the Little Red Reviewer

Existence, by David Brin

Posted on: December 2, 2012

Existence USAExistence, by David Brin

published June 2012

where I got it: purchased new

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A favorite question of science fiction is one of first contact, and Existence is Brin’s answer. Even as a child, I knew of the concept of Fermi Paradox, even if I didn’t know the formal name for it.  The Fermi Paradox states that in an infinitely large universe, there has to be other planets with evolved life. So why haven’t we heard from any of our neighbors? Where is everyone?  Why is it so quiet out there?

It’s difficult to get into the nuts and bolts of Existence without giving away some of the plot, so be warned, this review contains a few spoilers.  Through the eyes of a half dozen characters of every walk of life, Brin offers the reader a much bigger picture than just first contact. This isn’t just a story about a space garbageman who grabs something shiny, or the story of a shoresteader who finds a buried treasure, or the journalist forced to relearn how to live her life.  This isn’t a story about individual humans, this is a story about humanity. And it’s an ambitious one, at that. (But wait, isn’t “ambitious”  exactly what we want from our science fiction authors, the perpetrators of our favorite “what if” question? Don’t we want the envelope to be pushed until it starts to tear at the edges, showing us something new and unexpected?)

One of the major plot lines follows Gerald Livingstone, who retrieves an artifact from high Earth orbit. The artifact is sensitive to sunlight and human touch, and soon proves to include nearly a hundred uploaded alien personalities in its crystalline structure. A message in a bottle of sorts, the aliens welcome humanity to the galactic culture, and offer untold technologies. As communication with the artifact moves forward, hundreds of other artifacts of similar design make their locations known, making the orbiting artifact simply the most recent to reach us.  What the aliens offer is incredible, is unheard of, is unexpected, is truly amazing. But do we want it? and can we trust them?

Props to Brin for coming up with the most unique first contact story (and its consequences) that I’ve ever come across. He’s successfully taken that favorite scifi trope and flipped it inside out, taken it completely apart, and put it back together again into something brilliantly unexpected.  However, that’s not to say the book wasn’t flawed, and oh boy, was it flawed. You may have read my progress posts, one written at 200 pages in, and the 2nd written at around 400 pages in, so you know I had issues with this book.

I loved the overarching concept, so it pains me to tell you how much of a disappointment Existence was for me. My challenges towards enjoyment of Existence stem from how it was put together. There are a good half dozen major characters to follow, and multiple plot lines that each character is involved with, and that’s before the major plot is even revealed, not mention the countless asides and infodumps and wordplay tricks that felt gimmicky. Usually the POV changes wouldn’t be a problem for me, but Brin jumps back and forth so often that it was like I was just getting snapshots of moments, and not actual full stories. Compounded by the fact that a large number of these plots are never resolved to any satisfaction, I was left more frustrated than anything.

Yes, there are interesting and important ideas all over the place, but those brilliant concepts were so insulated by layers upon layers of side tracking, unfocused stories and unresolved concepts that I had nothing to grab onto, nothing to pull myself out of the depths with. There were moments where I felt I was in a sprawling Neal Stephenson, others where I felt I was in a Stross cyberpunk, and yet others where I felt I was in a Kim Stanley Robinson.

But Brin is a smart guy. He’s no stranger to story or character development.  Maybe this is a book that’s about something else, something beyond plot or character development. Those unresolved plotlines? Maybe I was just meant to get snapshots of moments, moments that in the grand scheme of humanity don’t really matter.  Is that was Brin was trying to tell me? That narrow singular stories are beautiful and fascinating, yet ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of universe? That the only story that matter is the biggest one, that of our story, as humankind? And this is a “big picture” type story, one where the big picture keeps getting bigger. This could easily  be a classic case of the reader wanting a different book than what the author wrote, in which case it’s completely my loss.

Maybe it was all by design, or maybe I’m just making excuses for a mediocre novel. I still have a warm place in my heart for Brin’s earlier works, for Earth, for The Postman, for the earlier Uplift novels.  Will I reread those books? Absolutely.  But Existence, as a novel, simply didn’t work for me.

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13 Responses to "Existence, by David Brin"

I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of Brin. I liked the Postman, but have found it difficult to get into the Uplift series. Based on this review, I may let this one pass me by and try again in the future. It sounds like a bit of a shame because the premise sounds interesting

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the premise was fascinating. I’d love to see another author take a stab at this type of first contact story.

I reread a bunch of older Brin and don’t like it, I am going to just cry.

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Thanks for that review. I’ve been meaning to read more of his works, but I think I will start with something….. a little more classical? Like The Uplift Wars.

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first Uplift series, Earth, The Postman, those are all great places to start, and certainly worth your time.

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Respect to you for finishing this – I don’t think I probably would have! It’s a shame it didn’t work out but it happens.
Lynn :D

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The book did get better in the middle, and the end had some nice twists, but by the time I got to the end it was a case of too little too late. I finished the book because I’ve read and enjoyed Brin titles in the past. Had this been my first Brin, i probably wouldn’t have finished it. :(

good thing the book I’m reading right now is a winner!

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Thanks for the review and I completely agree with your underlying complaint: that the novel just didn’t speak your language. Maybe I wanted something else, as well, but I think you’re being too charitable with your review. Using gimmicky word-play, failing to develop sympathetic characters, and developing plot at the expense of those characters isn’t simply bad writing, it’s also lazy. If I wanted to hear about high-concept ideas, I would have watched TED for a couple hours; instead, I wanted to immerse myself in the world and sympathize with dynamic, engaging characters. So, yeah, I didn’t get the book I wanted, and I have a feeling that few others did, as well.

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Shouldn’t I be judging the book on what Brin wrote, not what I wanted him to write? I’m feeling conflicted about the entire thing. As I read, the book did get better, but the scales never quite tipped to the positive side.

thanks for visiting! :)

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That is disappointing, you seemed to be really engaged with it from your multiple posts and I’m sorry to read that you had some disappointment with it when all was said and done. I haven’t read Brin but I did buy a used copy of The Postman earlier this year that I hope to get to during our science fiction reading in the first couple months of the new year. I haven’t seen the film either so I’ll be coming to it fresh.

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I was determined to read and finish this thing, and now I’m just happy I’m done with it. :(

The Postman is very good. I suggest watching the movie after you read the book, because it’s got hardly anything to do with the book, but it is a very fun movie.

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It’s fascinating to you read your review. I went through mine again, after our discussion earlier this week and then Two Dudes in an Attic published their review just this weekend (http://twodudesff.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/existence). I ended up getting all worked up about this novel’s flaws again. Maybe as a sort of counter-reaction, 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson ended up in my best-of-2012 list :)

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Stefan recommended this review to me in response to my much different reaction to the book. Interesting to me that the mainstream reviews I saw are overwhelmingly positive, while people inside the community are more critical. Are we as SF readers holding authors to a higher standard than people less engaged with the field?

Of course, I finished Existence and promptly added it to my best of list.

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Glory Season is one of the most enjoyable Brin novels (one of my favorite books), and is not part of a series. The Uplift Series was fun. I finished Existence a few weeks ago. It had a lot of interesting ideas. I think it was well worth reading for the ideas, and the characters were good as far as they were developed – which was not very far. It was a very “big picture” book as you say, and your review matches my feeling about the book, although I am a little more positive about it than you.

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