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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

David Brin's Novel Existence, Reviewed by James Fehlinger

Everybody, please welcome James Fehlinger to the guest mic. He e-mailed me with some off-the-cuff impressions of Brin's latest, which seemed to me to warrant a post all on their own. I devoted a whole chapter of my dissertation to debunking Brin's notion of transparency (begin here, if you're curious) which he is still flogging, and I debunk the eugenic neo-imperialism of his "uplifting" notion several places (among them here and here), and I definitely react in much the same way Jim does to the phony transhumanoid celebration of phony diversity (rights for non-existing AIs, love for non-existing uploads, respect for non-existing uplifted chimeras, rights for suffering troops in the non-existing designer baby clone army) always coupled to indifference to the actual suffering and actual exploitation of the actually existing diversity of stakeholders with whom they actually share the actual planet in this actual moment, too. But as for Brin's SF, I've usually found it mildly entertaining if a bit facile. While all the blue skying doesn't pass muster as serious policy discourse contra futurological flim-flam artists, it yields blandly evocative page turners. On the strength of that sense, I'd purchased the novel Jim's reviewing here already, but I haven't yet read it and I must admit it's going down even lower in the to-read pile as of now! d

I recently finished his latest novel, Existence, which has really managed to put me off Brin, possibly for good.

For one thing, it's a Valentine to the contemporary >Hist, Singularitarian, Extropian bunch (Robin Hanson!) which is annoying enough in itself. It's got lots of what you call "disasterbating" (hence the title) and an explicit homage to Nick Bostrom. (There's global warming, but come ON people -- that's not a serious problem! No, the SERIOUS problem isn't even AIs, it's viral ETs wandering the galaxy.)

So, OK, we get AIs in a few decades, only nobody quite realizes they're AIs. (They're like Siri in the iPhone except, you know, they really work.)

We get an accidentally-uploaded pet rat, which might take over the whole "Mesh", but then it doesn't (or maybe it does, like the unleashed Wintermute/Neuromancer hybrid AI in Gibson, or like Mr. Rabbit in Vinge's Rainbows End. D*e*r*i*v*a*t*i*v*e!)

Then we get extraterrestrials, who have figured out how to do uploads really really well, so that takes care of any niggling technical details about that.

Then -- skip ahead a few decades (the jerkiness of the novel is a technical annoyance -- it's clearly been patched together out of sections, possibly completely independent in origin, and it shows rather painfully), and we've got really and truly and unequivocally artificially intelligent AIs, some of them being "raised" like human children in humanoid cyborg bodies.

And there's other Brinish stuff -- uplifted dolphins and chimps. Recreated Homo Neanderthalensis. And (this seems to be a common trope these days -- was it Egan who introduced it in '96 with Distress?) autistic folks who've banded together and realized they're a distinct species with powerful savant capabilities (seeing patterns in what's going on by recognizing conspicuous absences, not just presences, in public discourse -- "searching for cobblies" as they put it).

OK, fine, so it's all about cheering for the folks (rich and poor! But mostly rich) who are willing to embrace diversity and work together (hooray for Robert Wright's Nonzero "one of the most important books of the last century" and Steven Pinker's recent The Better Angels of our Nature).

As a novel, this makes it all annoyingly didactic and breathless and earnestly, self-consciously uplift-ing (to coin a phrase). (Like, Brin's doing his part to save the world by introducing his novel into the meme-stew at just the right moment. Yeah.)

Mega-cheers for diversity! We've got so many species now -- neurotypical humans and auties and Neanderthals and uplifted dolphins and uploaded aliens who've been reincarnated in flesh or cyborg bodies and AIs both great and small.

And then Brin has to go and spoil his hymn to diversity with a token reference that exploded in my brain in hindsight, after I'd finished the whole book.

The novel is relentlessly heterosexual -- everybody is horny, and we've got virtual-reality glasses that'll not only pin name tags and biographical synopses on everybody in sight (again, basically ripped off from Vinge's Rainbows End) but will also give you a chick's bra size if you stare "with interest" at her you-know-whats. (One would assume this would work with guys' packages as well, but Brin doesn't go there.) There's even an erotic dream sequence in which a human woman (with a mostly-cyborg body as a result of an explosion in which she managed to save hundreds of people from a terrorist attack -- all the characters are like that; they're just, well, extropian dontcha know. No mopey Debbie Downers here! Even the one professional Debbie Downer character is really only doing it because he's really good at it -- and for the money and recognition, of course) -- anyway, an erotic dream dreamed by a human woman about her "adolescent" AI partner (in the dream, inhabiting an optimized male body with all the "good parts" enhanced, of course). There's a hint that the AI guy (AIs are gendered? Who'd a thunk it?) may feel the same way about her. No clue as to whether AIs get boners, though.

Anyway, in the midst of all this cheering for diversity, and California wet-dreaming, there's a tossed-off comment somewhere in the middle of the book, offered (as a thought balloon I guess -- I can't remember) by the astronaut who discovers the first-known artifact containing uploaded ETs, in response to being flirted at by a winsome babe, that it's too bad that "this old queer" is too old and, well, too queer for that sort of thing. Or words to that effect! And that's our scrap for the LGBTQ readership. Nothing else is made of it -- it's almost jarringly out of context. The guy doesn't have a male partner. No other poofters, or lesbians, anywhere to be seen. Fraternizing between humans and AIs? Bring it on! Poofters? Well -- can't lose that critical 12-year-old male audience for, uh, "serious" SF now, can we?

Jesus H. Fucking Christ! Give me a break!

Even Arthur C. Clarke did better than that back in the 70s in Imperial Earth. There was actually an acknowledgement that two guys went to bed with each other (though only one of them -- and not the more spectacular specimen -- was queer; the other one only indulged his friend because they were friends and because he himself was going through a major heterosexual heartbreak).

I enjoyed Startide Rising way back when -- the first Brin novel I ever read. I thought the Uplift universe was a cute idea, and I liked the baddies in it, the Tandu and the Soro and so on. The later Uplift novels -- not so much.

But this piece of leftover meatloaf?


Barkeron said...

the jerkiness of the novel is a technical annoyance -- it's clearly been patched together out of sections, possibly completely independent in origin, and it shows rather painfully

Haven't read the book, but I was wondering if it would turn out that way after reading your earlier excerpt from the seasteading section and a review about io9 that made a big deal about the novel's alleged social commentary and its use of the word "1%".

That struck me as a bit strange as the novel was supposed to be grown out of his short story "Lungfish", a Big Ideas story about von Neumann probes.

Browsing his site, it seems like he incorporated another of his short stories too, "Aficionado", in which a millionaire manchild crashes his sport rocket in a derelict dolphin uplift lab and that was obviously intended as a standalone prequel set in the Uplift universe. I don't know what he was thinking with this book.

Apparently Ken Macleod keeps being the only one who can successfully combine social commentary and Big Ideas.

Athena Andreadis said...

This sounds like the questionnaire about the future of women and feminism I received from the IEET folks, whose major concern was "feminization" (defined as anything that has more than a token XX member) and... sexbots. Of course, both Hanson and Brin buy the Tarzanist evopsycho drivel wholesale.

Giulio Prisco said...

Thanks for this great review! I am sure I will love Existence. I have not bought it because the Kindle version is even more expensive than the hardcover. I will buy the e-book when it becomes cheaper (probably after the paperback version is out).

Re "Even Arthur C. Clarke did better than that back in the 70s in Imperial Earth. There was actually an acknowledgement that two guys went to bed with each other..."

Sex between Duncan and Karl is hinted at in just one sentence in Inperial Earth, just like the homosexuality of Brin's astronaut. And how do you know that the astronaut doesn't have a male partner? You are supposed to use your IMAGINATION ;-) ;-)

Dale Carrico said...

Flim-flam artists like the Robot Cultists love the "imagination" game, in which all sorts of fraudulent promises become confident predictions and all sorts of lies become truths and all sorts of nothings become somethings and all sorts of silences become forthright representations. Futurologists wipe your asses with imagination. Rather like your treatment of professional standards, consensus science, responsible reportage, or serious civic-mindedness.

jimf said...

> Sex between Duncan and Karl is hinted at in just one sentence
> in Inperial Earth, just like the homosexuality of Brin's astronaut. . .
> You are supposed to use your IMAGINATION ;-) ;-)

You know, I do not expect **any** of my SF entertainment to have
"gay role models" in them in order for me to enjoy them or make
me feel loved.

That throw-away remark made by Gerald Livingstone (hm. . . was
the name "Gerald" also supposed to be a clue? ;-> ) could have been
skipped entirely, and I never would have give the whole issue
a single thought.

It's just that it struck me afterwards as a blatant sop (and an
uncomfortably-made one -- like, "OK let's get this over with. Whew --
hope nobody noticed that!").

I wrote:

> There's global warming, but come ON people -- that's not a serious problem!

No, it's a "business opportunity" for folks like Peter Thiel. ;->

But WATCH OUT, Singularitarians!

Global warming is going to increase the growth of **mold** in the
world, and it turns out that Dave Asprey, the "Bulletproof Executive"
(guest speaker at Singularity University, admired by SIAI president
Michael Vassar, and, like Ray You-Know-Who and his pal Terry,
peddler of various live-longer-and-better products, like "Upgraded" --
as in mold-free -- coffee) sez that MOLD is one of the number-one
health threats to the human race. Doesn't just make you sneeze!
Causes atherosclerosis too, it does.

Connect the mold colonies -- er, dots -- people.

jimf said...

> . . .admired by SIAI president Michael Vassar. . .

Stop the presses, I've just noticed that the Singularity Institute for
Artificial Intelligence is no longer the Singularity Institute for
Artificial Intelligence!

It's just the "Singularity Institute" now.

Well, that has its advantages, I supposed. It has less potential
for embarrassment as years continue to pass by with no AI on the horizon,
it unhooks the Singularity from AI (that makes it a non-Vingean Singularity,
but still), and it just gives more wiggle room
and plausible deniability all around. Hey, that's what advertising
and PR are all about! So kudos for that.

Also, "SI" is still, for those in the know, the abbreviation for
Superintelligence, so in a way that makes an even more bold statement.
But only for insiders. Like you and me. ;->

s1214215 said...

While the ideas in the novel are interesting, the jerky stop, start, jump forward, end it here and start again feel of this novel really made it hard to read. I was shocked how bad the writing style was. I have read Brin's other works which I call great reads. This though, well while I fell in love with some characters and some ideas, I cant say I would pick this book up and re-read it in years to come, unlike his prior books that i have re-read and enjoyed again. To walk away from a book by Brin thinking, "well, that was interesting.. Thank God its over...", is very disturbing to me.

s1214215 said...

Ah, the homosexuality of Gerald, Brin's astronaut. Sorry, it was pretty obvious and not just in one sentence. The comment about his group marriage made it evident he was gay; as did his comments about not being that way inclined when being hit on by one of the female characters. Yet, it did seem Brin was not very comfortable writing anything deep an meaningful about this aspect of Gerald. Then again, most of the other characters were glossed over when it came to their personal lives such as the off the cuff comments about Hacker's several girlfriends that suggested polygamy.