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  1. #1
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Existence by David Brin

    Half a century in the future, the human race has survived several brushes with extinction. True AI has been created but - so far - has been benign and helpful. A terrible nuclear incident has taken place, but humanity has endured. As each bullet is dodged, so mankind's chances of survival to a brighter future appear to be growing...until an ancient alien artefact is recovered from Earth orbit which harbours a terrible truth about the nature of the universe.

    After almost twenty years as an important and relatively prolific voice in the hard SF field, David Brin dropped out of the genre in 2001 after the publication of Kil'n People. He's remained active, penning non-fiction and the occasional short story as well as working in comics and doing consulting work, but no more novels have appeared, either stand-alone or in his Uplift universe. Now he's back with Existence, a self-contained, epic SF novel about mankind, our place in the cosmos, why we seem to be alone and where our destiny lies. Certainly if you're going to mount a comeback, there's no better way than doing so with your most ambitious work to date.

    Existence revisits the Fermi Paradox, that familiar problem of how, given the sheer size and age of our galaxy, it is implausible that intelligent life has not arisen elsewhere and left visible traces of its presence. Brin's solution to the paradox is both intelligent and, initially, deeply depressing: that the minefield of threats that each race must survive to reach the starts is so extensive that very, very few make it. The novel's opening sections dwell deeply on the threats to mankind's own existence, from climate change and the threat of nuclear war to the possible 'threat' of super-advanced AI. The discovery of the alien 'guidestones' then provides a possible answer, but one which is not to our liking.

    The novel unfolds on a large scale, with characters in America, in undersea habitats in the Gulf of Mexico, in floating bases above drowned Pacific island nations and in ruined mansions in Shanghai having their own part to play in the global mystery that unfolds. Our protagonists include a spoiled rich kid who races suborbital rockets for fun, a Chinese sailor who lives on the salvage he dredges out of the sea, a hotshot reporter caught up in a horrendous disaster and a self-obsessed, politically-motivated novelist who slums it as a Hollywood script writer (any similarities to the late Michael Crichton being presumably coincidental). Brin's skills with characterisation - something that set him apart from his fellow 'Killer Bs' back in the day (the Gregs Bear and Benford) - are on full display here as he develops his characters through the unexpected events that engulf them whilst keeping his thematic and philosophical musings integrated with the plot.

    In fact, this is what sets Brin's novel apart from Kim Stanley Robinson's recent and equally epic portrait of the future, 2312. Where Robinson seems to have wanted to create a mood piece and then felt compelled to tack on an undercooked thriller plot, Brin keeps his plot, characters and musings all on track simultaneously, developing them all in tandem. This is helped by Brin's prose which has always been above average for hard SF, but in Existence hits new heights. His skill to move between harsh pessimism (the universe is cold and empty and we are a fluke who will soon splutter and die) and tremendous optimism (we can do whatever we want with the universe, if we try) is particularly impressive.

    For a novel more than 500 pages long in hardcover, Existence has verve and pace. It's hard SF but done with a light touch and a sense of humour. It's not set in the Uplift universe but Brin drops in parallel-universe versions of some elements of that setting just for fun (those who enjoy Brin's depiction of futuristic dolphins will find some more that on display here). Some of Brin's moments of whimsy backfire - 'Awfulday' seems like an odd nickname for the anniversary of a terrorist attack - and some plot elements feel left behind when several time-jumps take place late in the novel, propelling us decades further into the future. But these are less than niggles.

    Existence (****½) moves between being exuberant and fun and serious and contemplative (even maudlin). It asks big questions and proposes a variety of intelligent answers but doesn't resort to over-simplicity. It's definitely as good a comeback as we could have hoped for from Brin. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

  2. #2
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    I usually do not have strong negative opinions as I tend to put aside books that do not work for me, but Existence just rubbed me the wrong way almost end to end from the sf writer as guru to the cliched other (non-Western based characters) to the "couldn't get to space on rockets, will get on silicon chips" theme that is the worst kind of retro-sf stuff imho and so on, while the author's postface just put David Brin in the never ever read a word from him as it triply annoyed me.

    The only redeeming quality of the book is ambition. If I ever have the time and energy i will expand on my semi-coherent Goodreads review with text examples and all...

  3. #3
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    Talk about dissenting views, wow. I've got a copy of Existence on Mount Toberead, it might be next for me, or at least my next SF novel.

  4. #4
    Registered User odo's Avatar
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    I loved Existence. This is my review (originally published on my blog.

    Many of my favorite novels are first contact or alien artifact stories: classics such as Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke or Gateway by Frederik Pohl and more modern books like Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds, Marrow by Robert Reed or Blindsight by Peter Watts. To them, I now have to add Existence by David Brin.

    Existence is the first novel by Brin in ten years (in 2002 he published the also wonderful Kiln People). It was one of my highly anticipated books of 2012 and it has been worth the wait. In Existence you will find many of the most important themes in the science fiction of the last thirty years: virtual reality, artificial intelligence, the singularity, global warming, and, above all, the Fermi Paradox. Oh, and intelligent dolphins, of course.

    The novel starts with Gerald, an astronaut whose work is collecting space junk. In a routine mission, he discovers an alien artifact that reacts to his touch and greets him. This will set in motion a lot of different events that we witness through the eyes of a pleiad of characters (some human, some not so much) with very different agendas. Each chapter is devoted to one of these points of view and some of them could work perfectly as stand-alone short stories or novelettes (in fact, it seems that some of them were previously published that way), with characters and sub-plots interesting on their own. The result is a complex tapestry and an extremely interesting story that is very difficult to put down.

    One of the strongest points of Existence is the excellent worldbuilding. For instance, at the end of each chapter we find a fictional article, piece of news or extract from a book, which really help adding a solid background to the story. Also, Brin creates dozens of new words (aissistant, skutr, aixperts, virmersion...) and adds references to past events (The Big Deal, Awfulday, The Basque Chimera...). Only a few of them are explictly explained and the reader may feel at bit at lost in the first few chapters, but it really gives a feeling of a vivid and dynamical world. Brin also mentions a lot of science fiction authors (Bear, Benford, Stross, Asimov, Wells... once, he even has of one the characters saying 'Expecto simakus cliffordiam') and plays with their ideas, making Existence a book clearly in dialogue with the history and evolution of the genre.

    But what really stands out in this novel is the number of scientific, philosophical and sociological ideas. The future that Brin depicts is, at once, believable, alluring and frightening. A world full of technological wonders but also on the verge of doom. Because Existence is, mainly, a book about changes. Changes in society. Changes in technology. Changes in the way we perceive and understand ourselves as human beings. The alien artifact is only but a piece of the puzzle of existence, of our present, our past and what lays ahead of us as an intelligent species living on a hostile universe.

    The book is not without its flaws. The final quarter of the novel is, in my opinion, a bit weaker than the rest (although the ending is very satisfying) and parts of it feel a bit rushed. Some chapters (for example, the ones devoted to Hamish Brookeman) could have used some editing. Also, at least one of the main plot twists is quite evident (I saw it coming several chapters before one of the characters figured it out).

    Despite this minor problems, Existence is, so far, my favorite science fiction book published in 2012 and one of the best of the last few years. It is full of sense of wonder, with top-notch worldbuilding and dozens of cool sfnal ideas. This is the kind of novel that I love to read and I can't recommend it highly enough.
    Last edited by PeterWilliam; July 3rd, 2012 at 04:29 PM. Reason: external link to poster's own site

  5. #5
    Omnibus Prime Moderator PeterWilliam's Avatar
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    I took me 2 weeks to plow through 260 pages. I put it down this past weekend without finishing. I thought that my reaction to it might have been unfair, as I read sci-fi very rarely. That having been said, I'm inclined to agree with Liviu's review of it.

  6. #6
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    from the sf writer as guru
    Who was that? Brookeman? He was an idiot, and I think clearly Brin's (mild) mickey-take of a Michael Crichton-like figure. He wasn't a guru to anyone (outside of his own inflated ego) and was clearly not meant to be a laudable character.

    the "couldn't get to space on rockets, will get on silicon chips" theme that is the worst kind of retro-sf
    Can you elaborate on what you mean here? The human race goes to space on rockets - quite a lot of them - later on in the book and no-one goes anywhere on silicon chips.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Werthead View Post
    Who was that? Brookeman? He was an idiot, and I think clearly Brin's (mild) mickey-take of a Michael Crichton-like figure. He wasn't a guru to anyone (outside of his own inflated ego) and was clearly not meant to be a laudable character.



    Can you elaborate on what you mean here? The human race goes to space on rockets - quite a lot of them - later on in the book and no-one goes anywhere on silicon chips.
    "a laudable character." - I do not really get what this means; Brookeman is one of the main characters of the book, he is viewed as relatively important - deservedly or not - and considering the ending, I disagree that he was meant to be a pure villain for example

    As for what he means, he clearly came as the author wannabe's post-writing (when his interviews and wannabe advice to presidents and such make him famous) career more than a Crichton or Scientology fun image which was much better represented by professor Noozone

    As for how species travel to stars, well it's not in the flesh; now it may not be our humble silicon chips but advanced alien crystal, but it's the same idea imho and where any pretense at hard sf breaks down as human consciousness downloadability into chips (whether advanced alien crystal or silicon chips is irrelevant) is as conjectural as ftl, wormholes etc
    Last edited by suciul; July 5th, 2012 at 09:43 AM.

  8. #8
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by suciul View Post
    "a laudable character." - I do not really get what this means; Brookeman is one of the main characters of the book, he is viewed as relatively important - deservedly or not - and considering the ending, I disagree that he was meant to be a pure villain for example
    He isn't as portrayed as negatively as Crichton, despite many similar traits (the giveaway is him taking political or scientific enemies and making them into villains and perverts in his books), mainly as he does develop a little over the course of the book. But he's not a good guy.

    As for what he means, he clearly came as the author wannabe's post-writing (when his interviews and wannabe advice to presidents and such make him famous) career more than a Crichton or Scientology fun image which was much better represented by professor Noozone
    Quite a few reviews I've read have picked up on the parallel between Brookeman and Crichton. Noozone - a fake rasta pop scientist - is a bit of comic relief and little more.

    As for how species travel to stars, well it's not in the flesh; now it may not be our humble silicon chips but advanced alien crystal, but it's the same idea imho and where any pretense at hard sf breaks down as human consciousness downloadability into chips (whether advanced alien crystal or silicon chips is irrelevant) is as conjectural as ftl, wormholes etc
    This is very mild, as far as conjectural science in hard SF goes.

  9. #9
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    I'm about halfway through this tome right now and I am enjoying it quite a bit. Some of the focal characters are more interesting to me, but that's bound to happen with a relatively wide cast.

    In fact, that might be my only criticism at this point - maybe one focal character too many though I can't say at this point which one could be cut.

    I seem to be reading this one a little more slowly than my normal reading pace, but I think that's working in my favor, helping me to appreciate the novel more.

    I appreciated in one of the debate chapters involving Noozone, his debate opponent cut him down a bit.

  10. #10
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    Here's a bit from my review:

    Brin casts a fairly wide net of viewpoint characters in Existence, the first of which is where the events of the novel are set in motion - Gerald Livingstone, a space garbage collector, happens upon a strange crystal that is much more than it initially appears. When he hauls it in, he and the world come to realize it is an alien artifact that allows humanity realize it is not alone in the universe.
    ...
    Part of this world-building is achieved through snippets cushioning each relatively short chapter. These snippet chapters range in content from debates about the artifact between two prominent figures, journalistic entries from Tor, and other such passages to give an authentic feel to the world. For my reading sensibilities, this structure worked well to impart authenticity and keep the pace of the novel at a nice level. The structural element that was a bit jarring was the abrupt leap in time in some sections, particularly from the first ¾ or so of the novel to the chapters that conclude the novel.

    While Brin did cast a wide net and painted the story and a grand epic canvas, at times I felt a tighter focus may have led to a greater enjoyment for me. Maybe there was just one too many characters in the novel, but I honestly can’t saw which character should be pulled.

  11. #11
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    Finally finished reading this book yesterday. Something nagged me the whole way through, something that kept tempting me to stop reading it all together... Brin's insistence on sticking 'ai' into hundreds of words to make them mean something enhanced by ai! I seriously hope we don't start doing that in real life. Putting an 'i' or 'e' in front of words is bad enough, but sticking 'ai' in the middle somewhere is ridiculous. After a while I gave up trying to ignore it and just changed it to something better (to me) in my mind.

    Other than that it was a great read! Brin shows us a miriad of ways one might explore the Galaxy along with the pros and cons of some of them.

    Spoiler:

    I found the idea that probes we send out may run into other probes sent by others very intriguing. I loved the way he expanded on that idea to have the probes go into direct competition with each other.


    Also was anyone else disappointed by the ending sequence with Seeker? I was really into the earlier chapters concerning the 'Lurkers'
    Spoiler:
    Seeker was just waking up and about to do something!!! The Bam, we fast forward to us reincarnating him into a body. I was really looking forward to something exciting happening!

  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by Werthead View Post
    Half a century in the future, the human race has survived several brushes with extinction. True AI has been created but - so far - has been benign and helpful. A terrible nuclear incident has taken place, but humanity has endured. As each bullet is dodged, so mankind's chances of survival to a brighter future appear to be growing...until an ancient alien artefact is recovered from Earth orbit which harbours a terrible truth about the nature of the universe.

    After almost twenty years as an important and relatively prolific voice in the hard SF field, David Brin dropped out of the genre in 2001 after the publication of Kil'n People. He's remained active, penning non-fiction and the occasional short story as well as working in comics and doing consulting work, but no more novels have appeared, either stand-alone or in his Uplift universe. Now he's back with Existence, a self-contained, epic SF novel about mankind, our place in the cosmos, why we seem to be alone and where our destiny lies. Certainly if you're going to mount a comeback, there's no better way than doing so with your most ambitious work to date.

    Existence revisits the Fermi Paradox, that familiar problem of how, given the sheer size and age of our galaxy, it is implausible that intelligent life has not arisen elsewhere and left visible traces of its presence. Brin's solution to the paradox is both intelligent and, initially, deeply depressing: that the minefield of threats that each race must survive to reach the starts is so extensive that very, very few make it. The novel's opening sections dwell deeply on the threats to mankind's own existence, from climate change and the threat of nuclear war to the possible 'threat' of super-advanced AI. The discovery of the alien 'guidestones' then provides a possible answer, but one which is not to our liking.

    The novel unfolds on a large scale, with characters in America, in undersea habitats in the Gulf of Mexico, in floating bases above drowned Pacific island nations and in ruined mansions in Shanghai having their own part to play in the global mystery that unfolds. Our protagonists include a spoiled rich kid who races suborbital rockets for fun, a Chinese sailor who lives on the salvage he dredges out of the sea, a hotshot reporter caught up in a horrendous disaster and a self-obsessed, politically-motivated novelist who slums it as a Hollywood script writer (any similarities to the late Michael Crichton being presumably coincidental). Brin's skills with characterisation - something that set him apart from his fellow 'Killer Bs' back in the day (the Gregs Bear and Benford) - are on full display here as he develops his characters through the unexpected events that engulf them whilst keeping his thematic and philosophical musings integrated with the plot.

    In fact, this is what sets Brin's novel apart from Kim Stanley Robinson's recent and equally epic portrait of the future, 2312. Where Robinson seems to have wanted to create a mood piece and then felt compelled to tack on an undercooked thriller plot, Brin keeps his plot, characters and musings all on track simultaneously, developing them all in tandem. This is helped by Brin's prose which has always been above average for hard SF, but in Existence hits new heights. His skill to move between harsh pessimism (the universe is cold and empty and we are a fluke who will soon splutter and die) and tremendous optimism (we can do whatever we want with the universe, if we try) is particularly impressive.

    For a novel more than 500 pages long in hardcover, Existence has verve and pace. It's hard SF but done with
    led light touch and a sense of humour. It's not set in the Uplift universe but Brin drops in parallel-universe versions of some elements of that setting just for fun (those who enjoy Brin's depiction of futuristic dolphins will find some more that on display here). Some of Brin's moments of whimsy backfire - 'Awfulday' seems like an odd nickname for the anniversary of a terrorist attack - and some plot elements feel left behind when several time-jumps take place late in the novel, propelling us decades further into the future. But these are less than niggles.

    Existence (****½) moves between being exuberant and fun and serious and contemplative (even maudlin). It asks big questions and proposes a variety of intelligent answers but doesn't resort to over-simplicity. It's definitely as good a comeback as we could have hoped for from Brin. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
    not bad review at all.. I just love reading the existence book.. It really helps me in changing my negative mindset to positive.. There is lot which we can learn from it...
    Last edited by ArmandoFowler; June 22nd, 2013 at 12:07 AM.

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