Existence by David Brin
In a near future (the 2050’s or thereabouts) everybody in the world is connected with each other and their surroundings through a virtual network, inter-active glasses and various implants. At this time, during which space exploration has been suspended, Gerald Livingstone is an astronaut whose job it is to collect and dispose of the space junk which can be found in huge amounts, orbiting our Earth. When he spots a strange and shiny object floating around, his curiosity gets the better of him and he makes the unauthorised effort to retrieve the item.
What appears to be a manufactured crystal seems to come to life when Gerald touches it. It turns out to be a sort of repository containing a large number of different aliens all of whom are competing to get Gerald’s and later the world’s attention. And although their message appears to be urgent they are very evasive when it comes to explaining themselves or their ultimate purpose.
At about the same time, Peng Xiang Bin, a young Chinese man desperately trying to build a life for himself, his partner and baby by scavenging the new coastline discovers a second crystal, one whose messenger claims that those inside the first crystal are liars. With the whole world involved in the discussion about what to make of the aliens’ warnings and proposed solution, various people decide to take positions and push their personal causes.
There is Tor Povlov, a journalist whose body was destroyed in a terrorist attack who now operates on a cyber level with the aid of a virtual think-tank, Hamish Brookeman, the famous author of doomsday books who advocates an anti-technology course of action, and Lacey Donaldson-Sander one of the super-rich de-facto rulers of the world to name but a few. With everybody, including the aliens, having an agenda of their own, the big question is whether or not humanity is equipped to deal with and survive the alien’s arrival.
This book starts off very slow. The near-future-world has to be introduced and build as do the various characters, their backgrounds and motivation. But even when the story does really kick off this still isn’t a quick read. The story is filled to the brim with facts, speculation and details which will prove important further on in the story. If the reader wants to fully appreciate this story they’d do well to take their time and try to absorb what is happening.
From the moment humanity discovers that the artifact aliens have a purpose of their own, a purpose that could destroy Earth the question becomes and remains who is outsmarting who? Are the humans smart enough to anticipate every trick in the aliens’ book or have the latter foreseen any attempts at foiling their purpose and is humanity destined to repeat mistakes made by other races?
It was this question and the fact that it never appears to get a definite answer that really got me invested in the story. There were times when I could see an ulterior motive before the characters in the book did and could only hope that they would come to the same conclusion. At other times those characters where way ahead of me, taking actions that filled me with dread but appeared to turn out for the best later on, although the question always remained; did they really find a safe solution or are they still being tricked into a false sense of security?
It is a shame that there are one or two story-lines that did not appear to serve a real purpose in the overall context of the book. For example, as much as I enjoyed the adventures of Hacker and his encounter with the dolphins I’m not sure why it had to be part of this story or what it was meant to illustrate that couldn’t be seen through any of the other story-lines. The prophet, Tenskwatawa, was another interesting character that got introduced in the early part of the story only to disappear again without having served any obvious purpose. And while the autistics and resurrected Neanderthals do seem to have a role to play later on in the story I can’t help feeling that a lot more could have been done with their storyline.
Maybe this book suffers from too much story. I can’t help feeling that the author had a host of great ideas and then tried to squeeze them all into one narrative. It is quite possible that spreading them out a bit would have led to a more satisfying reading experience.
Overall though I was fascinated by the main story in this book from the moment it was fully introduced and I know that I will be thinking about it even now, after I read the last page. And any book that manages to capture my attention to such a degree deserves to be praised. On a separate note, I loved the cover on this book and the 3-D picture it shows.