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Fresh, nuanced take on pair of speculative devices

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MORE than half a century ago, iconic physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked a deceptively simple question.

After patiently listening to reams of calculations that implied multitudes of advanced civilizations in a vast universe, he asked his optimistic colleagues, "Well, then, where is everyone?"

As the search for extraterrestrial intelligence continues apace with nary an alien radio station found yet, the so-called Fermi Paradox still looms.

Who better to tackle this question than sci-fi veteran David Brin, whose award-winning Uplift series redefined space opera in the '80s and '90s? And indeed, with Existence, the American writer gives us a spin on the first contact novel that is as different as it is thought-provoking.

Brin acknowledges that if alien intelligence is belatedly discovered, Fermi's question becomes more, not less relevant. We still need to explain why extraterrestrial civilizations are so rare, or, alternately, difficult to detect.

This is one of the novel's big questions, after a memory storage crystal is discovered in Earth orbit, containing the uploaded brains of nearly 100 different star-faring species.

Why a message in a bottle and not the long sought-out radio message? Why, if a physical journey is going to be made, are the emissaries not here in person instead of virtual form? And in a universe teeming, apparently, with gregarious civilizations, why one nearly overlooked emissary crystal instead of thousands?

Like Carl Sagan's classic novel Contact, Existence is as much a product of the enormous quantity of scientific literature on the subject as the author's imagination.

Even without a single confirmed example of extraterrestrial life, fields as diverse as astronomy, statistics and probability, game theory, and organic chemistry have provided major fodder for speculation on what might be out there, and where they may be hiding.

Brin, as Sagan was, is a scientist as well as an author, which makes him particularly qualified for the sort of technically detailed, diamond-hard science-fiction he likes to write.

But Brin is also a self-styled futurist, preferring to tell his story several decades beyond the present. Most science-fiction writers just change one thing, and extrapolate to the future from that; Brin reasons that, by mid-century, just about everything will have changed.

Before the alien artifact is even introduced, Existence draws the reader into a future that is as plausible as it is foreign. Of course shorelines have shifted with sea-level rise and the climate has altered, while technological development has continued apace, but these are causes. What are the political, social, and economic effects?

Through more than half a dozen POV characters, Brin tells readers how this future society works and where it doesn't: a dirt-poor Chinese shoresteader skin-dives for salvage in the drowned homes off Shanghai's retreating coast; an astronaut works as a glorified orbital garbage collector; members of the world's mega-rich, the trillionaires who pull strings behind the scenes, invoke feudal notions of noblesse oblige; an up-and-coming journalist knows augmented- and virtual reality are as much a part of the job as her physical beat.

The richness of the cultural milieu Brin describes is comparable to that of Vernor Vinge's 2007 Hugo Award-winner Rainbow's End, even as the details are very different. At the end of each chapter, small excerpts from fictional books, blogs, talk show interviews and news feeds add additional colour.

There are so many ideas packed in 560 pages, one might begin to ask whether this needs to be a first-contact story at all. Isn't the future, at turns amazing and horrible, interesting enough already?

But Brin weaves together the "are we alone" and "can civilization endure" themes expertly. The result is a fresh and nuanced take on two well-worn speculative devices, which will keep you guessing to the very end.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg teacher and writer.

Existence

By David Brin

Tor Books, 560 pages, $32

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J7

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