'Existence' by David Brin

As luck would have it, just as I finished reading this book, I came across the great sock-puppet book review controversy. It seems that certain authors (some self-published, some not) have been setting up fake accounts on Amazon, in order to post glowing reviews about their own books, and about those of their friends. In separate news, a small company set up to provide positive reviews in exchange for money, has recently been shut down - as this activity is considered fraudulent. That company was raking in the cash. It seems there are plenty of self-published writers who are prepared to pay for positive reviews on Amazon, because these reviews will increase their sales.

And then I got to thinking about mainstream publishing, and the often glowing reviews featured on promotional websites, of books that (upon reading) I have found to be absolute crap.

Of course, there is no objective measure of the crapness or otherwise of a particular piece of writing - it's all a matter of taste. Publishers, therefore, are entitled to cherry pick the reviews and draw the customer's attention to those that are positive. That's what marketing is, and it's not generally considered fraudulent as long as the review in question reflects the genuine opinion of the reviewer.

But it's pretty obviously in the interests of literary magazines and websites and so on to keep the publishers happy. Positive reviews are more likely to be featured on author and publisher websites, and this will help to get the name of the reviewers out there - publishers will, naturally, continue to ask them to review books, because it's in their interests to do so. If a reviewer generally trashes the books s/he reviews, why would a publisher, or an author, continue to 'work with' that reviewer?

And yet, we are supposed to believe that book reviewers offer an independent and genuine opinion, which we as customers can read, and which may help us to make an informed decision about which books we want to buy.

And so, I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. If I provide generally good reviews, I can then draw them to the attention of authors and publishers, who will then let potential readers know about my review - in the hope that, by reading my review, they may be persuaded to buy the book. Maybe I can get a good reputation as a trusted reviewer, and eventually even earn a living by reviewing books. If I'm helping publishers and authors to make money, I can make money too - and everybody wins. If, on the other hand, I continually trash books, nobody will want to 'work with' me. The only loser, in that case, would be me.

So, yet again, honesty and independence are in conflict with the imperatives of capitalism, and with the reality that publishers exist not primarily to discover and promote talent, but to make money by selling books in volume.

How to resolve this dilemma? One way might be to approach it the same way you would (or, perhaps, should) approach writing a novel: be true to yourself. Say what you feel. Don't worry that others might not agree with you, or that you may be considered a troublemaker, a talentless hack, a right-wing nutjob, or whatever. You can't answer for other people. You can only be true to yourself. That's the approach I've always tried to take with my life. I've missed out on a lot of good stuff as a consequence, but at least I'm not a fucking fraud.

David Brin is not a fraud either, at least as far as I can tell.

Yes, this is how I plan to segue in to the actual review. I want to make it very clear at the outset that Brin is a Real Writer, whose good name must not be besmirched. As a Real Writer, he deserves a Real Review, and that's exactly what he's gonna get.

Existence is David Brin's first published novel in ten years. It took him so long to write the damn thing that he actually apologises in an afterword: "I promise to write quicker, less exhausting books," he says. Fair enough; Existence was a long slog for him. He worked very hard on it, and I have a lot of respect for that, as I think we all should.

I haven't read any of Brin's other books, but in his time he has won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Campbell awards. This qualifies him as a genuine Science Fiction heavyweight. On the back cover of Existence, he is described as 'a modern master of science fiction'. On his website, there are some comments about Existence being, perhaps, 'his masterwork'.

It's a pretty recent book - only just about to be published in standard paperback format. My own copy is a limited edition with a holographic cover. It's an extraordinarily - no, excessively - chunky book, and a real pain in the arse to carry around. This is why I don't buy hardbacks. I really was expecting something a little smaller, but that's life. And it really is a beautiful book. It oozes quality; it's the sort of book that makes you feel super-intelligent just looking at it. Yep, that's me.

Existence is a 'serious' book, you see. It covers weighty themes. It's not the sort of book that's just meant to be good fun; it has a serious message. It's a book for intellectuals, scientists, and deep thinkers. Or at least, that's how it's marketed. Also, I'm sure I remember the publication of Existence being described as an 'SF publishing event' (but I can't find the reference now, so perhaps not.)

Therefore, I was expecting something very special, and I started to read with great anticipation… yes, even trepidation.

So what is Existence about? Here's where it gets a bit science-y. Science tells us that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, and that many of them have planets capable (perhaps) of supporting life. Mathematical reasoning (via the Drake Equation) suggests that there should be thousands of intelligent civilisations out there. Humans have set up the SETI project, to look for radio waves coming from space, which would indicate the presence of intelligent life. The project has been running for decades, and so far, we've found nothing. Nothing! No aliens have come to visit us either (at least, not according to Serious Scientists, they haven't).

So… where are they all? This is known as the Fermi Paradox, after Enrico Fermi who first most famously asked that question. Existence explores it, and comes up with a number of possible answers, many of them very interesting. The key concept is that of the 'filter'. It could be that there are so many pitfalls that prevent the rise of sentient life that we, on Earth, are much much rarer than the Drake Equation would suggest, having passed through all these different 'filters' through which others may not have made it. For example, we haven't been struck by asteroids or poisoned ourselves or all died from disease or war; we haven't (yet) built intelligent robots that rose up and exterminated us, and so on and so on.

Perhaps we are unique (or almost unique) in surviving to this stage of technological development. But then… what if there are more filters, in our future? Will we survive those, too? Could it be that there's some danger we haven't thought of, some pitfall that kills all sentient species? Intelligent hunter-killer machines, perhaps, that seek out and exterminate all sentient carbon-based life? Have they detected our radio transmissions? Are they on their way to destroy us, even now? There are a million possibilities which could explain the Great Galactic Silence, and Brin does a good job of imagining and explaining a great many of them.

See, it's a serious book! This is what's called 'Hard SF' - it uses real science as part of the plot, rather than just making up science-y sounding nonsense as it goes along, which is what Star Trek does - that sort of thing is called 'Soft SF'. Personally, I think this distinction is completely artificial, but never mind that. The distinction is made. Hard SF appeals to people who like to think of themselves as 'scientifically minded' - those people who actually understand something about science, as opposed to people who maybe just want to read a ripping yarn about sexy space princesses and the like. Hard SF readers get a lot of pleasure out of being clever and understanding techie things - these are the sort of people who might complain if the plot of your novel uses tech that does not conform to their understanding of what is possible in the real world. In Soft SF, that doesn't matter so much. (Actually, there's another definition of the Hard/Soft distinction which has to do with the Hard vs the Soft Sciences; another artificial distinction, in my opinion. But in both cases, Existence would fall into the Hard SF category.)

So this is Hard SF, and it's serious, and it's a big, weighty book, and David Brin has won lots of awards, and he's very clever, and so on. But is it any good?

Well… the prose is okay. It's a bit weird and jerky. It doesn't really flow very well, but… I thought maybe that was a stylistic thing, and it would just take a while to get into it. That turned out to be true, though I never really grew to like the style. But I can't say it's bad; perhaps it's just not to my taste.

Existence is written in little bits; some of these bits focus on particular characters (several different threads, each with characters completely separated from each other); other bits are extracts from imaginary books, news reports, and that kind of thing. I was immediately reminded of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. Indeed, as Existence goes on it becomes clear that it is quite consciously influenced by Brunner's earlier work. Brin is not shy about that at all, and (online) he has explicitly cited it as a major influence on Existence.

Unfortunately, Existence does not compare favourably with Stand On Zanzibar. Not favourably at all. Brunner's book is a flawed masterpiece. Existence is not just flawed; it's a mess.

Although I can't say that Existence is badly written, it's not well-written either. The sentences are all pretty good, but there's no real life to them. I just found it really boring to read, for some reason I can't put my finger on.

Brin seems to have no flair for prose at all. He just writes down the words one after the other, and manages to form coherent sentences that mean what he wants them to mean. But the sentences are in no way beautiful or interesting; they're just functional sentences. I got the impression (unfair, I'm sure!) that he's had to pull out all the stops just to get it as good as that. It's completely neutral in tone, as though written by a machine. Though there are glimmers, here and there, of attempts at humour, there are no actual laughs.

There are some annoying verbal ticks though. For example, Brin spends the first half of the book inserting the letters 'ai' into everything, like so: 'aidvert', 'paiper', 'maikeup', 'spaictacles', 'draidlocks' -- all of which presumably indicate artificially intelligent versions of things we are familiar with. (I made most of those up for illustrative purposes because I couldn't be bothered to hunt though the text for them - the only one I can guarantee is in there is 'draidlock' - which, to me, only serves to emphasise how annoying it is - those other examples, I can sort of imagine how they might be enhanced by AI, but what on earth is an artificially intelligent dreadlock, and why would you want one?). Strangely, the 'ai'-insertion overload suddenly stops about halfway through the book. I guess he eventually got bored of it too.

He also overuses the word 'ersatz' to such an extent that I wanted to scream. Perhaps I have an unreasonable aversion to the word - but I can't remember ever reading another book where it cropped up as often as in this one - clearly, there are plenty of alternatives he could have thrown in from time to time.

But the main problem isn't with the writing. It's not exactly the story, either - that's pretty good. Unfortunately, the way the story is told is not good. It's bad.

There are lots of characters, and they all get lots of bits, but they never seem to come alive. The story is in no way about the people in the book, it's about the tech, and the ideas.

The characters spend most of their time engaged in tedious philosophical discussions purely designed to further Brin's own thoughts (I assume) about the Fermi Paradox. Those thoughts are certainly very interesting, but they don't seem to come from the characters who think them; they seem to come from the author himself. I never got a sense of who the characters were, or what was important to them. They just go around talking in boring voices, and doing things which ought to be exciting (but somehow aren't) according to the requirements of the plot. And then… characters and plot threads are dropped, with no explanation. In several cases, this happened just at the point where I was starting to engage with them emotionally.

Next, many of the plot twists are unveiled with such a heavy hand that you can see them coming several pages before the characters do. These characters, by the way, are mostly supposed to be very intelligent people, whose intellects are aided by pseudo-intelligent AIs who can sense their thoughts and trawl the web for information that may shed light on matters of interest to them. So surely, they should be able to spot the obvious a mile off! But no. In short, the twists are insufficiently twisty. When they finally come, the points are laboured all the way home, as though readers are too stupid to think for themselves. The logical reasoning has to be laid out step by tedious step every time. This is done to such an extent that, wherever there are flaws in the reasoning, they become painfully obvious - which, of course, completely destroys the plausibility of the plot. Naturally all plots have holes; the trick is not to draw attention to them.

And now, a few words about Stand On Zanzibar, explicitly an inspiration for Existence. I said earlier that I think Stand On Zanzibar is a flawed masterpiece. What makes it a masterpiece? It's a book with a big heart; full of passion and anger at the injustices of the world. It's a book, fundamentally, expressing both love for, and massive frustration with humanity - we have such a capacity for caring about one another, and yet, somehow, we manage to treat each other like shit - and what for? Stand On Zanzibar screams for us to wake the fuck up. It's also beautifully written, hip, and funny. The focus of the story is the characters, while the overriding plot seems somehow distant, less important, almost unreal. Reading Stand On Zanzibar, I genuinely cared about the characters, and I really enjoyed reading it. The flaw in the masterpiece is that the plot doesn't hold together as a whole, it sort of fizzles out and comes to an end with lots of things seemingly unresolved. That's ok because it actually fits quite well with the theme of the book, but more importantly, Stand On Zanzibar comes from the heart; it's so insightful and deep and beautiful that I could easily overlook its flaws - those flaws were completely irrelevant to me. I loved that book, imperfections and all.

Existence is a completely different animal. It's a book about thinking, rather than feeling. It leans heavily on the idea that 'scientific progress' is what is needed in order to save the world, and that capitalism is ultimately a force for good, as it leads to innovation. This reminds me of another (non-fiction) book, Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near, which I suspect is another big influence on Existence, judging by the prominence given in the story to Artificial Intelligence.

Kurzweil also promulgates the idea that all the problems of the world can be solved by Science; he explains how, in the future, genetic engineering of food crops will produce more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet, and nobody will ever starve again. He completely ignores the fact that there's already plenty of food for everyone - the reason people are starving is because it's more profitable to sell the food to people who already have plenty - or to throw it away - than it would be to give it to those who have none. That is not a problem that can be solved by science. It's an economic and political problem. This kind of blind faith in the power of science to save humanity is indicative of a deep and wilful ignorance of current reality, and it irritates the absolute shit out of me. It makes it very hard for me to take the intellectual reasoning in the rest of either book seriously.

The last section of Existence focuses almost exclusively on noble myths about humanity, progress, and the Western scientific worldview - not by arguing carefully in favour of them, but by taking them as a given. It is said that 'objectively' speaking, the level of oppression and violence in the world has been 'plummeting' since 1945 - a book by Stephen Pinker (The Better Angels Of Our Nature) is cited in support of that little theory. I haven't read it, so I don't know, but I'm pretty sure I could come up with a counter-argument to that. The key to that counter-argument would be to consider the fact that oppression and violence carried out by 'Us' (in the West - ie the good, rational, democratic people of the world) is not framed as violence at all, but as a great battle to liberate others from oppression by tyrants. We only see bad things done by Others, while everything done by Us is good - and since We are the dominant power in the world, it appears to Us that oppression and violence must be decreasing, and that things are getting better. Yay, progress!

You may think I'm getting off the subject - but these issues are specifically addressed by Brin in Existence, and I feel his treatment of them is naive in the extreme. He wants to believe in the future - he wants to be optimistic. He wants to believe that we humans are wonderful, beautiful creatures. I agree with all of that - we are. But that's not the whole story - not by a long way.

David Brin is 'a master of modern science fiction', and he took ten years to write this big fat intellectual Hard SF book, described as a 'masterwork', which explicitly invites comparisons to John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar. In this big fat clever book, Brin explores big fat clever questions such as 'Will Humanity Survive?' and 'Does Humanity Deserve To Survive?'. That makes it hard for me to cut him any slack for not considering the possibility that the rational scientific approach to reality may actually be contributing to humanity's problems - despite the fact that yes, clearly, that approach could also help us to solve them.

Hard SF people (it seems to me) want to believe that the universe is (in principle) rational; that all things are governed by mathematical laws that can be discovered and put to use by sentient beings such as ourselves. Perhaps this is true - there are plenty of reasons for believing that it might be. But when I read books like Existence, which provides such a clear example of the ignorance and self-deception of highly intelligent people, it's not too hard for me to imagine that for the human race, irrationality and wishful thinking will always triumph over reason.

If Existence was meant to send a message of hope for the future, then, for me, it is a complete failure. To explicitly invite comparisons with Stand On Zanzibar is pure hubris - it's not even remotely in the same league.

Existence: Great ideas, in a big bag of shit.

Maybe Brin's other books are better, but I can't recommend this one.