The Large Hadron Collider is doing pretty well this early into its life. It has already produced compelling evidence for the existence of a Higgs boson. And it hasn’t produced a microscopic black hole that would sink into the centre of the Earth and devour us all. Yet.
David Brin wrote Earth around the same time I was born, long before the LHC was being built and its doomsayers were crying disaster. Even then, however, the idea of experimental physics creating a world-swallowing black hole was a potent one. At first, it seems like the black hole present in Earth is a sign of the ultimate hubris of humanity … yet as the story develops, it becomes apparent that perhaps the black hole is an interloper sent by others who aren’t happy about having new neighbours.
This sense of layers of revelation is typical, both of Brin in general and Earth specifically. In style, Earth is quite similar to the other works of Brin’s that I’ve read, particularly the Uplift trilogy. Since it is set closer to the present day—2038, a mere fifty years in the future from the time Brin was writing—it also has much in common with the hard SF thrillers written by authors like Ben Bova and Greg Bear. The main characters are, by and large, scientists, intensely passionate about their work and dedicated to ideals like “scientific inquiry” and “truth”. The antagonists are authoritarian or anarchical in their allegiances, out to preserve the old order or tear it down at all costs, with both sides looking to the latest and greatest in scientific discoveries to give them the edge.
So to distinguish it from other such books, Brin sets Earth in a near future where global warming has occurred slightly faster than most scientists have predicted. In this version of 2038, humanity is still paralyzed by a dependence on fossil fuels. Coastal regions are losing ground to the ocean even as inland areas find desertification has become a pressing issue. Though information technology abounds, obsession with the role of secrecy in last century’s ecological disasters has reduced an individual’s privacy. And sometime in the first decade of the twenty-first century (i.e., five to ten years ago, for those of us in 2014), the world declares war against Switzerland in a bloody-almost-nuclear debacle.
There is a lot to process here. Certainly Brin deserves credit for such an intricate and detailled vision of the future. As he explains in his afterword, he isn’t going for accuracy—which would be foolish because it is almost impossible—just plausibility. Each of the attributes of his 2038 is a consequence of the trends he observed in 1989, coupled with some creative speculation about what kinds of surprises might happen along the way. It has been a while since I read a book that so confidently and cleverly lays out the near-future—Nexus tries very hard but doesn’t quite make me believe, and Rainbows End increasingly feels like allegory rather than an attempt at extrapolation. So, in this sense, Earth is a very interesting work of science fiction.
It’s quite interesting to compare Brin’s vision of 2038 with our actual 2014, what with hindsight being what it is. Keeping in mind that he’s writing three years before the World Wide Web, but in 2038 the Net is ubiquitous and quite recognizable to readers in 2014. He predicts that we’ll have trouble advancing the space program beyond low-Earth orbit, despite the potential gains if we can tap asteroids for all their yummy resources. He speculates how the search for Earth-like planets will progress (or not).
The main plot, with a black hole threatening to devour the planet, seems like something out of the tabloids from a year or two ago. Again, Brin is slightly ahead of his time with this “prediction”. And if the LHC is any indication, then who knows? Perhaps by 2038 we will indeed be playing with black holes as a possible source of power. As far as black holes go as a threat in Earth, I like how Brin develops the tension very slowly. This is a planetary-scale disaster, but Alex and his companions manage to keep it under wraps for most of the book. They don’t go running to the media or initiate a full-scale panic. (Of course, when it does get out, the consequences are disastrous.)
Unfortunately, like much of the hard SF of that era, Earth spends a little too much time navel-gazing. Brin once again follows several different characters, many of whom never meet up yet whose experiences provide the reader with a slightly different perspective on the plot. They are also a way for Brin to explore his 2038 future, in addition to the somewhat random infodumps that he includes at the end of every chapter. Alas, I feel like some of these characters and story arcs could have been eliminated without adversely affecting the story too much.
Similarly, while Brin’s characters all come across as earnest, they can also be very flat. The antagonists are two-dimensional in their single-mindedness, and this effect is only amplified by Brin’s tendency to tell rather than show. This is particularly evident when it comes to the relationship between Daisy and her daughter, Claire. It’s not enough that we see the way Daisy neglects her daughter and her house. No, Brin has to remind us, and show us Daisy’s own thoughts, to emphasize that, yes, Daisy has lost the plot.
Sometimes I felt in danger of losing the plot myself a few times. Earth is just a little ponderous for what should be a sleek, high-stakes thriller. Brin spends the first three-quarters establishing the setting, characters, and stakes. And then in the last quarter, he introduces twists that seem to come from nowhere. Specifically, I’m ambivalent about Jen’s fate and Pedro’s possible true identity. In both cases, these twists make a certain amount of sense—and I hate admitting that, because they also feel like bad storytelling. Jen is literally a deus ex machina, while Pedro’s twist just seems like one more complication we don’t need if Brin isn’t going to explore it in more detail—and, this being the denouement, there is no time for such things.
As a result, the ending is somewhat messy and disorganized after a long, slow lead-in. Earth is a bundle of interesting ideas, clever predictions, and stock characters involved in a doomsday scenario. I’m surprised, in fact, that SyFy hasn’t optioned it for one of its awful TV movies yet. (The book isn’t as bad as a SyFy original movie, but it has all the ingredients to make such a movie.)
Reading Earth has been an interesting experience in an anthropological sense. It’s not what I would call essential Brin, though. I really enjoyed the Uplift series, in which Brin has the space to develop his ideas on a much grander scale. (Though, as with the conclusion here, the conclusion to that series seems to include one-too-many new ideas that weren’t really mentioned earlier.) If, like me, you come across Earth and are in need of a new book to read, then you could do much worse. I can’t muster too much enthusiasm, however, for books that are brimming with good ideas yet in need of so much refinement. Once again Brin demonstrates his strengths in big ideas and his weaknesses in creating connections in people to make those ideas matter.