Sunday, June 3, 2012

Book Review: Existence by David Brin

I enjoyed Existence, but I think it could have been much tighter. Let's start with the blurb from, because my expectations of this book hinged on that.

"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."

Taking that at face value, I expected a story about Gerald Livingston and the repercussions he faces from finding this alien artifact. Gerald is in the book, but the story is more about the effects the artifact has on humanity. The first... maybe two-thirds of the book follows several different characters and their own stories that barely relate to the artifact. These stories are there to show what the world is like at this point in history: what has happened to America and other countries, the rise of a new caste system where the elite really do rule the world, the rise of the post-human where the internet is part and parcel of everything we do and is a part of us now, where the virtual web-world and the real world interact on multiple levels.

Oddly, some of these stories seem to go nowhere, for the most part, in relation to the alien artifact. Again: they serve more to show us the state of the world than to advance the story.

What does advance the story? I guess this could be a spoiler: there's more than one artifact. In fact, these types of artifacts have been found on Earth before. Gerald's is just the first to go public. The artifact wants to communicate with us, and now, so do the other artifacts! And Humanity has to decide which artifact to trust, and what to do with the message the artifacts are telling us.

Then the last third of the book takes a jump forward several years and focuses on Gerald and two other of the main human characters from the first part of the book. This is where the book gets really interesting, with exploration and archaeology in the asteroid belt, and humanity using the knowledge from the artifact for our own purposes.

Where the first part of the book is expansive and takes it's time showing us around the post-human world of the near future, this last part of the book is rushed. What could have been a story of exploration, wonder, and discovery... isn't.

Only on reading the author's note at the end of the book did I make the connection as to why the first part of the book felt that way to me. Several of the main stories in the first part of the book were previously published as short stories or novellas. They seemed shoe-horned in to this book with some additional material to tie them into the artifact. The stories continued, from a fashion, into the last part of the book, focusing mostly on Gerald and one other character from the first part. And really, I'd say this book is more about that character, a reporter named Tor, than it is Gerald.

As I said at the beginning, I did enjoy this book. I think I was expecting a different one though.

Also: what was that monkey all about?

Existence, by David Brin, was provided to me by publisher through NetGalley for review. It's due to be published on June 19, 2012.


  1. I'm nearly halfway through, and it seems that once Gerald went into quarantine with the rock, the monkey disappeared. Not only disappeared from the story, but apparently from Gerald's mind as well.

    I will be VERY disappointed if it doesn't re-appear. Like the old screenwriter's rule...If you show it in the first act, you darn better use it in the third.

    Have to say so far I'm not loving this book. The Rasta Dr Noozone has to be the most annoying character since Jar Jar Binks!

    1. Pamela, Thanks for commenting. I agree, Dr. Noozone was very annoying.

      I was kind of harsh in my review, but I did enjoy the book for the most part. I thought the "mesh" and visual overlays that people could see were interesting. I'm seeing that kind of thing show up in near-future fiction lately. And I really enjoyed Hacker's story, but would have liked to see more of it.


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