It's been 10 years since David Brin's last novel. A long decade, full of change and complexity. So it's fitting that his return to science fiction, Existence, is a futurist work akin to his 1990 novel Earth.
Starting with a series of snapshots of a world thirty years or so hence, Brin creates a picture where most of today's great threats have occurred and have been, if not overcome, then at least lived through. The seas have risen, nuclear terrorism has been perpetrated and the Yellowstone supervolcano has burped. It's a tomorrow where social and technological change have reshaped the world, and where a new social order is trying to put the brakes on progress, to end the Enlightenment. Beneath the optimism, though, there's danger. The world seems doomed to stagnation, unable to respond to any of a growing list of existential threats.
But then an astronaut on the last space station, clearing space garbage, finds something strange — something not of this earth. And that means everything is about to change, once again.
Brin draws on themes he's written about and discussed over much of the last decade, exploring a society shaped by ubiquitous surveillance (and equally ubiquitous sousveillance), where governments and ad hoc social media groups can use the same tools to draw their own conclusions and solve their own problems. It's the scenario he shaped in The Transparent Society, where little brother is the antidote to Big Brother (and that he elaborated on in a conversation with ZDNet earlier this year). But in Existence Brin also shows the downside of radical transparency, exploring how demagogues and propagandists can manipulate transparency to their own ends, using targeted disinformation.
The picture Brin draws is one of a densely networked world that's easy for us to recognise. Ubiquitous augmented reality layers information on everything we see and do, and a networked society pulls together in clusters, joining together in smart mobs to interpret information and solve problems. The rich and the poor share access to an ocean of information, and understanding is the key to everything. It's also a world where machine learning and artificial intelligence have become everyday tools, and there's an uploaded rat living in the interstices of the internet.
Of course, as in much of Brin's fiction, there's more. It's a story that travels the world, observing it through the eyes of a crusading journalist, a polemical novelist, an ageing astronaut, an aristocrat (or two) and a peasant shoresteading the ruins under a rising ocean. And as we leave the cradle there's also an answer to the Fermi Paradox, plus a tip of the hat to his popular Uplift novels.
Science fiction is as much a literature of the moment as it is of the future. This book, then, is both a warning and an encouragement: a novel that engages with the world we're building and tries to show us a way to become a mature civilisation rather than a raggle-taggle band of individuals. Technology has libertarian roots, but in the end we build the tools that construct a civil society. In Existence Brin shows us the world our technology is building, and then poses one of the biggest questions: what is it all for?
What we're left with in Existence is one of those rare SF novels that needs to be on every technologist's desk, alongside John Brunner's Shockwave Rider, Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End, Charles Stross's Rule 34, and Brin's own Earth. We may not be able to see our future, but in Existence we get a picture of a possible — even a plausible — tomorrow.
By David Brin
Little, Brown Book Group
£21 (hardback) / £6.74 (paperback) / £6.99 (Kindle)