Book Review: Existence by David Brin

 Reviewed by James La Salandra

“Surviving as a technological civilization is like crossing a vast minefield […] Too many mistakes and pitfalls lie in wait—bad trade-offs or ineludible paths of self-destruction.”


David Brin’s Existence is, from the outset, quite challenging to summarize, at least if any semblance of brevity is to be maintained.  The jacket description is as close as one might hope to come to a succinct description of the story, and yet the jacket itself still fails to accomplish more than to touch upon a few points among dozens of others comprising the wide-ranging scope of this dizzyingly complex novel.  A wealth of future history, countless, fully-developed characters, and a span of decades that only hint at eons to come all combine within the boundaries of this single volume.  In this subgenre-bending work of hard social science fiction Brin delivers far more than a story, crafting for the reader an expert analysis of not only our present situation as a people, but the possible futures of civilization itself.


Existence opens in the year 2050.  Astronaut-cum-garbage collector Gerald Livingstone spends his days floating in orbit, safe within a membranous cocoon, patched into a neuro-sens suit which provides a neural link-up to the bola, a massive space tether, used to snag bits of debris orbiting the Earth, clearing away a century of manmade detritus.  Owing to powerful instruments aboard the space station Endurance, the typical rendezvous between the bola’s grabber and each offending piece of orbital scrap is carefully plotted and scheduled.  However, spying the glimmer of an object unlike anything he’s ever seen before, Gerald takes the initiative in deviating from the day’s list of items.  While the object—a strange, glowing ovoid of unknown origin—is unquestionably unusual, its value is less certain.  However, as the crew of Endurance views the object through the bola crawler’s cameras, the reflection of the insignia and logos on the equipment begins to change shape.  The consternation of Gerald’s superiors soon gives way to curiosity and wonderment, as the object uses the reflection to spell out words of its own.


Far below the scene of Gerald’s discovery is a world already struggling with the extant problems and conditions of its time.  Brin’s careers as scientist and author lend themselves expertly to a futuristic tableau in which virtually every aspect—whether politics, ecology, technology, or pop culture—can be seen as a logical progression from the present day.  The majority of denizens in the world of the future lead lives immersed to the point of saturation in the technology of tomorrow.  The World Mesh, a network of multiple Internets and Webs, connect more people than ever to any and all activities across the globe.  Tru-vu specs, wearable heads-up displays, can be used to paint the wearer’s surroundings in any number of overlain information, textures, colors, and shapes.  Users communicate not through physical interfaces but by way of subvocal commands, eye movement, and thought alone, as cybernetic and neural implants further blur the lines between the World—or Channel 1, as Reality is known—and the Virld, the virtual spaces that stretch as immeasurably as the imagination.  Though the Singularity has yet to be reached, Artificial Intelligence varying capabilities still features heavily into the myriad technological facets of society, going so far as to give rise to a plethora of neologisms such as “ailectronic aissistants”, “ais and eairs”.  Much of the text of Existence is peppered with similar futuristic jargon, commonplace to the people who populate its pages.  And, while billions, across several strata of society, embrace such existences, there remains a small but ardent portion of the populace which argues for a reversion to the simpler ways of the past, while other factions wrestle for power over the course of humanity itself.


Away from the clashes of societal titans, the exhaustion of certain resources has given rise to unprecedented ecological recovery and replacement efforts, accepted as matter-of-fact by the world’s population, its necessity all but unavoidable.  Certain segments of the population contend with the aftermath of a second American Civil War, as well as the tragedy of the aptly named Awfulday assault, a nuclear attack that shook the global community to its core.  Due to climate change, rising ocean levels have overtaken countless miles of shoreline, creating new industries aimed at preventing further encroachment by the sea and salvaging useful materials from the submerged areas.  It is toward the latter goal that Peng Xian Bin spends his life working, as a poor shoresteader hoping to make a life for himself and his family as he constructs a futuristic shanty perched atop the sunken ruins of an erstwhile mansion.  While exploring the wreckage of a nearby estate, Bin finds a treasure trove of geological specimens, one of which is kept in a box whose label warns: “Inhabited by Demons”.  As news of Gerald’s discovery spreads across the globe, Bin quickly realizes that the Livingstone Artifact might not be the only one of its kind.


Further investigations of the artifacts reveal the living images of strange creatures within.  And so it is that the world of 2050 is thrust into a new era, as First Contact with extraterrestrial life is officially made.  The impact of such a discovery is colossal, rattling the structure of society at every level.  As the question of the Great Silence is answered, new questions emerge:  What do the artifacts mean?  Why haven’t the aliens reached Earth in person?  What’s happened to their civilizations, which led to the creation of these strange artifacts? At the heart of Existences conceptual maelstrom, the reader finds an additional series of questions: given the myriad ways in which an ultimate end might arrive, can our civilization possibly survive natural disasters, cosmic calamities, and itself?  If we do manage to survive, will it merely be a reasonable evolutionary descendent of the same civilization in which we find ourselves today, or will it have taken on entirely new characteristics as foreign to modern humanity as aliens themselves might seem to be?


As the story progresses, the author brilliantly depicts temporal parallax:  the shift in perspective that takes place as each character traverses the span from “before” to “after”, and events which, in their time, seemed of utmost importance appear, in retrospect, almost insignificant, miniscule, and negligible, in light of larger events which transpire.  In similar fashion, the reader finds events of earlier chapters, which one might expect to dominate, or at least presage, the developing plot, become mere stepping stones along a path that comes to involve mountainous climbs before long, revealing an ever expanding narrative scope, more complex by orders of magnitude when compared to the story’s seemingly innocuous beginnings.  The language and imagery employed more than capably elucidate in great detail the world and events being described.  Though the pace of the story does slow at times–the overall progression is nothing short of breathtaking–the plot expands to propel and shape the destiny, and definition, of humanity itself.  In the end, Existence is far more than a story:  it’s a glimpse into the mind of its author, as well as the collective mind of humankind.  Many, if not all, of Brin’s arguments and frequent themes can here be found, culminating into a vision, a message, and an invitation to begin a discussion the author feels we are finally ready to have.

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