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Bookends: Be careful what you look for; you might find it February 6, 2015

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Be careful what you look for; you might find itExistence

By Dan Davidson

August 13, 2014

– 886 words –

 

By David Brin

TOR Books

884 pages

$11.99

 

Two of the big questions that both science and science fiction keep asking is “are we alone in the universe, and if we aren’t, why haven’t we heard from anyone?”

We probe the earth on Mars to find out if it was possible that there was ever life there, even if it was a different form than ours, We send information loaded rockets out into space like messages in a bottle, hoping they might wash up on some cosmic shore. We scan the skies for messages that might be coming our way as part of a number of CETI (Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence) projects.

Brin’s large and rather complex novel starts with the assumption that there are (or have been – it’s not entirely clear) other races out there and that they have, for sometime, been seeding the universe with the cosmic equivalent of massive flash drives packed with the uploaded intelligences of many beings.

There are eight sections to this novel, each of them titled with an appropriate quotation from Hamlet’s most famous speech (“to be or not to be …”) and introduced with a variety of appropriate quotations by everyone from Einstein to Mel Brooks.

There is a large cast, which makes it difficult to discuss the characters in great detail. Three of them seem to stand out for me. One is dystopian SF writer Hamish Brookeman, who is also working as a PR flak and consultant for a conservative think-tank when we meet him. Another is Tor Povlov, an online journalist whose badly damaged body is installed in a robotic housing after she is nearly killed in a terrorist attack that she actually manages to foil. Another is Gerald, a sort of retired astronaut who has been pulling space recycling duty as the earth makes some effort to clean up the junk in orbit.

All of these people are introduced in the interwoven stories in the first part of the book and reappear later on.

Brin spends a fair amount of time at the beginning building a complex society filled with haves and have-nots, including a couple who live on a semi-submerged mansion in Hong Kong. All of this this is ultimately for nothing when Gerald finds the object, a piece of orbiting crystal that didn’t come from here. When he touches it, it begins to respond, and back on earth it becomes clear that it is a communication device.

At first everyone thinks that it is a way of communicating with distant places, but it turns out that there is no transmission involved. The messages – the beings themselves – are all encoded within the objects.

I know I only mentioned the recovery of one object, but not long after it lights up, others make themselves known, including one discovered by the Chinese couple. It turns out they’ve been landing on Earth for centuries, maybe millennia, by the thousands, and that they’ve just been waiting for the time when our technology would allow us to realize they were here.

It also turns out that they are part of what could only be called an interstellar chain letter, their purpose being to inspire the worlds they reach to make more of them. It’s sort of alluring until it becomes clear that all the civilizations they have come from no longer exist. Their message is that techno-political entities of a certain size and capability inevitably destroy themselves.

Any continued existence by any race can only hope to be virtual.

We’re pretty much at that point by a quarter of the way through the novel, and much of the rest of it is involved with the struggle to sort out the completing messages coming from what amounts to cosmic spam from an interstellar “Nigeria”. What it true? Who can be trusted and who can’t? How much useful information can be gleaned from these message crystals? How far will they go to advance their own agendas?

Aside from the earthfolk (different varieties, including a Neanderthal line and several types of autistics with special talent focuses) there are also ancient machines lurking out in the asteroid belt and at some point long ago they fought a massive war to further the chances of their particular message crystals.

After more than 660 pages that take place in more or less the same time frame, the final two sections of the book each involve radical time and setting jumps that carry the story generations past where it began. I found this a bit frustrating as I was wanting to know how some of the earlier sub-plots were going to work out. Once again, Brin made it clear that some of those things were simply window dressing around the main thrust of the story.

Some of the asides point to other of Brin’s novels. There’s a whole subplot with genetically uplifted dolphins that clearly connects this book to some of his earlier work, particularly his “Uplift” sequence, but it really doesn’t have a lot to do with this story and disappears from the narrative after only hinting at what may come next.

Despite these annoyances, Existence was a fascinating read, and gave me a lot to think about.

 

-30-

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