Thursday, February 21, 2013

Shouting into Silent Space

David Brin
Tor Books, 2012
ISBN 0765303612

A little over 60 years ago, so the story goes, Enrico Fermi pointed out a problem with our thinking about the universe. Our Sun, he said, is actually quite young. There are billions of stars in our galaxy that are much older. Around our Sun it seems life evolved rather quickly. We don't know of any reason why Earth should be special in that regard. There should be millions of planets in our galaxy that offer similar advantages.

If we accept those premises, then there's a painfully obvious question we should be asking ourselves: where is everybody?!

Since then many scientists have offered up theories to explain the Great Silence. Not least among them is David Brin. After holding forth on the topic thirty years ago, Existence is a fictional treatment of his thinking on the matter.

The story takes place a few decades in our future, when orbital worker Gerald Livingstone retrieves an artifact that turns out to have come from a non-human civilization. As the story develops, the alien civilization that sent us the artifact turns out to pose an unforeseen danger to humanity, and various actors on Brin's stage struggle to save humanity's future.

In spite of a large number of interruptions where Brin in the persona of "Pandora's Oracle" muses on the reasons why a technological civilization might not survive to colonize the galaxy (one of the obvious explanations for the Great Silence), the story is well paced. There is a large cast of well developed characters, though some of the more important ones seem to sneak up from the sidelines, like Peng Xiang Bin's wife and child. It is clear by the end of the book that, while writing an entertaining story was certainly one of Brin's goals, it's those interruptions that were the greater purpose.

Brin is one of those SF authors mother used to warn you about. His SF is political. Until Existence the stories weren't obviously political, but it seems that this time Brin had a number of messages he wanted to get off his chest, and he crammed them into the book. He's done that before, for example with Earth, and with Kiln People, both books which clearly repeated points Brin had made at various occasions. But Existence is different, in that rather than telling a story that includes a larger point, this book explains a larger point and makes it palatable by wrapping it in a story.

Brin's politics aren't easily categorized. He blogs as a contrarian, which is apt if you agree with him that every currently fashionable political view in general use in the States and around the world ignores various inconvenient facts about human nature. If you have strong views on political topics, you will knock heads with Brin, no matter what your views are. That makes Existence a little difficult to swallow for many readers. Not only is the story not your typical genre fiction, but there are political ideas in there that Brin defends quite forcefully.

I did enjoy the book. But I know this book isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea.

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