Brin's novel at its best fizzes with an exuberant sense of play about the challenge implicit in the title: gleefully doom-dropping various ways humanity might disappear (or be disappeared), pinballing around the pros and cons for other intelligent life in the universe, or simply putting any of its multiple characters through (another) plot wringer. For a novel that could drag (or simply be a drag), could buckle under sententious handwringing Import as we think deeply about whether we'll survive and whether we're alone, Existence
instead takes (and offers) enormous delight in posing the questions and teasing through some answers. The central, motivating event--the discovery of a small object that appears to be a message from aliens--is both a smartly-argued revision of the assumptions we have about what first contact might look like *and* a sly send-up and reversal of the standard sci-fi plot device of the Big Dumb Object.
The novel also zips--a collage of varied subplots each rev along at full speed, slowly merging but each respectively tackling cliffhangers and complications. (Any one could be carved out into its own fine novella, and certain setpieces have an operatic big-screen scale.). Further, Brin weaves between Action a series of "essays" and dialogues that recur, teasing out and debating the big ideas implicit in the plot/s.
I enjoyed it. And I think if it wasn't coming onto the scene just after I'd read Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth
(which is maybe a more cohesive, adventuresome version, although for this reader less successful, less expansive and capacious in its intellectual play) or Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312
(which is both more cohesive and more capacious and near to a masterpiece, so--damn--unfair to beat Brin for not being that
outstanding) ... I'd have been more enthralled, less alert to Existence
's weaknesses: a certain magpied familiarity (bits and aspects of the novel so clearly plucked from others--Bacigalupi, Marusek, McHugh, Robinson), a tendency for play to sink into silliness (particularly in a character knocking Michael Crichton, a few years too late, or a science pundit who sounds like Hermes Conrad), and an overriding sense of the quilting--like the novel as a whole came through many drafts yet still seems a bit confused, its seams apparent, its end sixth a strange timeshifted misfire.
And yet. As days have passed since I read the book, these flaws have faded in my memory, and Brin's often wonderful sense of wonder and optimism--the joy he takes in playing with so many big ideas--these have stuck with me. Just for his rigorous exploration of how contact might happen, the novel is a win. And it's just plain fun to read, too: a beach book with big ideas but not a big head.
Thanks to NetGalley and Tor/Forge for an advance copy of the novel.