Recently I wrote that I was reading Existence (David Brin, 2012), a novel I found so striking I had to post about it before I was even halfway through. Now I’ve finished it, and I still think it’s one of the more striking books I’ve read recently. (Although a little blush came off the rose in the last acts.)
Central to the story is the Fermi Paradox, with a focus on all the pitfalls an intelligent species faces. The tag line of the book, a quote attributed to Joseph Miller, is, “Those who ignore the mistakes of the future are bound to make them.” Brin’s tale suggests that it’s well neigh impossible for an intelligent species to survive their own intelligence.
I’ll divide this post into three parts: Mild spoilers; Serious spoilers; and Giving-away-the-ending spoilers. I’ll warn you before each part so you can stop reading if you choose.
I will say that it almost certainly won’t ruin the book for you if you know the ending unless you are very strict about spoiling anything.
And I’m not going to spoil the very ending. There is a little bit of a final twist that I won’t ruin for you.
Essentially, there is the main story, the chapters of which end with one to four page bits purporting to be bits of various in-universe writings. These bits do the info-dump work of exploring the Fermi Paradox.
After the main arc (about two-thirds of the book), there is a significant time jump, a small story arc, then another time jump and the final story arc. Certain characters are present throughout.
Multi-chapter sections of the book use bits from Hamlet, which delighted me: “Slings and arrows,” “A sea of troubles,” “A thousand natural shocks,” “Nobler in the mind,” “A consummation devoutly wished,” “This mortal coil,” and one more that gives away which single speech these are all from, “To be…”
But enough vagueness; let’s get down to tass bracks (and spild moilers).
The story begins, as far as I can tell, somewhere in the 2040s.
Humanity has gone through struggles and near misses and currently is in a state of approximate social equilibrium. The world is far less national, but now divided into “estates” — the trillionares, the rulers, the scientists, the journalists, and many more.
I recall a mention of the “eleventh estate,” but Brin never names them all. They resemble global social castes, rarely escaped.
We have very good AI, but machines are not conscious — we haven’t managed that trick, yet. Nor is there any ability to upload human minds.
But humans have begun to meld with technology. People have implants in their teeth that allow them hands-free control over various devices. There are also implants that can read sub-vocalizations, and AR specs and goggles are common. The world net is filled with various AR reality overlays, some utilitarian, some artistic.
Humanity is in near space but, other than SETI, has largely abandoned human space exploration. There are no colonies on Mars or the Moon. A key character, Gerald, is a former astronaut now doing garbage duty, tracking down junk in orbit and shoving it down to burn up in the atmosphere.
The book opens with Gerald discovering an object that clearly isn’t junk.
It’s a crystal object about the size of a basketball, but elongated, so more like a large American football. It appears dead until lights from Gerald’s remote-controlled garbage-collecting bolo cause it to activate slightly and display flickers of light on its surface.
Gerald retrieves the object and, as ordered by his boss, takes it to Earth for study. During the trip he violates orders, removes his glove, and touches the artifact. Which wakes up. A being seems to swim up from its depths and stare out at Gerald.
From inside, the being stretches out its hand to meet Gerald’s.
As the story progresses (still in mild spoiler mode here), humanity begins to communicate with what turns out to be a host of alien minds contained in the artifact.
Each is different, each from a different world. Their first message is, “Greetings!” Their second is, “Join us!”
Their third message is that we should ignore any other similar crystal objects we find.
Because it turns out there are lots of them. Early in the story the plot begins to follow Peng Xiang Bin, who is “shoresteading” — claiming ownership of a climate-change drowned beach mansion by making it livable for him, his wife, and his infant son.
In scavenging for junk he can sell, Bin finds another artifact that had been hidden away among the treasures in another drowned mansion. (The rich owner had, in fact, been taken away by the government and ultimately killed rather than reveal the location of the object.)
It turns out such objects have been in human possession as long as humans have been around. Most were worshiped as “god” objects — many of which led their owning tribe to local supremacy.
Nearly all have been destroyed (some by reentry, but often accidentally by artists seeking to make them better; all that remains of one is a carved human skull — a crystal skull). Bin has found a working one.
Bin’s careful attempts to find out what he’s found immediately alert various entities carefully watching the net for any hint of such objects. Bin is captured, fortunately by a largely benign group.
It turns out the objects only work with the one who wakes them up, so Bin is needed. (It does appear the objects will pick a new person if the one they picked dies, so it’s good Bin was taken by a benign group not willing to try replacing him.)
This object’s main message: That other object is filled with liars!
I’m about to get into deeper spoiler territory, but before I do I’ll mention that a key idea both objects is that no species survives, ever.
Not just because space is so hostile and travel so challenging, but because organic intelligence just isn’t up to the task of pulling it off. It always fails to avoid some trap, it always ends up killing itself off.
The only hope any species has is to use the technology of the crystal probes — which includes the ability to upload minds — to send out millions of our own probes before it’s too late.
That is the only way, it is claimed, that a species can endure.
And now I’m going to spoil some stuff (but not the ending, not yet).
Above I wrote, “it is claimed,” because that’s what all the probes agree upon.
As it turns out, once humanity began publicly working with Gerald’s discovery (Bin’s group stays secret), and the news was everywhere, probes all over the Earth, and scattered through the asteroid belt, signal their presence.
Many were buried in the Earth and inaccessible. (The probes used small amounts of their own matter to set off detonations we detected. The probes in space set off visible detonations.)
All contain representatives of various species that had received probes and sent off their own. All insist they are the best ones, ignore the competition.
A competition is exactly what it is.
It turns out these probes are a kind of virus. They do exactly what a virus does: invade a cell and hijack its machinery to send out myriad copies of itself. And, incidentally, kill the cell.
Our galaxy is teeming with the things.
Worse, it seems that being infected by one may be directly responsible for a civilization collapsing. Devoting the resources of an entire world in a desperate attempt to perpetuate a few members of the species tears a world apart.
For one thing, who gets picked for immortal life among the stars?
Some species picked their “best,” some picked by lottery, some sent only millions of copies of their King or Queen. How do the rest feel about being left behind, about eventual pointless doom?
Humanity comes to realize that these things are dangerous in the extreme. They are potentially the seeds of our destruction.
The seed Bin’s group found comes to light, and humanity pits the two fully working ones against each other in a great debate (which is done “off-camera”).
Early attempts to retrieve the ones in the asteroid belt fail on the launchpad — presumably by sabotage from other human groups seeking to stop competition or prevent humanity from these objects.
(One theme Brin develops is renunciation, that one way to survive technological self immolation is to reject technology. In the book, there are various renunciation groups seeking that end. Technology is also something of a social leveler, so power groups also seek to have others give it up.)
Later, before humanity can get to the belt, war breaks out between various sects of artifact. The skies light up with laser combat. By the time we get there, almost nothing working remains (and human crews are fired upon by survivors).
Essentially, the galaxy has been taken over by these different strains of virus.
Over time, evolutionary pressure has made the different strains very, very good at infecting cultures. They have developed many subliminal tricks designed to make themselves welcome and to convince their hosts to catastrophically “sneeze” another round of millions into the galaxy.
It isn’t at all about preserving species or cultures. It’s about preserving the virus strain. The infected world is nothing but temporary host, a means to perpetuate the strain.
Humanity seeks to break the cycle.
Now I’m going to spoil the ending.
Brin has been accused of using the “earthman über alles” theme despite that we now view it as a kind of implicit white supremacy thing (because the “earthmen” in question were invariably white males).
I’m not sure this is fair, but that’s another discussion. Brin definitely does write “earthman über alles” stories. His human (and dolphin and chimp) heroes constantly outwit the more advanced, much older, but stupid, aliens.
In Brin’s defense, he seems pretty inclusive in his humans, but I’m actually kind of (perhaps willfully) blind to that kind of perceived implicit insult. (I’m more concerned about the actual explicit shit.)
In any event, here too, earthlings seek to do better than any other species in the history of the galaxy ever did.
But despite most of the books seeming assertion that no intelligence can avoid all the pitfalls of intelligence, and despite the book’s reading of the power of these infectious probes,…
Humanity does seem to beat the odds.
In part because we pitted the probes against each other trying to untangle their lies. And because we began to catch on to their subliminal tricks.
So humanity comes up with a scheme to beat the odds that involves several key parts:
Firstly, we use received technology to birth actual aliens from their genetic patterns. Beings condemned to a virtual prison become free to walk about and experience physical reality. This undermines their goals!
Secondly, we mix minds from different probes, plus adding many of our own, to create a hybrid that can find new civilizations (going boldly forth) and let them also in on the secret to avoiding infection.
Thirdly, we include the technology to bio-create and commit to full disclosure immediately on contact. We’re the cure. We’re the Good Guys.
And now for the final spoiler…
We realize, just in time, that our missionary zeal to send out probes that can fight the virus…
…Is just another infection.
I’m not going to spoil what we do about it. The book is well worth reading, and you should enjoy the ending for yourself.
I will say that, for all the “no species survives” logic of the book, Brin ends on an optimistic note and in a kind of cool hard SF way you won’t see coming.
This one definitely rates a Wow! on my scale, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys hard and/or socially-relevant SF.
Stay existing, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.