David Brin’s novel Existence is set in an alarmingly plausible near future: a post-climate-catastrophe and post-nuclear-disaster world of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and ubiquitous inter-connectivity that is but a short imaginative leap from our present state.
With this backdrop, Brin introduces us to a bevy of characters and sets up several narrative threads that, to varying degrees, run through the entire book: a reporter stumbles on a plot to use zeppelins as bombs, a writer is enlisted to investigate the poisoning of a Senator, an extreme sports junky finds himself stranded at sea and, most significantly, an astronaut discovers a mysterious crystal orbiting the earth that might contain intelligent life.
Brin skillfully develops these characters and story lines, but is often far too willing to drop them in favor of vast leaps forward in his larger saga. Only upon reading the afterword did I realize why these narrative bright spots stood out as they did: they began their life as short stories and as such reflected a taut lucidity that was sadly lacking in the the novel as a whole. Those set-pieces alone almost made the book reading, but ultimately couldn’t save it.
As happens all too often with genre fiction, Brin falls prey to the allure of his own ideas — the novel gradually sinks beneath the weight of tedious excerpts from other books, interviews with disparate characters and abstracts from scientific and sociological treatises. This cruft, though interesting at times, obscured the very themes it was meant to explore: themes about social and technological progress, morality, religion, humanity — about our very human existence.
In Existence, Brin regularly sacrifices narrative for explication and in doing so commits the ultimate literary sin: forgoing “showing” in favor of “telling.” But perhaps such a fault shouldn’t come as a surprise from a novel that unabashedly proclaims its theme in its title.