Well, I just finished Brin's Earth, nearly 700 pages worth. As almost always happens, the book suffers from the chronic plague of science fiction novels: the photos, title, and summary on the front and back cover always seem far more interesting than actually reading the book. I guess it's the phenomenon of the monster outside your door being scarier than actually looking it in the face. Or maybe there are a million great science fiction stories running through our heads, and it takes these book covers to nudge us towards their realization.
But getting back to Brin. He certainly does impress. His prose exhibits some real talent, and I relished lines like: "Trees regularly died for literacy in those days," or ". . . conveniently diverted censure form the real culprit. The designer of trees. The destroyer. Man himself," or "gets sucked down the throat of its own self-made demon," or ". . . she preferred by far her own obsessions over the distracting nuisance of his love." He even shows his literary bravado by commenting (perceptively) on James Joyce: "Only Joyce ever came close to depicting the real hurricane of internal conflict and negotiation, those vast, turbid seascapes surrounding that island of semi-calm that named itself 'me.'"
And the story? This novel is set in the near future, where nearly all environmental crises of today has befallen the world. Initially, I appreciated how Brin seemed to even-handedly look at humanity and our eco-emergencies from all angles: those who see humans as a cancer, those who think we can manage the planet, those who look to technology to save us, those who see space as a safety valve, the interplay of the natural world and religion, etc.
So far so good. But it doesn't take too long to realize where Brin's real loyalties lie on this issue. At the end of the day, he's a company man, who still has faith in current systems, in technologies, and science to save us. As if those very things didn't create the predicament in the first place. But what else would you expect from a NASA consultant who lives in Los Angeles?
Brin can barely contain his abhorrence of radicals who challenge the system. Such people, who often do address the real issues and the core flaws of our predicament, are not wise nor justified in Brin's mind, nor in this book. In fact, the one character that would be considered the most adamant activist through most of the book, ends up going crazy, almost personifying Satan himself, and tearing the world apart. Please, Brin, try just a bit to cover up your prejudices.
Even worse is Brin's thinly-veiled ethnocentrism towards indigenous perspectives (though he never mentions them by name) on the environment, which become even more clear in his afterward. Such deep-ecology thinking he calls a "shelter of ancient simplicities," "ancient tribes," or "looking backwards." On the contrary, I always thought that adopting more indigenous way was to be truly looking forward. He even says in the novel that ". . . logic and reason were paramount. They were wiser ways by far than the old witchcraft and impulsiveness that used to guide human affairs." Please. It's that vey very "logic" and "reason" that are the result of the human arrogance that destroyed our planet in the first place. That "old witchcraft and impulsiveness" (um, aboriginal/indigenous people, just say it Brin) were the human societies that actually created an equilibrium with their environment.
Brin even misleadingly seems to suggest (in his afterward) that research has concluded that all human societies have visited "depredations upon their environment and each other." Maybe that's true, but to what degree is VERY important. Would it be fair to lump the Sioux in with modern American society in relation to depredations on the environment? Did the Sioux cut down 94% if their native forests in 200 years like the Americans have? Brin can hardly contain his biases.
And there are other problems, though none half as grave as what I just mentioned.
Brin doesn't really construct a compelling narrative. He does do a good job examining various dimensions of the environmental crises through the voices of the radio, internet chat groups, etc. But there are so many characters that I had to keep checking previous sections to remind myself of who we were talking about. And his science descriptions seem so self-indulgent, that I want to say "Yes Brin, you know a lot of science, congratulations. Would you mind preventing it from muddling up the narrative? A narrative that hardly exists?" In the end we have very little tension, very little concern for the characters, and a fragmented story.
Brin is an author who deeply cares about the planet and what its fate may be, as we all should. But ultimately he is a status-quo apologist, one who has failed to understand Dorothy Day's trenchant quote: "Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system." Brin's problem is that he has yet to identify the system as such.