Existence by David Brin book review


Every now and then, David Brin pops out with an overstuffed novel full of characters and ideas set in a near-distant future. Existence is built on the same template as Earth, but the Kiln novel tag is appropriate since it feels unfinished.

Existence reads like a first draft of a promising novel. There are a lot of brilliant ideas, but the novel is unfinished in ways that become obvious once the final third jumps years into the future, becomes truly interesting and collapses in a tangle of plot elements.

Its basic premise of an intelligent alien chain letter powered by the manipulative agendas of the consciousness of countless species propagating themselves like a virus is brilliant and ought to have made for a much better novel than this one, but Brin pads that out with a lot of unnecessary human characters and plots and then abruptly fast forwards it to the future discarding a lot of the excess elements. And then he does it again.

Applying the insane logic of internet wars and social collapse on an interstellar scale with spammers and botnets stretching across stars and civilizations, trolls and hackers passing themselves along through copies that are sent among the stars, is a great idea. And someone ought to do something with it.

There are echoes of Vernon Vinge’s brilliant Rainbow’s End and Fred Pohl’s Gateway series in Existence, but Brin’s future is less grounded and less ambitious, a splintered society whose celebrity journalists and their online information posses are plausible and dry, as are the battles between different factions whose motives and even agendas are poorly sketched in.

A lot of Existence’s plot involves a best-selling luddite novelist working for a cause whose renunciation agenda is never properly clarified. The same thing happens again when we reach outer space to encounter different alien robot factions fighting each other only to once again be left without an explanation for what the factions stand for and what the agenda of the alien probe narrator is.

A big chunk of Existence’s plot threads involve a rich playboy who survives a water landing with the help of dolphins and then never figures in the rest of the story except as a possible call forward to Brin’s Uplift stuff.

Things like these make Existence feel unfinished. The novel wavers between a handful of brilliant ideas that aren’t expanded and a lot of dry material that goes nowhere.

If Brin had the sense to embrace his ideas and build a novel around them instead of relying on the same tired old formula of trying to use a handful of diverse characters to sketch out a future world, Existence could have been a bold and brilliant novel.

Instead it’s a pile of literary rubble with some very interest things glittering in the ruins.