We talked on the evening of Tuesday 2/25 with David Brin, one of our most philosophical science fiction authors, whose most recent novel Existence (2012) certainly has a philosophical sounding name. But no, it’s not about ontology, about Being, or about existentialism, but about our continued existence as a species on the planet. Is it inevitable that humanity will die off, or do we actually have a chance at spreading out over the galaxy a la Star Trek et al?
The main cheat of much past sci-fi has been figuring that faster-than-light travel will be figured out somehow, when we know (or at least knew until recently) that this is supposed to be impossible. So Existence is one among a number of recent books to speculate about what “first contact” might look like if charging up the hyperdrive or the equivalent is not an option.
At the same time, it gives a possible answer to the question, “if there is life in outer space, why don’t we see signs of it?” Actually, the characters theorize about multiple answers, including “they’re all dead,” “any civilization that wants to survive has had to back away from technology and so would be invisible to us from here,” and “if you raise your head, someone will shoot it off, so surviving civilizations have to stealthy.”
The bulk of the book takes place a mere 30-or-so years from now, when a crystal is found and revealed to the world that is apparently filled with aliens that talk to us and want us to “join them,” which means making a lot more crystals. Without giving away too much of the plot at this point (the conversation itself will likely be filled with spoilers), no, the crystal is not filled with aliens themselves, but with recorded duplicates, added to like a chain letter by many civilizations, who each sent out many copies of it. The journey is one-way, so there’s no actual “galactic federation” or anything like it, but just these virtual floating communities, most of which necessarily end up floating in space forever. So there is (or at least was at the time the crystals were sent) life on other planets, and many of these crystals are in fact on earth already, or floating around in the solar system somewhere, and in fact they have already affected our evolutionary and cultural development.
The book is long, and features about five different major characters with completely different story arcs taking place in different parts of the world. So the story is as much about what the world at that point is like and how it would react to this revelation as it is about this interstellar situation itself. Brin has written a lot of non-fiction, and the future world he describes acts as a tableau to demonstrate many of his ideas and predictions, particularly in the interaction between technology and politics.
Brin wrote a widely read piece on Star Wars vs. Star Trek that argued against hero-centered stories as basically undemocratic. Institutions in much popular fiction, he says, are inevitably depicted as corrupt and/or incompetent, such that the protagonists can never simply call the police when things get hairy. Brin is very wary of the power of elites (of any stripe, corporate or government or otherwise), but sees a lot of progress in our moving forward as compared to past civilizations in denying them total power. In his 1998 book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?, he argued that increasing surveillance by elites is inevitable; any attempt to hold it back will just make it reemerge in a more covert fashion. However, given how easy surveillance is becoming, we will also be able to watch the watchers, and shining light on their activities is key to preventing them from actually abusing power, to enabling democracy by giving us more information about what policies are being pursued.
In the book, elites want to use interstellar “contact” as an excuse for them to have more power, and even try to hide a second such crystal (with a different point of view than the main one discovered) from the general public, but the vividly depicted advancements in communication enable a “smart mob” to foil this plan.
If you’re reading this before we record, feel free to shoot us some potential questions for him or other thoughts to bring into the mix.
Click to go preview or buy the book: