viernes, 15 de junio de 2012

Existence by David Brin

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Review Soundtrack: I suggest that you read this review while listening to Eye in the Sky by The Alan Parsons Project (Spotify link, Youtube link).

Many of my favorite novels are first contact or alien artifact stories: classics such as Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke or Gateway by Frederik Pohl and more modern books like Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds, Marrow by Robert Reed or Blindsight by Peter Watts. To them, I now have to add Existence by David Brin.

Existence is the first novel by Brin in ten years (in 2002 he published the also wonderful Kiln People). It was one of my highly anticipated books of 2012 and it has been worth the wait. In Existence you will find many of the most important themes in the science fiction of the last thirty years: virtual reality, artificial intelligence, the singularity, global warming, and, above all, the Fermi Paradox. Oh, and intelligent dolphins, of course.

The novel starts with Gerald, an astronaut whose work is collecting space junk. In a routine mission, he discovers an alien artifact that reacts to his touch and greets him. This will set in motion a lot of different events that we witness through the eyes of a pleiad of characters (some human, some not so much) with very different agendas. Each chapter is devoted to one of these points of view and some of them could work perfectly as stand-alone short stories or novelettes (in fact, it seems that some of them were previously published that way), with characters and sub-plots interesting on their own. The result is a complex tapestry and an extremely interesting story that is very difficult to put down.

One of the strongest points of Existence is the excellent worldbuilding. For instance, at the end of each chapter we find a fictional article, piece of news or extract from a book, which really help adding a solid background to the story. Also, Brin creates dozens of new words (aissistant, skutr, aixperts, virmersion...) and adds references to past events (The Big Deal, Awfulday, The Basque Chimera...). Only a few of them are explictly explained and the reader may feel at bit at lost in the first few chapters, but it really gives a feeling of a vivid and dynamical world. Brin also mentions a lot of science fiction authors (Bear, Benford, Stross, Asimov, Wells... once, he even has of one the characters saying 'Expecto simakus cliffordiam') and plays with their ideas, making Existence a book clearly in dialogue with the history and evolution of the genre.  

But what really stands out in this novel is the number of scientific, philosophical and sociological ideas. The future that Brin depicts is, at once, believable, alluring and frightening. A world full of technological wonders but also on the verge of doom. Because Existence is, mainly, a book about changes. Changes in society. Changes in technology. Changes in the way we perceive and understand ourselves as human beings. The alien artifact is only but a piece of the puzzle of existence, of our present, our past and what lays ahead of us as an intelligent species living on a hostile universe.

The book is not without its flaws. The final quarter of the novel is, in my opinion, a bit weaker than the rest (although the ending is very satisfying) and parts of it feel a bit rushed. Some chapters (for example, the ones devoted to Hamish Brookeman) could have used some editing. Also, at least one of the main plot twists is quite evident (I saw it coming several chapters before one of the characters figured it out). 

Despite this minor problems, Existence is, so far, my favorite science fiction book published in 2012 and one of the best of the last few years. It is full of sense of wonder, with top-notch worldbuilding and dozens of cool sfnal ideas. This is the kind of novel that I love to read and I can't recommend it highly enough.

(You can also read this review in Spanish/También puedes leer esta reseña en español)

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