is David Brin
's response to the trend in sci-fi away from Space Opera
in favor of more earth-based works
It is the year 2050, while clearing out trash in orbit astronaut Gerald Livingstone discovers a strange crystal that displays images of bizarre beings when touched, they have a single message, JOIN US. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, a Chinese "shoresteader" discovers a second Artifact in the ruins of a mansion destroyed by global warming, this one declaring the first Artifact to be LIARS. As the world's leaders debate what to do about these emissaries from the stars neo-aristocrats plot with luddites to bring an end to the Enlightenment experiment, a playboy Rocketeer is stranded in the middle of the ocean and rescued by oddly intelligent dolphins, an Intrepid Reporter
becomes involved in a terrorist attack on an airship, and autistic hackers search for a cloned neanderthal child. Chapters are followed by excerpts of in-universe essays and interviews on the Fermi Paradox
and recent events.Trailer
Tropes in this novel:
- Ancient Astronauts: It is believed that earlier Artifacts inspired legends or demons and guardian spirits, however most of them were carved into jewelry by ignorant villagers. Later a bunch of dormant Von neumann probes dating back millions of years are discovered in the asteroid belt.
- Augmented Reality: Ubiquitous in 2050, people with the glasses, contacts, or later on corneal implants, can view the world through any of thousands of "layers" of the "Mesh".
- Brain/Computer Interface: Tor receives one when she is crippled by the airship bombing, the story describes the difficulty in setting it up.
- Brain Uploading: The emissaries are alien personalities uploaded into Artifacts.
- China Takes Over the World: They've succeeded the U.S. as the world superpower.
- City on the Water: A number of floating cities exist having been built over flooded islands or for experimentation. And then there's the "shoresteaders" who try to make flooded mansions in what used to be Shanghai liveable.
- Cyber Punk / Post Cyber Punk: On the borderline, the class divide is steeper than the present day but the novel as a whole is stauchly enlightened.
- Expanded States of America: The light version, the existing states have split up into 62.
- Fossil Revival: Neanderthals, later salvaged technology from the Belt probes allows some of the Emissaries' species to be reconstructed from mere data
- Feudal Future: The new aristocrats just have immense wealth and political influence, but they plan on establishing planet-wide feudalism.
- Human Subspecies: By the end of the book five forms of human are recognized, though the only ones of the Homo genus are the modern-human genome, autistics, and revived neanderthals.
- Immortality Seeker: Many of the new aristocrats become this when it becomes clear that the Artifacts can provide a form of it for them. It backfires on them when they end up uploaded into the components of the largest space telescope in the solar system by the engineers who aren't willing to sacrifice the human race for them
- Invisible Aliens is addressed: They all die out as they waste resources making and launching billions of Artifacts
- People Jars: Tor's life support system is essentially a metal tank enclosing her entire crippled body, later it gets wheels and robotic arms.
- Plot Device: The Artifacts
- Polyamory: It's briefly mentioned that Hacker has two girlfriends and Gerald is in a group marriage.
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: The new aristocracy consider the Enlightenment to be a failed experiment and want to revert humanity to a feudal state, their sometime allies the Renunciators take it a step further and think advanced technology is evil.
- Sliding Scale of Robot Intelligence: In 2050 only robo-monkey "ais" are available, later human-equivalent AIs are developed
- Solar Sail: Magnetic sails are used to propel the Artifacts from their systems of origin
- Science Marches On: New studies seem to suggest that autism isn't caused by neanderthal genes.
- Starfish Aliens: Most of the emissaries, the Oldest Surviving Member looks fairly humanoid but since they're virtual they can change their appearances to a degree.
- Time Skip: Twice, it starts in 2050, then skips to 2075, then to at least 2110.
- The Singularity: Mentioned as yet another prediction of the future that never came to be, Singularitarians apparently being the mid-21st century equivalent of the I Want My Jetpack crowd.
- Twenty Minutes into the Future
- Unusual User Interface: Basic Mesh glasses follow the users eyes as they focus on things. Most people in first world countries have ais and subvocal microphones with tooth implants.
- Uplifted Animal: Uplift of dolphins was started, then abandoned when lawsuits from environmentalist groups ate up their funds. But then the uplifts rescue Hacker and he decides to revive the project. They become a recognized form of human later.