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Existence [Hardcover]

David Brin
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 19 2012

Bestselling, award-winning futurist David Brin returns to globe-spanning, high concept SF with Existence.

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, rumors fill Earth’s infomesh about an “alien artifact.”

Thrown into the maelstrom of worldwide shared experience, the Artifact 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.

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"Take a world soaked in near-future strangeness and complexity... Add a beautiful alien artifact that turns out to be the spearpoint of a very dangerous, very ancient invasion... Hotwire with wisdom and wonder... Existence is as urgent and as relevant as anything by Stross or Doctorow, but with the cosmic vision of Bear or Benford. Brin is back."
—Stephen Baxter, bestselling author of Ark and The Time Ships

"In Existence, David Brin takes on one of the fundamental themes in science fiction—and what is also one of the fundamental questions humanity faces in this century. Since Brin is both a great storyteller and one of the most imaginative writers around, Existence is not to be missed."
—Vernor Vinge, bestselling author of Fire Upon the Deep and The Children of the Sky

"Existence is a book that makes you think deeply about both the future and life's most important issues. I found it fascinating and could not put it down."--Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures

About the Author

DAVID BRIN is a scientist, speaker, technical consultant and world-known author. His novels have been New York Times bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula, and other awards. Brin lives near San Diego, California, with his wife and their three children.

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4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
"Do not boast about tomorrow,
For you do not know what a day may bring forth." -- Proverbs 27:1 (NKJV)

This story is both strange and familiar, a curious combination in science fiction considering extraterrestrial life. I found the speculative element to be intriguing, but the book started so slowly that I found it hard to stay focused on it.

The novel is really just a device to explore the question of how one should search for and communicate with extraterrestrial life (if it exists). I suspect that I would have been just as happy with a fifty page article explaining our understanding of the possibilities and what the pros and cons of each are.

The novel was made more rewarding, however, by intriguing extensions of current trends to see where they might lead. As such, some of the details are probably more significant for informing us on what to do today than the main focus of the book is. As an example, what will it mean as the boundaries between "human" and "machine" blur? What are the appropriate limits for using chemicals to optimize performance?

One of my favorite themes in the book is the continual questioning about what we are blind to that's more or less right in front of us.

The drawback of the novel approach is that it's a long way to get across some pretty simple (ultimately) ideas. I had a pretty good time, but I did feel as if I were slogging for much of the time.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read but not his best March 25 2013
One of my favorite hard SF authors. Like Earth, it starts slow with a grand cast of characters and different plot-lines. Sadly, Existence is not as strong as Earth. As always, Brin pulls me into the near future. But after awhile, it starts to sputter. Plot lines and characters disappear or made not important. There are hints about the Uplift project which disappears. It felt like an ad for the next novel. A great character is in the beginning but has not part of the end. I saw no reason for him to be in the story.

And then we move into Part Seven and we are years into the future of the story. Compelling and interesting events are alluded to but not explored. I feel this could have been a compelling trilogy.

Brin has some brilliant ideas, as he always does. But, for me, I feel he forced them into one book, leaving some great things out. I enjoyed the book but it pains me to give David only a four star rating.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Big ideas Feb. 9 2014
By I. Mitchell TOP 1000 REVIEWER
After 10 years between books, David Brin finally published a new novel - and quite possibly his best yet. Existence is in some respects similar to his earlier novel Earth - set approximately 40 years in the future and with a lot of speculation about what our civilization might be like at that time, and several point of view characters living under very different circumstances. It also includes a lot of Brin's philosophy, though he also sympathetically portrays characters with very different viewpoints than his own.

In this case the external plot driver starts with an apparent alien artifact with messages from multiple different civilizations, and how humanity responds to this event. Quickly it becomes apparent that not all is as it seems.

In the past I think Brin's biggest weakness has been a tendency towards over-the-top endings. Here he takes a very different approach - right when the story is moving towards an apparent climax it suddenly jumps several years in the future in the aftermath of the original conflict and introducing what in some respects is a whole new set of events, and then makes another jump of several years before reaching a conclusion. Somehow this approach works though, and the final resolution felt appropriate and believable.

I can see how some people might not like the style of the book - it is somewhat disjointed with pieces being told from different perspectives with incomplete knowledge of the big picture, and some chapters being almost unrelated to the main story - if you're looking for a cohesive narrative then this may not be for you.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and profound Sept. 17 2013
Format:Mass Market Paperback
This is one of the most compelling books I have read in a long time. Brin's vision of humanity's future and of life in the universe is compelling, alluring, repulsive, and frightening all at once. Unfortunately, there are huge parts of this magnificent story that are simply skipped over. I really wish that this was an extended series instead of a single book.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  206 reviews
145 of 170 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fighting entropy June 19 2012
By TChris - Published on Amazon.com
Could there be a more ambitious title than Existence? David Brin earns forgiveness for his hubris by pulling off a dazzling exploration of humanity's response to the inevitable end of everything -- a redefinition of human existence. No small story, Existence strives for epic status. It is far-reaching, thought-provoking, and above all, entertaining. Existence is an idea-driven novel that doesn't skimp on plot or interesting characters. The story -- structured as a tapestry of interwoven plot threads -- changes directions more often than a miniature golf course. Since no summary could do it justice, a quick identification of the threads will have to suffice.

Operating a long bola tethered to a space station, Gerald Livingstone grabs orbiting space debris before it can do any damage. After snatching a puzzling object from orbit, Gerald eventually realizes that it is a communication device, an alien emissary. Understanding what its many voices are trying to communicate becomes a daunting task that captivates the world's imagination. Peng Xiang Bin, collector of salvage in flooded Shanghai, finds a submerged object that closely resembles the orbiting artifact. Intriguingly, the "worldstone" is communicating a different message than its orbiting rival.

Hacker, the playboy heir to a fortune whose hobbies include amateur rocketry, befriends some unusual dolphins after his reentry vehicle crashes. Hacker's mother, Lacey, is a member of the powerful clade that exerts influence over nearly everything. Tech-bashing apocalyptic novelist Hamish Brookeman is a proponent of the Renunciation Movement, which wants to slow the development of technology until wisdom catches up. A reporter named Tor Povlov is on the verge of becoming a media star when a life-altering experience forces her to change the way she investigates and reports. More than the others, her storyline showcases the Information Age on steroids.

Eventually all of these plotlines (and others that are late-blooming) come together, although sometimes only loosely. Most of the story takes place on Earth but space junkies will be happy with the final 150 pages. Scattered chapter breaks provide information that adds texture to the narrative. The most salient of these are excerpts from Pandora's Cornucopia, which examines and catalogs threats to human existence. Add to this mix a sort of freeform autistic poetry that makes copious use of +/- symbols and you get a sense of the diverse and varied ideas and writing styles that Brin incorporates into the novel.

Although much of Brin's future is familiar -- eyewear that reveals or blocks a wide array of virtual inputs, evolving AIs, a Balkanized America -- he treats the reader to fresh ideas: a worldwide autism plague, homesteaders rebuilding cities that are buried underwater, public urination as a way to recycle phosphorus, self-righteous indignation (the enemy of reason) as a brain-altering addiction ... and more. Fans of knowledge will enjoy the discussions of ancient history, political theory, gene-splicing, brain chemistry, and the Fermi paradox, while science fiction fans will appreciate Brin's references to classic works in the genre.

Thankfully, Brin doesn't feel the need to describe every aspect of his imagined future in painstaking detail. Brin has the self-discipline to integrate information into the story, avoiding the pace-deadening exposition that mars the work of some writers. Brin skillfully blends his wealth of ideas with the necessities of good storytelling: an entertaining, carefully constructed plot and believable (if not always multidimensional) characters.

While Brin leavens the plot with humor and action scenes, the novel raises profound questions about the nature of existence -- how long humanity will endure, how it will end, how it will change, and what the human race is prepared to do to make its collective life last. Perhaps Brin's point lies in a quotation from Jamais Cascio that appears in the text: "in bad times, pessimism is a self-fulfilling and fatal prophecy." Or perhaps the point lies in a quotation from Darwin about the impossibility of understanding the "complex contingencies" on which existence depends.

Much like the world of the present, Brin's future is filled with sincere people who are frantic to save the planet while arguing about the nature of threats and proposed solutions, thus exacerbating the problems they seek to correct. Yet I was impressed by the sense of balance and optimism that pervades Existence. Brin pokes fun at prophets of doom while recognizing the need for cautionary voices. He is respectful of scientific achievement while acknowledging the reality that technological advancements often outstrip mankind's ability to use them wisely.

The true nature and purpose of the communication devices makes Existence one of the most imaginative first contact stories I've encountered. Existence is a little messy, as you would expect a novel of this length to be, and it drags in spots, although not often. If it doesn't quite succeed in its ambition, if the various plot threads don't perfectly cohere, if parts of the story get lost as the novel lurches forward in time, if some of the characters are a bit underdeveloped, Brin nonetheless deserves credit for accomplishing so much in this intriguing and captivating novel.
36 of 45 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars There is a glut of these books, now, and this one is OK/Fun. July 2 2012
By Patrick McCormack - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There is now a glut of futuristic, mildly dystopian books about humanity in the coming post-modern, near-singularity world. Vinge, Stross, Brin, and a dozen others have mined this field to the point where story telling has suffered, and ten-cent thinking has gloomed over the genre.

In this book, Brin makes two huge mistakes. He recounts a lecture delivered by one of his characters (and has another bored by it!). And he interlards a series of entries from made up guides, encyclopedias, and futuristic authors. Heck, he also from time to time has one character explain the world to another. These devices let Brin slip into his story telling a great amount of gloomy, the world is going to face challenges lecturing, and this is boring. Face it, we want to be shown these points of view through story telling, with wit and humor, not through lecturing.

When Brin does tell his story, he is pretty good. Interstellar civilizations using pellets, crystal stones that communicate. This first contact is both a puzzle and a threat. Pretty good tale, and interesting to read.

My quibble is that nobody in this book has any joy of life, any verve. Even when faced with extinction, I would hope that somebody, somewhere, has a joke to tell, or can spit in the face of death. Why write a book about gloomsters, facing gloomy situations with gloomy miens?

I liked this book at about a 3.5 stars level. I wish an editor would tell Brin to dump all lectures, all encyclopedia references, and all gloomy intonations from his next book. Tell us a story, do not lecture us like a group of sophomores trapped in a lecture hall.
25 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An ambitious, captivating novel of first contact. June 20 2012
By Paul A. Mastin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
It's been long enough since I read one of David Brin's novels that I had forgotten how much fun he is to read! It's been more than 10 years since I read Earth, The Postman, and some of the Uplift novels. Existence exceeds the accomplishments of those. Set a generation or so in the future, Existence follows the impact on society of the discovery of an artifact from another world. An astronaut collecting space junk runs across a crystal orb that turns out to be a communication device with a message for the people of Earth. As it turns out, there are similar objects on Earth and in orbit already, and they all suddenly have something to say.

Brin follows several plot lines, which eventually weave in and out of each other. For most of the book, I was taken in, and just when I started wondering what was happening to another character, the story would shift to another plot line. Brin's scientific and sociological ideas are challenging and always relevant to the story, but he does make the story his priority. I do admit though, that when, about 3/4 of the way in, he shifts 20 years into the future, and then another 20 years or so, the character and momentum of the story changed a bit too much for my taste. I read to the end, and enjoyed it, but that last 1/4 was less compelling than the first 3/4.

One of Brin's strengths in Existence is the near-future use of data and communication. He takes cell phones and social networking down a very believable path, where people have the internet in their glasses or contacts, where information flows like water, and where everyone can know just about everything about everyone. In fact, what he describes in Existence is what he predicts in his non-fiction book The Transparent Society, in which his answer to the problem of too much surveillance by the state is for people to have the ability to surveil the state in return. When cameras are literally everywhere, on everyone, you can't get away with much. He hints at what that does to morality. I'm reminded of the saying, Integrity is who you are when no one's looking. When everyone is potentially looking at you all the time, you have some serious motivation to act with integrity!

One minor thread in Existence that stood out to me was the experience of individuals with autism. A boy with autism explains, "Genes are wise. Our kind--crippled throwbacks--we did badly in tribes of homosap bullies. Even worse in villages, towns, kingdoms . . . cities full of angry cars! Panicked by buzzing lights and snarly machines. Boggled by your mating rituals an' nuanced courtesies an' complicated facial expressions . . . . An' so we died. Throttled in the crib. Stuck in filthy corners to babble and count flies. We died. . . . Til your kind--with aspie help--came up with this!" [referring to technological devices] When asked why more children with autism are being born: "It is not because of pollution . . . or mutation . . . or any kind of 'plague.' The world is finally ready for us. Needy for us." Wow. If you know anything about autism, about the marginalization and institutionalization of people with autism and other disabilities, this is an exciting passage. The ways technology has helped people with disabilities already boggles the mind, and Brin extends it even further, imagining ways technology can help "the portion of humanity that spent ten thousand tragic years awaiting virtual reality and ai [artificial intelligence] to set them free."

A major theme, of course, is first contact and the exploration of Fermi's Paradox, in which Fermi argued that if there were intelligent life in the universe, we would have heard from them by now. In Existence, Brin answers that what if, with a what if of his own: what if no organic life traveled across space, but only machines sent as envoys? Hmmm. . . . With some sci-fi, you just have to check reality at the door. In Existence, Brin not only presents near-future Earth in a believable, compelling way, but gives the reader believable scenarios for contact with life from other planets.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the free electronic review copy.
86 of 118 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Tale of First Contact Deserves No Contact June 30 2012
By Steven - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
First of all, Brin is among the foremost respected science-fiction authors on the market today. His stories have the power of an Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 series. Yet, like Clarke, Brin seems to have jumped the metaphorical shark (or dolphin, as the case may be). Put simply, this book is not much more than a re-hash of previously published stories (he follows their publication dates in the afterword to magazines to the early 80s) and stale characterization. Moreover, it's boring. I cannot think of a harsher critique for a storyteller, but that's the simple truth. Since I read it on my kindle, I know exactly at what point it became interesting. 75% of the way into the book, my interest was piqued and I began to really wonder how Brin was going to write himself out of his holes. Then, to my everlasting horror and dismay, he completely side-stepped those holes by either writing the character out of the book entirely (ask yourself what happens to Hacker, Tor, or Peng Xiang Bin), or worse, answered them in exposition in another subplot, or worst of all, seems to have let them drop entirely. The difficulty of connecting emotionally to Brin's characters seems to lie in the fact that they are simply vehicles for expositing in the most hackneyed fashion whatever philosophy Brin puts in their mouth. Interspersed throughout, moreover, are asides, interviews, chapters or quotes from books, all to add the sense of milieu that this work demands. Indeed, the milieu is the star of this story--from an inventive near-future reality that blends multiple interactive real-time layers, to the advancement of a complex inter-relationship between human beings and AIs, even the cloning of a neanteral child (I thought to preface that statement with a spoiler warning, but even though it occupies much of the narrative, it does little to advance the plot). All told, the best part of this book was the world that Brin evokes, but setting is never a story and ultimately, this story about First Contact deserves no contact.
83 of 114 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Meh. Cool tech, but a long shaggy dog story. June 25 2012
By Andrew Pollack - Published on Amazon.com
Brin uses people to showcase his technology ideas when it should be the other way around.

I give this one a solid "meh".

Admittedly, I've never been a big fan of David Brin. I think he takes a basically interesting idea and stretches it too long with a lot filler. He's got some good characters - in fact he has so many of them that I don't end up caring much about any of them. He's got some clever science fiction ideas -- and that's what saves the book. What he doesn't seem to get, is that like all good fiction, science fiction is still ultimately about the people in the story, not the technology in the story.

There were four of five very interesting characters, but none were really the focus of the story. I didn't really get to know them terribly well, and in the end I didn't care much about them. There were other characters -- some of them with real potential -- that just sort of disappeared as their sub plots didn't merge into the developing story. I spent the last 1/3 of the book wondering what ever happened to a couple of them.

Meanwhile, the long shaggy dog story took several very clever turns, but only hours of reading after they were fairly obvious. Since the only reason the characters by this point seemed to exist was to expose the developing technology and the overall tech story, I wanted to slap them across the face and scream at them to get on with it instead of just blaring out more stilted expository dialog.

On the other hand, if you've a fan of David Brin's former work I guess you'll probably like this one too. He's such a respected writer, that I was looking forward to this one. I thought since it wasn't in his famous "uplift" series, it would give me a chance to get to know the author from a neutral position. I guess it did that, but I was disappointed by what I found.
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