Tuesday, August 14, 2012

David Brin new book reviewed

Author: David Brin
Published by: Tom Doherty Associates as a TOR hardcover. New York, 2012
Pages: 553
Hardcover: $18.47. Kindle: $14.99
Science Fiction

The Hungarian mathematician and physicist, John von Neumann, one of the key founders of computing theory at the dawn of the modern digital era, also developed the rigorous theory of self-replicating machines he named "Universal Assemblers." Later, the name "von Neumann machines" was extended by others to include self-replicating robot starships that could explore other star systems and report their findings back to Earth.

But the robot starships would not stop there. They could find a convenient asteroid, set up automated mines and factories, and build more copies of the original starship probe. The new probes would continue their journeys into interstellar space. Providing the number of such replications were not deliberately limited, the probes would continue to increase to vast numbers and continue to explore forever.

They would then gobble up all the matter in the universe until nothing but probes remained to fill the cosmos! Before this could happen, other space-faring civilizations might then build Hunter Probes, designed to find and destroy such excessively reproducing space probes. In time, such Hunters might be reprogrammed to destroy not only the probes themselves but also the civilizations that launched them.

And eventually, with deadly Darwinian mutations in programming code, Saberhagen's Beserkers would roam the galaxy seeking to destroy all life and all biological civilizations. This possible threat and the unfortunate tendency of unstable biological civilizations to collapse from both external and internal dangers would easily lead to a universe in which "The Great Silence" or the Fermi Paradox would become highly likely. Fermi's question: "Where are they?" would be answered: "dead!"

In Existence, David Brin takes these ideas to a new level of sophistication and complexity. In Brin's latest novel, the Earth is a late-comer. Beserker hunter/killers have become obsolete, but countless small crystalline probes fill the galaxy seeking (they say) to save and preserve, not civilizations, but only individual beings to be uploaded as a digital life-form inside the crystals themselves. All civilizations may die, but at least digital copies of a few individuals could live on almost forever, if the contacted civilization (in this case, Earth) agrees to send out similar probes to continue this noble effort.

Brin's character Gennady exclaims: "It's a goddammed chain letter!" (p. 329)

In pursuit of this noble ideal, many galactic civilizations exhaust both resources and their populations until they collapse. Indeed, Earth scientists begin to suspect that the crystal crusade is nothing more than a virus-like galactic plague leading to the premature downfall of the same civilizations the crystals claim to "help." Indeed, it is quite possible that the crystal plague may itself be one of the great traps and dangers that young civilizations face in their struggle for survival.

Jared Diamond's book, Collapse, describes some of the dangers that caused the collapse of previous Earth civilizations like the Maya. Changes in weather and climate are only two of countless dangers to our survival. Diamonds's account is not an optimistic one. Civilization is fragile! We must fight for the continued existence of our world and our space-faring civilization. That is the lesson Diamond and Brin teach. We will have to be smart, careful and lucky to survive. Smart people make their own luck.

To say more here would inevitably lead to a plague of Spoilers. The job of a reviewer should not be to spoil things for the reader! Existence is an intellectual cornucopia of astonishing feats (reborn Neanderthals), amazing concepts (the "ultimate telescope") and a brilliant "ainalysis"- (AI or Artificial Intelligence plus our word 'analysis', p. 327) of the dangerous problems we might have to solve in the future. You might almost call it a survival manual for new civilizations just reaching into outer space.

For those of you who long for exciting space operas like Brins' UPLIFT series, sorry! There are no galactic empires or vast armadas of starship battle fleets here! However, be reassured, David promises to write new novels for that series soon!
-- Reviewed by Felix Polz

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