Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
Existence: David Brin, October 17—November 1, 2013
My rating: ♦◊◊◊◊
Existence was one of the major dramas of my autumn 2013 schedule and one I was particularly excited about. I was therefore extremely disappointed not to enjoy it.
The ensemble cast and varied plot strands largely converge around the discovery of two alien artefacts – one in space, and one on earth. This brings humanity into its long-awaited first contact with alien life.
There are, in fact, many things that Brin should be praised for. The concept is a good one. Not only in terms of the storyline, but in choosing to approach it from the point of view of so many individuals: a technophobe author, a kick-ass female reporter, a rich maverick, his even richer and alien-mad mother, a space binman and a broke Chinese fisherman-cum-scavenger. They are all uniquely impacted by the events that unfold.
Brin has also created a future world that is entirely believable. The advanced technology is feasibly progressed from what exists today. Instead of explaining the minutiae of these progressions, he plunges us into the world and simply expects us to know what he’s on about. It requires some thought at times, but creates an authentic world, together with its own vocabulary (often prefixing everything with “ai”). The class system, social atmosphere and general planet have moved on – convincingly.
The theme of the book is so much more than mere alien contact. The theme is existence – not of aliens, but of humanity. And not of if, but of what. What is existence? What does it mean to exist? The chapters alternate between narrative and essays by Brin exploring life, faith, our obsession with our impending extinction, our self-destructiveness and a menagerie of other assembled thoughts that resonate with any self-aware reader.
So what’s the problem? The biggest problem is Brin’s writing style. As a narrator, he is detached and distant. He isn’t telling a story, he’s informing us of events. It’s more like a history textbook than a novel and just isn’t enjoyable. It lacks tension, urgency and basically fails to capture any whiff of attention.
The chapters don’t flow. The most boring, inane events are each rewarded with their own chapter and Brin spends half of it going off on rabbit trails and tangents that lead nowhere and add nothing.
I really, really wanted to like this book and tried so hard to, but it is frankly boring. It’s so dull it might as well be on grey paper with grey text, and it’s doubly disastrous because it could have been so good.
I have to respect the scope of Brin’s ambition and appreciate the scale of ideas he brings, but what I cannot do is enjoy this book, not even a bit.