Existence

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David Brin’s novel, Existence, is built to be a very wide-angle lens, with a format similar to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and even more like John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. It takes quotes from a variety of sources, introduces many disparate characters in many places who eventually converge as the action heats up.

A lot of the novel is a survey of problems we currently face, and will continue to face some 40 years from now, when the novel begins. That’s the problem background, and a source called Pandora’s Cornucopia frequently is quoted concerning things that might drive the human race to extinction, including a number of human activities.

Natural catastrophes, like an asteroid falling out of the sky, are things humans have little control over, but others, like Artifical Intelligence, nanotechnology, meddling with genetic codes (our own, as well as other species), to say nothing of pollution of air, land and water are all mentioned.

This future world has already had some catastrophes, but has so far managed to survive fairly intact. There’s been use of atomic weapons, which fortunately didn’t go too far. The seas have risen to encroach shorelines around the world. Terrorism continues, and doesn’t seem likely to go away. And of course the future is uncertain. Industrial civilization has set a lot of processes in motion, and we don’t know the ultimate effects of very many of them.

But all of that is background to the main theme of the book: First Contact. That’s a science fiction term for the human race first encountering an alien race, and how that is likely to go. Actually, there have been a lot of first contacts between various segments of our planet’s population, and historically, the higher-tech cultures have usually treated the lower-tech cultures badly. If we met and alien race that is not human, the shoe might well turn out to be on the other foot.

Some people believe that the aliens who pilot the UFO’s (if you credit UFOs) are benign, more highly developed than we are, and yearn to help us solve our problems. That’s a hypothesis we shouldn’t take for granted. Extrapolating from our own nature as a species, it’s logical to expect that other races would be as much of a mixed bag as we. Maybe any race that can travel between planets and stars has evolved to a point that they are no threat to any other intelligent race, but it would be rash to assume so.

On the other hand, it would also be unwise to assume that other races are as malevolent as humans can sometimes be. George Gurdjieff, in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, has Beelzebub as an alien from another solar system who has been exiled to this one for some unspecified imprudent act. He’s very long-lived, having arrived on Earth early enough to visit Atlantis and the prosperous city of Gob in the middle of what is now the Gobi desert, and surviving until the present, though he is now relatively old. He has witnessed a large part of human development, and is generally not impressed. He says that most, if not all, planets in the universe contain life, and often intelligent life, and differentiates this world because it’s the only one in which three-brained beings (as he calls humans and their equivalents) kill each other. Probably coincidentally, C.S. Lewis came up with a similar scenario of Earth as under quarantine because of corruption in his science fiction trilogy beginning with Out of the Silent Planet.

Gurdjieff collected a great deal of information about a wide variety of things. Whether the above assertion is just a fictional device is a question I can’t answer, but it’s just possible he might have known something about the subject, as he seems to have done about many things most of us consider unknowable. One thing that encourages me to believe he may have is that he was not a naive man. He penetrated many secret societies, including those of revolutionaries, and had sustained three very serious bullet wounds, all of which left him close to death. He later lived through the Russian revolution, mostly in the Caucasus, which may have been slightly less virulent than in other places, but where you could easily get killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or for seeming to be on the wrong political side. Such an environment doesn’t produce Pollyannas.

The type of alien contact described in this book is unusual: an alien artifact in which the downloaded personalities of a variety of aliens live. So the personalities met are virtual rather than actual, which doesn’t keep them from being intentionally misleading. When the artifact speaks first to humans, it says, “Join us.” Humans jump to the conclusion that means there’s some kind of organization of civilizations, perhaps similar to the UN that they’re being invited to join. It turns out differently. They are being invited to make more of the artifacts, which they will send on to other stars, and which will include some human individuals.

Humans had hoped for help with world and societal problems. The aliens offer them none. They say that all societies die, which makes the use of the artifacts questionable. What good do they do?

Whether or not all civilizations do die when they reach the approximate technological level that humans have reached is a question left open in the book, as is the question of just what the artifacts were supposed to do. We do learn that there’s been conflict between artifacts (and that there are a great many of them in the solar system besides the one first found), that many have tried (with some success) to destroy each other, and that there was an alien race in the asteroids  about to colonize the earth just before they were destroyed, long before humans had even begun to evolve. This whole process has been going on a VERY long time.

So much of what you want to know is left indefinite, leaving room for one or more sequels. There has obviously been a great struggle in the galaxy, presumably a political one, but we haven’t found out anything substantive about it by the end of the book. Humans have, though, wisely refused to send any artifacts to other stars, and use what seem to be artifacts (some 10 million of them) to form a telescope of unprecedented range and capability to try to find out just what has been going on. There the story is left.

It’s also unclear just how Earth’s problems have been solved sufficiently to be able to afford such an effort. Maybe the threat of aliens whose intentions are unclear, and just might be malignant has been enough.

One thing the novel is clear on, though, is that we can never really foretell the future. It’s always more complicated than we expect, with more factors than we can keep track of. One of the political groups in the book is the Renunciationists, who want to end technology to a large extent, which makes some degree of sense. The question really, though, is how to make use of technology without letting it make use of us, and keep a balance between it and the natural world that we depend on. Technology is neutral. It is controlled by human beings, and if human beings are unwise, as they frequently are, it can become evil, but it doesn’t have to be.

Similarly, we can fear and hate people of other ethnicities and beliefs, just as we might well fear and hate real aliens, no matter how well-disposed towards us they turned out to be. Treating any such groups decently, and looking for what the author calls positive sum games–situations in which all sides can win–is a better strategy than what we usually come up with.

Technophobes and fanatics of various types won’t favor such solutions, and one wonders just who will at this time in our history. That approach seems like one of the few that gives us a fighting chance to survive and make a good future for all or most.

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