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Existence
by David Brin
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Rating:
Reviewed by: John Walsh

David Brin is a multiple award winner: the front cover of this book boasts the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Campbell awards and science fiction fans will know that these are as prestigious as awards get. He has proved in other books that he is not averse to tackling the big themes when it comes to science fiction and this book, Existence, is no exception.

We begin in a future society in which humanity has continued to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of environmental and social disasters while increasing inclusivity and technology. The positive side is that people are able to join the world of data on a permanent basis through prosthetic implants in their eyes (I rather sympathized with one of the older characters who preferred to use the goggles 'that God intended'). The bridge from historical humanity to the future of humanity, assisted by technology to become much more than we are now, is being constructed and people are rushing to complete it. The negative side is that many millions of people are still marginalized and forced to make a living as best they may clinging to the edges of society, picking up pieces from what has been discarded. This is most evident in the character of Pen Xiang Bin, who tries to support his wife and child by diving in to the sea and looking for useful materials that have been abandoned as sea levels rise or just thrown overboard. Any treasures rescued must then be carefully offloaded through the gang of sharks who inhabit the second-hand business in coastal China.

The premise is that, for centuries, the earth and its surroundings have been seeded by small spheres which have been sent by alien intelligences. These spheres contain within themselves the recreations of numerous alien individuals from a variety of different cultures. Some have been damaged by the long distances they have travelled and the slings and arrows of interstellar voyaging. Others, however, are whole and began communicating with the people who found them - these, ultimately, were sequestered by the rich and powerful and knowledge of their existence restricted and reduced to myth and legend. This changes when a new sphere is recovered from a lunar orbit and it begins not just to communicate but to inspire all the others to begin communicating as well. In the past, this might have been kept secret but in the world of instant data, that is no longer possible. The results and implications of this discovery represent the principal dynamic force of the plot. Numerous characters enter the action and swirl around the action, interacting and changing as they do so. As they do interact and change, they help explain the different possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox - i.e., if there are aliens in the universe (which mathematics alone suggests there probably are), then why do we not see some evidence of them?

This is a long, intricate, and fascinating book and I would have liked to have to been able to read it with the concentration it deserves. Unfortunately, my work schedule has been a little intense so far this year and reading for pleasure has been one of the sacrifices I have had to make, at least in part. As a result, I read the book over a number of weeks and so it lost a little impetus and I could not always remember immediately who was doing what with and to whom. Even so, it was a very entertaining and thought-provoking experience and I would be happy to try more by this author. I had read his equally award-winning Uplift a number of years ago and was somewhat ambivalent about it. This seems to be much better and more sophisticated in its depiction of human society. Or maybe it is I who have changed. Anyway, I can recommend Existence, although I was rather disappointed with the ending, which rather betrays the efforts of the characters in the first 600 pages.


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