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Literature / Existence

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Existence 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 declares 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.


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.
  • And I Must Scream: Fortunately averted for Tor. She was in a horrific accident, completely depriving her of all external sensation. Without the amplified tech available in the book, her life would have been a short hell at best, or a long one at worst.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The story is basically that of the most passive, possibly most insidious, alien invasion ever. At the end humans are still fighting and appear to be doing a good job of holding the invaders off.
  • 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 in conjunction with her Man in the Machine upgrades 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.
    • Happens to some of the human protagonists, namely Hamish and Lacey.
  • 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.
  • Cyberpunk: On the borderline of this and Post Cyber Punk. 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.
  • Extreme Speculative Stratification: The mid-21st century world is stratified into ten "estates" based on wealth, with the first estate controlling by far the majority of the world's wealth despite comprising a very small fraction of a percentage of the population and acting like aristocrats.
  • Fossil Revival: Neanderthals, later salvaged technology from the Belt probes allows some of the Emissaries' species to be reconstructed from mere data. The prospect of seeing their extinct races revived is enough to convince some of the Emissaries to cooperate with the Earthlings.
  • Feudal Future: The new aristocrats just have immense wealth and political influence, but they plan on establishing planet-wide feudalism.
  • Fling a Light into the Future: It turns out that the alien personalities in the Artifact are all from extinct species, and they want humans to join them before we become extinct. The other Artifact that is calling them "liars" is from one species that decided the expense of building and launching millions of Artifacts is what killed off all the others, and they're trying to convince the few extant species not to do it.
  • 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: Addressed: They all die out as they waste resources making and launching billions of Artifacts
  • Man in the Machine: Once Tor's life support system gets wheels and robotic arms that allow her to interact with the outside world, she's able to move about and go on important space-faring missions.
  • Nouveau Riche: One of the other aristocratic rocket-racing kids tries to insult Hacker by calling him "new money". Hacker's retort is that his family's wealth goes back generations, to the 20th century. His mother isn't much different than the other aristocrats of the mid-21st century, just a bit less inbred and more inclined towards science.
  • People Jars: Tor's life support system is essentially a metal tank enclosing her entire crippled body. Later it gets upgraded to Man in the Machine with 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 A.I.s 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.
  • 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.
  • Uterine Replicator: Tor and Gavin discovered an ancient alien colonization ship that uses this technology to grow and modify colonists to better fit the environment they're going to colonize. This later became the cornerstone of The Cure when humans start utilizing this technology to revive fomite aliens that are willing to cooperate.