Dent. Easy costume: pajamas, a bathrobe, and (of course) a towel!
April 13th, 2019 at 2:21 pm
Sounds interesting. I may have to check it out. I’m currently making my way through Nagata’s new book, Edges, which I’ll likely do a post on on completion.
“For instance, powerful ground based lasers can accelerate an array of light sail equipped smart message bottles towards likely systems.”
I’ve always liked this concept. It seems like a good way to spread probes throughout the galaxy. But how to slow the bottle down at the destination system seems like a serious obstacle. The Breakthrough Starshot concept has the Starchips gathering as much info in the few hours they’re flying through the destination system, and then spending decades beaming it back.
“Brin expands the tactic into one- to four-page segments that primarily (so far) explore the Fermi Paradox and the Great Silence.”
Clarke used to do something like this, with little chapters that basically did infodumps, although he usually didn’t portray them as excerpts from anything. He just waited until after you were comfortable with the characters and wondering how things got to be they way they were, then inserted a three page chapter dumping it in narrative.
“Hey, Humanity! Got what you need! Got what you want! How you gonna pay?”
That’s the question. In an interstellar meta-society, where societies only communicate with each other by long range signals, what is the medium of exchange?
I read a book by Dennis Taylor called ‘The Singularity Trap’ that starts with humans stumbling on an alien bottle of sorts. I reviewed Taylor’s other books, the ‘We Are Bob’ series a while back, but read ‘The Singularity Trap’ during my blogging winter.
April 13th, 2019 at 3:12 pm
“But how to slow the bottle down at the destination system seems like a serious obstacle.”
Brin equips his with collapsible light sails that are collapsed during the journey (after the laser acceleration period) for safety but re-deployed at the destination. One visiting our system used the sail, multiple reverse slingshots around the Sun and Jupiter, plus a trip through Venus’ upper atmosphere, to slow down. It took decades (if not centuries).
The Starchips idea, most exploration-type missions, wouldn’t want to spend that kind of time in just slowing down for data capture. (And it takes a pretty advanced system to pull it off.)
“Clarke used to do something like this,…”
Yeah, it’s fairly common in hard SF. Those guys are just dying to dump! 😀
“[W]here societies only communicate with each other by long range signals, what is the medium of exchange?”
Art, music, entertainment, news, or information, are areas were there is potential.
Even if we have to assume technological knowledge isn’t valuable (maybe it’s too common), it seems art, music, literature, and performance arts, might still have value.
One thing about the artifact,… it’s not clear so far whether it’s a gift or booby trap!
April 13th, 2019 at 5:32 pm
“It took decades (if not centuries)”
Ah, well, if we’re going to be patient about it, that’ll work. Of course, now you have to figure out a power source that will last long enough. Interstellar is hard.
“Art, music, entertainment, news, or information, are areas were there is potential.”
I guess our initial offerings would be all about our culture, until we could learn to use the information we got from them to add value in some way and sell it back. It means dull planets might start off pretty poor.
“it’s not clear so far whether it’s a gift or booby trap!”
The one in Singularity Trap was definitely a trap (tripped early in the book so not a spoiler), although there is dramatic tension on whether it’s a forced gift or has a darker purpose. In Neal Asher’s books, everything like that is a trap. In fiction, traps are usually more interesting than friendship packages, although Sagan and Clarke made friendly versions work. (Although in Clarke’s later monolith books, that changes.)
April 14th, 2019 at 12:02 pm
“Of course, now you have to figure out a power source that will last long enough.”
Yeah, I think that requirement is hand-waved away in a lot of stories. Brin’s message bottles absorb light as an energy source, but I’m not sure light provides enough energy. On the flip side, the devices are solid state and don’t expend much energy other than displaying images.
“It means dull planets might start off pretty poor.”
LOL! That’ll teach’m to not have good storytellers!
(Heh, there’s probably at least a short story in that idea.)
“The one in Singularity Trap was definitely a trap… “
I just crossed the halfway point, and we don’t have any idea what the device is really all about. They’ve been withholding light in an attempt to get the crowd of alien (minds? AIs?) to stop shoving each other out of the way and settle down to a real discussion.
(This discussion is getting close to spoiler territory, though, so there are some details I won’t reveal.)
April 14th, 2019 at 1:51 pm
It seems like light would definitely work near a star. And I could see an argument that an efficient enough technology could probably use the light from a star hundreds of OU away.
The question is whether it would be enough in the depths of interstellar space, light years away from the nearest star, for the centuries or millenia the bottle is in transit. Maybe it would be enough to keep it in a low energy standby mode?
The bottle would want to cool to 10-20 K. Maybe if the alien technology retained energy so completely it could hold on to the heat? If it couldn’t, the rate of physical processes would slow dramatically. And if it did, it seems like entropy would still be an inevitable issue.
(How an interstellar probe might actually work tends to be one of my preoccupations.)
April 14th, 2019 at 5:41 pm
“Maybe it would be enough to keep it in a low energy standby mode?”
Many SF stories we’ve read posit a “hibernation” mode, where a device essentially stops and waits for an external input of energy to revive it.
If we imagine very efficient energy storage and very efficient capture of photons of all (or wide) frequencies, it’s possible the device starts fully charged (perhaps from its boost laser) and then hibernates until external sources wake it up.
Brin assumes the reverse slingshots are from very accurate aiming, that the device had no mobility other than from its lightsail. You’d think chaotic effects would make aim that good impossible, so a real life probe would seem to need some ability to maneuver.
Maybe a clever use of lightsail? On the presumption of being in a star system providing energy for the system and motors.
“Maybe if the alien technology retained energy so completely it could hold on to the heat?”
Good point. Might some of it be made to work at cryogenic temps? Superconducting circuits? It would also have to work in warmer environments.
You almost have to assume hibernation during the journey. Plus extremely fast velocity to shorten the apparent duration. (Since, as we discussed, you can take your time to slow down.)
It might be nice to wake up periodically during the journey, but that assumes some part of the device remains active. And requires energy use during travel. OTOH, what would really be the point? Making observations would use more energy plus storage space.
April 14th, 2019 at 6:16 pm
“Since, as we discussed, you can take your time to slow down.”
The problem is, if all you have is the destination star’s solar wind to slow you down, that puts a pretty tight constraint on how fast you can make the transit. You won’t get much deceleration until you’re approaching the star. I think Gregory Matloff’s analysis was that you couldn’t get the travel time to less than 800-900 years. (I assume this was to Alpha Centauri.)
I think that’s why Forward was motivated to develop the idea of beam propulsion as an alternative, although that alternative has staggering energy requirements.
“And requires energy use during travel. OTOH, what would really be the point?”
One of the issues to contend with on long voyages is accumulated radiation damage from the interstellar environment. It seems like the probe would have to wake enough to periodically assess its state and make any needed repairs. Of course, for an alien craft, we can simply imagine shielding using some material or technique we don’t know yet.
April 14th, 2019 at 6:29 pm
“The problem is, if all you have is the destination star’s solar wind to slow you down,”
Right. I was assuming the use of reverse slingshot menuevers.
“One of the issues to contend with on long voyages is accumulated radiation damage from the interstellar environment.”
Yeah, you’d want shielding and your circuits would have to be pretty hardened.
“…make any needed repairs…”
Assuming you have any capacity along those lines.
Brin makes the analogy of “seeds” that are cheap and easy to produce and send off to potential targets. The seeds are essentially inert during transit, and only at the end do they come to “life.”
As with seeds in nature, it just needs one to take root, so the calculus in this case accepts a very high failure rate.
When the mission involves gathering info, and returning it, there’s a whole different calculus, and as you say, interstellar is hard. When you actually care about the package, the challenges are extreme!
April 14th, 2019 at 7:30 pm
Sorry, I forgot about the gravity assists. It makes sense those could shave a lot of time off the trip. But our initial incoming speed from interstellar space is still limited. Our initial pass has to slow us down enough so that the sun’s gravity can capture us, and since that initial deceleration is only solar, we’d still have a tight limit, albeit higher than before. In other words, you can’t come in at 10% c.
(Although there is discussion of an alternative to the Breakthrough Starshot design that involves using Alpha Centauri A and B to slow the crafts down while slinging them around, with a then slow enough approach to Proxima to go into orbit in that system. It involves an initial approach Centauri A at 4.6% c. https://www.seeker.com/breakthrough-starshot-proxima-centauri-physics-interstellar-hawking-mi-2250504927.html )
As you noted, the subsequent gravity assists themselves take a lot of time. But I can see how the overall travel time might be significantly shorter than Matloff’s estimate.
On shielding and hardening, my understanding is we’d need that even on a fast transit (decades or shorter), but on a slow one (centuries), the time makes even traditional hardening inadequate. Self healing might be mandatory. (Or again, alien shielding and Clarke’s third law. 🙂 )
April 14th, 2019 at 8:55 pm
“Although there is discussion of an alternative to the Breakthrough Starshot design that involves using Alpha Centauri A and B to slow the crafts down while slinging them around,”
Exactly. Brin has his probe using the Sun and Jupiter and many, many passes. There’s also a trip through the upper atmosphere of Venus to slow things down.
“On shielding and hardening, my understanding is we’d need that even on a fast transit (decades or shorter), but on a slow one (centuries), the time makes even traditional hardening inadequate.”
Sure, with how we build circuits. It’s not hard to assume an entirely new form of technology designed with deep space in mind. I can’t think of anything that would prohibit such technology.
Obviously, we’re a long way from being able to do it!