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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Existence

Existence is David Brin's latest science fiction novel. While Brin's best known for his UpLift novels, this time he returns to a more relativistic universe in the near future, where FTL travel is not possible (or rather, not known to be possible, which is the current state of affairs in physics), but still aims to resolve the Fermi Paradox, which is: if we're not alone in the universe, why the heck haven't we heard from Alien civilizations?

Brin postulates that if interstellar warp travel was not possible, that the cheapest way for alien contact is through spam. Yes, spam: the interstellar equivalent of the special offers you receive continually in your e-mail. The reason is that while continually broadcasting information is power hungry and expensive (and unlikely to survive the end of your civilization), solid state information storage that's encased in a protective slab (say, an asteroid) can survive for eons, consumes next to no power while in transit, and is infinitely patient, able to survive in orbit around a sun while civilization develops.

The story starts with the discovery of such a carrier, which then leads to a sequence of events which reveals competition with spam, Von Neumann probes, Berserkers, Seeders, Seekers, and answers to why we have yet to meet another alien civilization.

As side plots, we have a science fiction author who's trying to help return us to the days of aristocracy (along with a few pokes at the current 1%ers who've successfully taken over the Republican party), an enterprising reporter whose adept use of SmartMobs managers to thwart a terrorist plot, and of course, the alien message carriers themselves.

One weakness of the book is incoherence. Many threads tie together and then are largely abandoned once they've fulfilled their purposes. As with many science fiction authors, Brin is not great at character development or even writing compelling characters and dialog, and in this novel, those flaws become even more obvious.

While this book wasn't a complete waste of time and worth the time to read, I think it could have been much shorter (as in 50% shorter) and still gotten everything said. Brin has great ideas and an expansive list of interests, so he crams everything he enjoys into the book (there's even a reference to his Uplift novels, but that reference is lost by the middle of the book!), but in the end, one ends the book feeling a bit let down.

I'm a fan of David Brin's blog, but I can't help but wish he'd written another Kiln People, even if he won't give us another Uplift Nove for a while.

Mildly recommended.

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