Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: Existence

Its starting to look like Science Fiction has lost any faith in the future. The more I've read around the genre in the last few months, the more it seems that the whole idea of looking up, or looking out, has completely gone out of fashion. Manned Spaceflight is pointless and inefficient, Einstein says FTL travel is impossible, and 30 years of SETI gazing at the heavens and no sign of Alien Civilizations. Well, that's it, we may as well accept we're all stuck on this rock forever, and concentrate on stories about uploading ourselves to digital Nerd-heaven or playing about in Retro-Futurist Zeppelins. I don't know about the rest of you but I find this all faintly depressing.

On the plus side, this gave us a book as good as Existence.

I've always been a fan of David Brin, especially his epic Space Opera Uplift series, which I came across at just the right point in my life for it slightly blow bits of my brain. And one of the big joys of Uplift - that he chucks in so many different ideas into his world-building - is also one of the strengths of Existence. Here the future is neither Dystopian nor Utopian, technology has neither saved us or doomed us, and most of the current wave of futurologists favorite toys have come to pass, just not in the dominant way they predict. In short, humanity has sort of muddled through, with triumphs and disasters mixed in together to make a world staggering forward.

One of the big joys of the novel is unpicking its strands and allowing both a picture of the world, and the larger story, to emerge organically, so I'll try and stay away from too many spoilers. Some of the storylines intersect around what turns out to be the "main" plot, but others serve just to give a broad perspective on the world that he's built. It also reflects on the ideas presented in the inter-chapter excepts from (fictional) articles and encyclopedias about the likelyhood of human society failing; the ways that it could have and the ways that it may yet.

At it's core Existance asks two questions. The first is simply "are we alone, and why?", and the second is "What does it mean to be human?" Both stories reflect on each other, and thematically intertwine as an astronaut snags an odd-looking rock in Earth Orbit that turns out to be a great deal more, relevation piled on revelation until we are ultimately presented with a grand vision for the Galaxy as a whole. And it's all gradually, and masterfully unveiled like a series of curtains being drawn back, each revealing another Wizard behind another curtain. Its pretty cool.

It does lose its way a little in the final quarter or so of the book, as it starts to time-skip forward and its focus moves away from the interesting world-building and into the deeper background stuff. Its still pretty interesting, and the vision it presents is interesting and distinctive, but I didn't find anywhere near as absorbing as the energetic scattergun of ideas that the opening sections of the novel have. Its important to show though, and keeps a note of hope in a book that could otherwise be portraying a future that is exceptionally grim.

Existence is everything a good Science Fiction novel should be - it's build on ideas, tied into a solid vision of the future, and explores what those ideas mean and what sort of society they could create. I started by bitching a little about SF no longer looking up and out, but if its going to explore a future where up and out isn't a possibility, then this is exactly the way to do it.