I loved the Uplift novels and when I saw this offering on the shelves with the gorgeous 3D cover – it was a no-brainer that I’d scoop it up…
Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector. For a hundred years, people have been abandoning things in space, and someone has to clean it up. But there’s something spinning a little bit higher than he expects, something that isn’t on the decades’ old orbital maps. An hour after he grabs it and brings it in, rumours fill Earth’s infomesh about an “alien artefact.” Thrown into the maelstrom of worldwide shared experience, the Artefact is a game-changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate. The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity.
That’s the blurb. And it manages to make the book sound a great deal more cosily manageable than it actually is… Be warned – this is a gnarly read, particularly if your taste runs to fast-paced, character-led tales. For starters, it is a large book with a smallish font and 550 pages. But if you hang in there and grit your teeth over the info-dumps, this book is a rewarding, thought-provoking read in the best tradition of hard science fiction that raises questions of morality and philosophy, alongside the slice of futuristic adventure.
I haven’t come across a book more aptly named. For most of the novel, Brin addresses the notion of existence – and using his sprawling, epic plot explores various options open to Humanity trying to negotiate through the perplexing puzzles posed by the crystal artefact. I can guarantee you won’t find a First Contact novel that more thoroughly covers the ramifications for both us and any possible aliens still out there. In fact, right the way through this very long novel, this crystal gismo continues to provide one revelation after another. The majority of them are eminently feasible, so that I found myself at times muttering aloud at the sheer coolness of the concept.
For starters, the near-future world in which the crystal artefact pitches up is instantly recognisable. Our social media and constant interaction has been stretched so that the majority are plugged into virtual overlays and artificial intelligence is busy assisting us in every aspect of living – which is both an advantage and disadvantage… Brin has also provided a colourful range of characters whose varying reactions to the cataclysmic discovery is not only informative, but completely convincing. While I won’t pretend that depicting snappy, layered characters in a couple pages is one of Brin’s strengths, by the end of the book I really cared about a small handful of the eccentric band of protagonists that wove their way through this doorstopper.
Any niggles? The multiple viewpoints only have a couple of pages each, before we flit off to another character, which gave the book an old fashioned feel and meant that as a reader there was no getting comfortable or relaxed. While some of the backstory inserts were spot on in length, there were several times I came to an abrupt stop in a character’s viewpoint with some exasperation. While this is an amazing book that demonstrates an impressive breadth of imagination, intelligent deduction and ambition, the later depictions of the autistic character frankly had me wincing. There were also sections that I felt could have been chopped without losing all that much – and would have speeded up the overall pace to the book’s advantage.
But these observations are niggles. Set against what Brin set out to achieve and how triumphantly successful he has been, they are minor annoyances and shouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking up the book. And if you’ve ever seriously wondered where humanity is going and why we haven’t yet encountered anyone else in the galaxy, then go looking for Existence. It doesn’t provide mere food for thought – it provides a seven-course banquet…