Review: Existence, by David Brin

WC likes much of David Brin’s writing, both his science fiction and his non-fiction. But sometimes even the best author produces a clunker. This is a review WC wrote for Amazon back in 2012.1 WC offers this review because, as a reader who stumbled on it points out, it’s a decent example of WC’s approach to writing these blog posts: Opening with a seemingly unrelated matter, specific in criticism of the work and linking the opening and the real subject towards the end. It’s not always successful, but nearly a decade later, this review seems to stand up.

The quintesessential “shaggy dog story” is in Mark Twain’s Roughing It (Chapter 53), where Twain is told by his buddies to go and listen to the great story Jim Blaine tells about his grandfather’s ram. Twain does, and listens to increasingly incoherent and tenuously linked yarns, until Blaine passes out from the corn likker.

I learned then that Jim Blaine’s peculiarity was that whenever he reached a certain stage of intoxication, no human power could keep him from setting out, with impressive unction, to tell about a wonderful adventure which he had once had with his grandfather’s old ram–and the mention of the ram in the first sentence was as far as any man had ever heard him get, concerning it. He always maundered off, interminably, from one thing to another, till his whisky got the best of him and he fell asleep. What the thing was that happened to him and his grandfather’s old ram is a dark mystery to this day, for nobody has ever yet found out.

Roughing It, by Mark Twain

David Brin’s new novel is a Shaggy Dog story. It’s a Jim Blaine drunken mandering. It’s chock full of tenuously linked and completely unlinked threads of stories that never reach a conclusion. Here are just a few examples.

– The planet is wearing out. It’s a disaster novel. Overcrowding, terrorism, resource depletion, catastrophic class struggles, secret cabals. There are even mini-chapters between chapters categorizing all the ways humanity can come to a disastrous end. And then the plot thread is abandoned.

– But one ultra-wealthy character is rescued from his own criminal stupidity by a pod of uplifted dolphins. Shades of Brin’s  Startide Rising (The Uplift Saga, Book 2) ! But the the dolphins, the rich brat and plot thread are all abandoned.

– The wife of one man who (re)discovered one of some mysterious digital glass bottles is chased through a Chinese city by hordes of mysterious men. She and her baby are rescued and hide in a Shanghai Disneyland. And then the plot thread is abandoned.

Ostensibly, it’s a story of First Contact between man and an alien species, except it turns out not to be the first, not by a long shot, and it turns out to not involve actual physical contact. Ostensibly, it’s an explanation why attempt to detect radio signals from other intelligent life – the Fermi Paradox – have been unsuccessful. It’s because the preferred manner of communication is a high-tech equivalent of a message in a bottle, not broadcasts. Except it’s more like a virus infection, and the messages, the memes, in the high-tech bottles are contagions. Sort of like Brin’s plot threads: only one “message bottle” in a million may reach someone and cause an “infection.” But it’s a doozy.

So it’s a Dire Alien Menace story, too. Except that other digital message bottles warn against the D.A.M. The Big Confrontation, with one digital message bottle set against another? That’s never described. The plot thread is abandoned. Instead, the story jumps ahead a decade or two, to the Asteroid Belt, where apparently earlier versions of the D.A.M. are still duking it out, with some of our plucky characters caught in the cross-fire.

And then the scene shifts again, this time to a noble venture to “cure” all those unfortunate alien species infected by the contagious memes represented by the D.A.M. Except that plot thread, too, gets abandoned, along with the reader, for a gravity-lens-powered telescope.

Oddly, Jim Blaine’s grandfather’s old ram doesn’t actually appear in Existence, but the rest Blaine’s sins as a storyteller are fully present. The novel is a shaggy mess of a story. Great ideas – including some recycled concepts from Brin’s controversial  The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom?  – but if you are looking for anything like a plot, or continuity, expect repeated disappointments. Brin can and has written good novels. Award winning novels. This isn’t one of them.

Hardcover: 560 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition (June 19, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0765303612

1 WC was at one point briefly a Top 100 reviewer for Amazon. When WC used one of his Amazon reviews as a blog post, Amazon somehow found out and tried to get WC to take down the blog post, claiming WC had assigned all rights to his Amazon review to Amazon, and that WC could not use his review elsewhere without Amazon’s consent. WC told Amazon to go climb a tree. And hasn’t written a review for Amazon since.