Monday, February 25, 2013

Questioning Existence: A Reading Guide

Here I provide twenty questions for readers of Existence!

ExistenceHCBillions of planets may be ripe for life, even intelligence. So where is everybody? Do civilizations make the same fatal mistakes, over and over? Might we be the first to cross the mine-field, evading every trap to learn the secret of Existence?

 An astronaut grabs a crystal lump that might be an alien artifact, sent across the vast, interstellar gulf, bearing a message. "Join us!" -- it proclaims.  What does the enticing invitation mean? To enroll in a great federation of free races?

 Only then, what of rumors that this starry messenger may not be the first? Have others fallen from the sky, across 9,000 years? Some offering welcome. Others... warning!

 This masterwork of near-future, intensely realistic science fiction combines hard-science speculation and fast-paced action with deeply thoughtful ideas and haunting imagery.

Yes, it is (a big) paperback.  And e-book prices have dropped also.

If you like the novel, feel free to leave comments on Amazon, Goodreads and other sites where avid readers share book news.

Finally... and responding to requests from many Book Clubs, teachers and reading groups... here (with a few small spoilers) is a Readers Guide and Study Guide to this book.  There.  Promise kept.


Existence_B.indd1. Existence is set in the year 2050. How does Existence compare to other movies or books set in this near-future timeframe? Is it more optimistic or pessimistic about humanity's future? 

2. How do you imagine your life being different forty years from now? 

--Think back to your grandparents’ lives forty years ago. What would they find most surprising about life nowadays?

--On the other hand, what things have remained relatively unchanged over that time?  Would they be amazed or disappointed in this “future time” you now live in?

3. What do you think has changed more in that time? Technology?  Or social matters like racism or our views of the environment?

TorCrop4. Tor is a new type of journalist, relying upon crowd-sourcing to instantly gather and evaluate news. How do you see the changing role of traditional media as the "news" moves in this direction?

--To what degree will folks on the street become “journalists”?

5. Hacker is part of a fanatic group of amateur rocket launchers. Elsewhere, Brin has spoken of the “Age of Amateurs.” In what areas of our society do you see amateurs taking on more of the roles of professionals? 

--Particularly in science, how has citizen involvement taken off, returning to an older tradition?

6. Xiao Bin and his family live on the edges of society near Shanghai, reclaiming the drowned wealth of past generations. Give examples from around the world where the uneven spread of technology has left some groups marginalized and impoverished.

shoresteading7. How do you think people would respond to the confirmed discovery of an alien artifact – with fear, hope, or exhilaration? How would such responses vary across the globe?

--Are some civilizations more open to change?

8. Brin gives a number of reasons why we have never been contacted by aliens. Which explanations do you find most plausible? Do you expect that we will experience “First Contact” during your lifetime?

--Would the discovery of alien races shift our perception of God, of religion, of hope or salvation?  

--Would new technologies save us, unite us, or would they disrupt things, and potentially be dangerous?

9. Anthropologists have studied the often-traumatic after-effects when isolated tribes here on Earth were first exposed to the technologies of the developed world. How would earthly cultures change after contact with alien civilizations?

10. If aliens delivered a gift – one piece of advanced technology -- what would you hope for?  What questions would you like answered?

--Or would we feel “cheated” if advanced aliens solved our problems for us?

11. Repeatedly, scientific discoveries have shifted humanity’s image of its central place in the universe. Galileo showed that Earth was not the center of the universe. Darwin showed that humans are part of the evolution of nature.

--Can you think of other advances that have shifted scientific “paradigms” or models of the world?  Do those shifts always “humble” us? Or might we be special after all?

12. If a visiting alien race called a select group of human volunteers on a one-way trip to visit their homeland, would you volunteer? Do you know others who would?

xiaobin_small copy 213. Brin portrays a world facing global warming and rising ocean levels. How do you envision the world changing if present trends continue? 

--How will populations/agriculture shift?  How will you prepare and get ready for change?

14. Smart glasses that project data, maps and messages seem to be within reach. AI or artificial intelligence is pervasive in the world of Existence. How do you see this always-connected world changing how you live your life?

TransparentSociety15. Can we maintain both freedom and privacy? If the cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper and more numerous every year, should we restrict the power to see-all to some elites?  The government or the rich? 

--If we pass laws to banish them, will that stop elites from seeing? Or will those laws just ban us from sharing the power to see-all? 
--Should everybody get to use them and keep an eye on each other?

16. Brin presents a rising oligarchy -- a powerful group of wealthy individuals/corporations who seek to control humanity’s destiny. This was the standard model for most of human history. Is this realistic in the modern world? Can we use the tools of openness and transparency to keep tabs on a powerful elite?

images-217. In particular, Brin presents autistic individuals empowered by future technologies. 

--Do you think that technology can help autistic individuals and others with handicaps to achieve their potential? See praise for the book from Temple Grandin. Does one such expert mean the book was accurate in its portrayal of empowered autistic people?

18. Some of Brin’s other books such as Startide Rising and The Uplift War center around genetically-uplifted dolphins and apes who become citizens and fly starships. 

--In what ways can Existence be viewed as a prequel to these "Uplift" books

--Would it be desirable to increase the intelligence of these animals – not to be slaves but to join us as equals? Or do you find this concept disturbing? 

--Would people oppose it from both left and right? Would the potential rewards, centuries from now, be worth the cost?

UKPostmanPB19. In Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman – and in the film by Kevin Costner – people miss civilization and fight to restore it.  Is that too optimistic a view of human nature?  

--Do gloomy post-apocalyptic films seem more accurate to you?  Which is more helpful and likely to produce effective action, cynicism or hope?  Which is easier?

20. In Existence, the aliens inside the artifact come from races that have mostly died off. 

--What fatal pitfalls might befall technological civilizations and lead to their downfall? Could humanity somehow manage to avoid these failure traps and rise up to explore the galaxy?

==A downloadable version of this Reading Guide can be found on my website.

See also a collection of Author interviews on Existence


ZarPaulus said...

Heh, as one of those aspie "half-breeds" I can't really talk for those on the spectrum who can't even function in neurotypical society, but I think I'm not so much disabled as differently-abled. I'm rather intelligent concerning pretty much everything but real-time verbal communication.

And no, Existence cannot be a "prequel" to the Uplift series, Uplift prefers the "cosmic nature preserve" hypothesis to the "cosmic filter" of Existence.

Alfred Differ said...

>11. Repeatedly, scientific discoveries have shifted humanity’s image of its central place in the universe.

I think it is even more interesting that the activity of science has exposed a much deeper issue with respect to our self-knowledge. Consider what scientists are doing when they 'do science.' There are millions of participants ranging from professionals to fully-trained independents and many highly trained amateurs, yet it is exceedingly difficult to describe what it is that they do when they do science no matter how many people study them in the act. Kuhn gets part of the revolution story right, but not all of it. Sometimes paradigms change for much more mundane motivations. Popper gets a big part of the demarcation story right, but we actually use multiple methods that are adapted a bit to the particular studies.

No only have scientific studies shifted our sense of place in the universe, they have revealed that self-analysis is prone to faults that can't be approached scientifically. There might not be limits to what we can know, but it appears there are natural limits to what we can know we know.

>--Can you think of other advances that have shifted scientific “paradigms” or models of the world? Do those shifts always “humble” us? Or might we be special after all?

I want to meet the student that admits they aren't humbled and can't wrap their minds around the notion that we should be. One doesn't have to be special to not be humble. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

Good use of a camera, microphone, and some legal preparation. Whether one agrees with what the law student is doing or not, this is 'looking back at authority.'

Jumper said...

"This video has either been removed from Facebook or is not visible due to privacy settings."

rewinn said...

"...-To what degree will folks on the street become “journalists”?"

I'd like to ask an historian of journalism at what point journalists became high priests of reality. I *like* the idea that journalism is a profession with standards that make it trustworthy et cetera, but as I read history it's a profession more akin to religion or lawyering than to medicine or piloting, in that there are few objective standards by which to determine whether you're doing it correctly (in medicine, patients live or die; in piloting, planes land or crash; but priests and lawyers succeed only by persuading people that they have...)
... so to answer the question directly, if journalism is the unbiased inquiry as to what is happening, I doubt the profession is long for this world.

"Would it be desirable to increase the intelligence of these animals – not to be slaves but to join us as equals? Or do you find this concept disturbing?"

Yes and Yes. Part of the value of Uplift is that it *is* disturbing.

Alfred Differ said...

I'm not a journalism expert, but my read on history suggests they became elevated when they became effective at functioning as bright lights exposing shenanigans of others. The were our first sousveillance cameras and microphones that worked.

Ian said...

Alfred, I'm not an expert either but I had sort of the opposite impression; "yellow journalism" caused the prestige of the press to fall so low that they had to be seen to be reforming themselves.

Acacia H. said...

Which makes you wonder... is tabloid journalism the new yellow journalism? People have a very low opinion of journalism, and even esteemed news sites such as 60 Minutes are sneered at. Hell, there is a concerted effort to label everything out there as liberally biased to the point that news articles go out of their way to provide contrary points of view... even when that contrary point of view is so invalid that including it lowered the legitimacy of the other views.

In short, if I were to believe in our esteemed author's belief in conspiracies I'd say there has been a long-running and successful conspiracy against the journalism field to disenfranchise it and turn it into such a joke that no one believes it except for those partisan sites that express their own specific views. And even those are starting to fall.

Ironically however it's not Fox News and the Drudge Report and the like that have killed journalism no matter how much Dr. Brin may claim they try. It's the Internet. Free news is gnawing at the very roots of profit-based journalism. Probably the one hope for journalism is to go to a nonprofit format and rely on the amateur journalists who, like one of the heroines of Dr. Brin's "Existence," uses crowd-sourced information sources to report on news (and save lives).

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

And here's a nice article about human ingenuity and creativity that may help reduce the killing of lions by ranchers and farmers... by an African youth who wasn't seeking to preserve lions, but instead reduce the number of livestock deaths.

I do have to wonder: would this work with wolves in the U.S.? I mean, ranchers could set up something similar, and so long as they visit the area periodically so their scent is still there, if the wolves attribute the lights to humanity and avoid it, then it would be far more cost-effective than having widescale hunts and killing wolves by airplane.

Rob H.

Alfred Differ said...

The elevation of the press pre-dates the term 'yellow journalism' by many decades. I'm referring to the role the press played for the first few centuries after the invention of moveable type. The Catholic church suffered schism and all manner of other pamplets were produced by anyone with an agenda and the cash to buy and operate a press. Some had high-minded purposes and others belonged more in the gutter. I view the reform after the invention of the yellow journalism label as a self-policing attempt by the industry that formed around news presses. Such presses were only part of the business, though.

I also view the immunity a jouralist demands in order to due their work as a thing of the past. It was moderately useful for society to grant such immunity in the days before the internet. We did that in order to encourage those who invested so much to keep shining the bright light into dark corners. Nowadays, though, the costs have dropped so much that most anyone can do it. We don't need to protect them anymore and shouldn't because the unfortunate side effect of our protection was to create a guild. Think about what it means to have a press pass when you go to the White House or many other places. We do not need to offer public protection for their guild anymore.

Paul451 said...

Off topic: Any opinion on Dennis Tito's proposed privately funded Mars Flyby mission?

Arbitrarily chosen link:

David Brin said...

Heading off to Mars?

Wife and I... both with PhDs in space/planetary science and an "older couple" are sorely tempted. You guys speak up if you hear of an actual application process!

Of course... it ain't gonna happen....

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. It is more likely than NASA going there in that time frame. 8)

I'm not sure we should send PhD's, but it's not my money so I doubt I get to have a say. I'd rather see a poet go. Better yet... some rich person. 8)

Ian said...

Isn't there a Hohmann tranfer orbit that allows a flyby of both Venus and Mars?

David Brin said...

Ian the difference in momentum is too severe. It is harder to get to Venus than Mars.


Arg! too much fun!

How to porpoise like a dolphin... Water-jet booties that solve all the jet-pack problems. What a great idea... and like the best - obvious in retrospect.

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David Brin said...

I'll be on ALIEN ENCOUNTERS - March 5 & March 12 at 10 on SCI. Fun show enhanced by Brin-blather!

LarryHart said...

Off topic here, but I mentioned this six months ago when it was a downer, so might as well mention the upside too...

Today, the long slog through the six consecutive months with seven-or-more letters in their names is finally over, giving way to the wonderfully optimistic six consecutive months with fewer-than-seven letters in their names.

It's about time!

David Brin said...

Heh! But again you'll hear me fret about "the centuries start on their 14th year!"

David Brin said...