David Brin, Earth

In prepping to talk about climate change and science fiction at the local federal prison (it was today: great bunch of guys), from the pile of options I pulled David Brin's 1990 novel Earth. I'd enjoyed my only previous exposure to Brin, Sundiver, so I was planning to overlook my petty but pungent distaste for the back-cover blurb:
Here is multiple award-winning David Brin's most important, most ambitious, and most universal novel to date -- a blockbuster epic that transcends his already distinguished body of work in scope and importance.
Close readers of this blog will have noticed me being peevish about blurbs before. Apparently I still haven't grown up. By which I mean, how can a publisher not recognize the repellent absurdity of language like this, which is no less flatulent for its being gilded?

Especially when it's a pretty fascinating novel. Admittedly I'm a sucker for fiction about climate change, so Earth's publication date -- so early in the research cycle on greenhouse effects and damage to the ozone layer -- makes it inherently interesting to me, but it brings together so very many plot twists and Big Ideas that even when the novel itself wasn't doing it for me, the author's off-stage juggling act was worth paying attention to, albeit distracting. At bottom, that's the conflict that defines my reading of Earth, because it's an overstuffed novel that for some reason just couldn't be reined in enough to focus effectively on the one subject that David Brin allegedly meant to address: climate change.

When I talk about effective focus, by the way, I'm not talking about losing track of the change part and instead lavishing untold numbers of words in describing each successive state that the novel's climate passes through. (It doesn't pass through any; it was set 50 years on from 1990, with the climate he imagined for 2040.) No, I mean that on top of the climate change puzzle, Brin piled a full-on internet society; nuclear war in the recent past; Swiss bankers as the global bogey-man; a quantum singularity inside the planet; manifestations of Gaia; atheism vs. religion; versions of motherhood; and alien intelligences.

Climate change would totally have worked on its own. There was a long, interesting novel about climate change available to be written out of the ideas Brin was considering in the late 1980s, but instead we've got 650 pages -- 650 PAGES -- of wanton, fruitless complexity.

Jesus, what a downer of a review.

Let me just say this, then. If you're the least bit interested in SF from early in the serious policy development about climate change, you'll get some solid payback from reading Earth. Likewise, if you're one of those SF fans with a particular interest in singularities, or in physics-oriented plotlines, then again Earth will almost certainly hook your interest. Twenty years on from its original publication, though, David Brin's Earth is likely to prove most interesting for readers with these sorts of specific interests, instrumental readers rather than wanderers, and it's just that I'd hoped to read it like a wanderer. No such luck -- but I bet his new Existence will be pretty interesting anyway!


graham said…
That is a good review of Brin's Earth. I, too, enjoyed it. Ultimately it was a good read but I won't remember it! Some aspects of the ending were particularly far fetched!
Please take a look at my review and leave a comment if you wish!

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