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Book review: Existence by David Brin

Existence review MAIN

 

Existence is the future stripped bare of science fiction fallacies, Star Trek day dreaming and wishful thinking.

And you know what? It’s not as bleak a read as you might think.

Certainly humanity has more than its fair share of pressing issues on its hands – climate change is eroding the land great chunks at a time, social inequities have wide-apart strata composed of the very poor and the very rich and very few in between, resources are strained to bursting, and political dissension, sufficient to wrest apart countries as enduring as the United States, is on the rise.

Even the Age of Enlightenment, the intellectual movement which dragged mankind kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages and into an age of science and reason, is up for grabs threatened by a reductionist conspiracy of intellectual and financial elites, worried that technology and progress are now the enemy rather than the ally.

And the world is interconnected as never before, with reality, if you can still call it that, existing on ever more augmented levels, the deeper into the World Mesh you care to go, with those not multi-tasking on a thousand different activities at once, patronisingly regarded as somewhat backward or lacking.

It’s a time of great promise but also immense threats, and there is a gigantic question over whether humanity will continue its hitherto seemingly unstoppable march up the mountain of evolution or fall into the abyss, a victim of its own hubris and overreaching, and its failure to see the pitfalls that threaten civilisation before it’s too late.

 

 

It may sound like a hopelessly dystopian view of the road ahead, but David Brin, a scientist, futurist as well as a gifted writer who’s able to fold hard scientific fact into riveting page turning reading, albeit one which requires a great more concentration that your average airport paperback thriller, is careful to take a step back from the apocalypse, erring on the side of optimistic caution.

That is not to say he is a hopeless Pollyanna optimist, pointing to any number of problems including ideological polarisation, religious extremism and the relentless increase in the Earth’s population, as daggers held to the collective throat of people everywhere.

But using his clearly indepth of knowledge about what and isn’t scientifically possible, and extrapolating them decades into the future, he gives us an idea of the shape of mankind in a world where everything seems possible but may be derailed by any one of a multitude of civilisation-ending variables.

While it is initially a little hard to get into, with frequent allusions to a broad selection of scientific ruminations on the nature of existence and that which may imperil it, and a bewildering array of characters who come across as emotionally remote and un-engaging at first (but soon become compelling players in the saga), it soon picks up pace with the discovery of a mysterious crystal ovoid in orbit around the planet.

It soon emerges that this is no ordinary piece of space junk, and that it carries within it 92 races of extraterrestrial beings and their vast storehouse of cultural, intellectual and technological knowledge, along with a compelling message for mankind.

Not quite the first contact of science fiction lore, it reflects the fact that the universe is vast, warp drives are pretty much a scientific impossibility, and the only way advanced races can contact each other is via these message ovoids which have been landing on Earth for thousands of years, awaiting our ascent to a sufficiently technologically advanced level of civilisation.

The alien collective offers mankind neither paradise on earth nor a Star Trek community among the stars, their solution to humanity’s woes setting in chain fierce debate and massive societal upheaval about what we need as a race to survive and prosper.

 

 

In that respect, Existence is a masterful and quite accessible philosophical treatise on the nature of what it means to be.

Is it enough so simply scrape by? Can we expect our civilisation to endure in glorious perpetuity? Will it be derailed by things we know about it or something else entirely? And should we be presented with an opportunity like that of the so-called Havana Artifact and its galactic inhabitants, will it harm us or help us?

And most importantly should our continued existence rest upon a “do no harm” mantra inclusive of all, or is it every man for themselves with a few spared, along with our vast array of hard won knowledge?

The fact that Brin is able to pose these questions at length and in exquisite detail without only rarely bogging down in intellectual pondering is a rare feat, rendering Existence as an engrossing, narrative-rich book with the soul and mind of a cabal of Nobel Prize scientists at its core.

It dares to envisage a future neither ideal nor rampantly dystopian, in which the least of our worries may be emissaries from the far flung corners of the galaxy.

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