Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by David Brin
(2012, TOR books)

When an alien artifact is found in orbit, a nearly devastated world tunes in to see its message, but humanity refuses to believe in the fatalistic future presented, and tries to find a way around it.


-- First reading (hardcover)
March 12th to April 27th, 2019


I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, but I did appreciate what the author was doing. It must have been an extremely complex endeavor, and that part impresses me. However, the first three quarters of the book was basically about showing us the world, and the crazy technology and theories people have, with very little to do with a coherent story. The last part of the book improved on this, but not enough. The discussions were so broad, and mostly related to philosophy about what constitutes being human, that it was not interesting to follow. My favorite sequences all involved Tor, and I was very impressed with the expansion of “humanity” into non-traditional definitions.

Spoiler review:

I could tell from the first page that I was going to have trouble with this book. It took me a long time to read, because it’s not the style of book that I normally enjoy. I struggled through most of it, but there was barely enough interest to keep me going, and I wanted to know how it would resolve. In the end, I don’t think it was worth it, though the last section was much better and of much more interest than the earlier ones.

The style of the book is to show off the world in which we live as the events of the alien find are happening. It takes place only about forty years in the future, in which polar sea ice has melted and the coastlines have been flooded. It’s not stated explicitly, but it appears that people panicked at that time, which led to nuclear strikes in several cities. Awfulday, no kidding. This is a world where people live in various states of virtual reality, communities that are trying to just barely get by, and global poverty. It’s a world where the rich are super-rich, and the poor are expected to stay that way or die. There are some weird technologies, like talking bird and penguin avatars, and although there are some dreamers left, they are few and far between.

And so we get Gerald, an astronaut whose job is to clean up the space in low-Earth orbit. It’s here that he finds the alien artefact. But it takes so very long to do or hear anything about this artefact, that the story is boring in between. The rest is filler, and not very good filler, either. Very little of it means anything, except to show how the world has degenerated and people are at a loss as to how to fix it. The rich want to take over all governments, replace democracy with a benign totalitarian rule. We all know how that turns out in the end.

There are people like Hamish, who want technology to stop so that we can take a collective breath. Not a bad idea, considering the way technology has gone over the last decade. There are people like Hacker, who just want a thrill, like illegal launches to the edge of space in the desert. But when Hacker gets thrown off course, he spends weeks among a dolphin pack who have been genetically modified. For a moment, I thought this would be an Uplift prequel, as this is the term the author uses regarding the dolphins. However, the alien artefact shows many civilizations that uplifted themselves, which seems to be in conflict with the general assumptions of that universe. Hacker’s mom is interested in astronomy and discovering alien life, so she funds an observatory.

Tor Povlov is a reporter who wanders around doing nothing for half the book, before she’s caught in a zeppelin that is involved in an attack on the capital. This was by far my favorite part of the book, as Tor is guided by an internet mob to save the zeppelin. I liked the positive way technology and social media was used. People entered and left the mob as they were able, and their different specialties allowed Tor to navigate the zeppelin and deduce what was happening. It was truly a high point in the book. Unfortunately, while she saves the government and the artefact, she is burned such that her body will never recover. But she spends the rest of the book online, with her mind immersed in the online world. She guides the investigation into the space artefacts, and the ones that are buried underground, as well as the search for the other intact artefact.

The history of the artefact is the history of the galaxy, as it becomes apparent that this is the way civilizations interact -by sending out millions of probes to different stars, populating them with their own alien personalities. As some of the people in the book exclaim, it’s like a galactic chain letter. And according to the contents of the artefact, all civilizations die after sending out their personalities. Even some civilizations that have tried to avoid the fate seem to end up dying.

The other “main” character, if any of the characters in this book can be called “main”, is Peng Xiang Bin, a poor gatherer on the new coast of China, who discovers another artefact in an underwater room suddenly revealed by shifting lands. He is eventually found by the government and other private interests, and he ends up in a secret lab trying to decipher what this message is about. This alien species sent out the probes as warnings to other species, against heeding the advice of the other probes, which always led to war between tribes that found probes from different alien factions, until only one was left standing.

Of course, this could be the way the Uplift galaxy worked, where the alien councils believe that they uplifted all species, except where humanity argues differently. It’s just more subtle than I believe the uplift universe is implied in the other books.

Peng’s wife, Mei Lin, is chased through the streets of Beijing because of her husband’s find, and discovers a hidden world of autism, whose people can integrate with technology even better than we can, and a woman who was impregnated with an older species of man, and now has kids that follow a different line from Homo Sapiens.

I think the author tried to put too much into this book. Did we need the autism and homo erectus genes? Did we need the dolphin story? Did we need the plot with Senator Strong being blackmailed? Although the doomsday scenarios were somewhat fun to read, in many cases, they could have easily been excised, as well, as they didn’t add to the story. They added to the theme, which was how to survive, but it really just masks the fact that there was very little story to this book at all. Every second subchapter was dedicated to these news-bullet-type declarations, many of which could be omitted without losing anything.

In the end, Tor and her online group discover Peng’s artefact, and we don’t even get to see the debate between the two artefacts, not that it matters. It turns out that everything is a deception, and that even the aliens with the best of intentions are still encouraging humanity to send out millions of probes, to warn against the other alien probes. It’s a lose-lose situation, as this would be like sending out more chain letters, as warnings.

So we get to the final section, where we finally get out into space to look at the artefacts out there, some of which were shooting at each other. We get a little more history about the evolution of the galaxy, where alien species sent out robotic probes with weapons, to dispute their philosophies. Tor is out there with her AI counterpart, exploring in her mostly robotic body. The drive to find out what the galaxy is like, and to avoid sending out chain-mail probes, has given technology a boost, while there are still dissenting factions out there. They discover that Earth was the target of a colonization plan, way before man became man, but the colonists were attacked in that warlike period.

Humanity, under the guise of sending out thousands of probes, stops their expansion at the edge of the solar system, creating a gigantic telescope to peer into the galaxy, and find out what is currently going on out there. Will they find the Uplift civilizations that result in Sundiver, Brightness Reef and The Uplift War? I suppose it’s possible, but the timeline seems wrong.

The world has changed because of the artefacts. The most important change, I think, is how humanity views itself. I’m not sure I believe that everyone believes as Tor does, that the five types of humanity make up the new definition of our species. Between Homo Sapiens, Homo Erectus, the autistics, AIs, and the probe copies, humanity has truly become all-inclusive.

If the author had focused on a story, like the ones with Tor, instead of the state of the world, I may have enjoyed the book more. But that obviously not what the author was after. I can appreciate how he poured everything about high technology into this book, including different types of humanity, though it didn’t engross me, and I struggled through it almost all the way through.


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