Posted December 5, 2011
I like a clean, focused narrative as much as the next person, but there’s an undeniable entertainment value in the messy and sprawling kind too. Science fiction has a long history of welcoming the second kind of book, and David’s Brin’s Earth, an ecology epic from 1990, is a fun example of this type.
Brin’s Earth came to my mind recently because of financial shenanigans in the news around the world. His book is set 50 years in the future, from its publication date anyways, making it 2040, and as one of those bits of flavouring to fill in some interesting world events, Brin added something called the Helvetian War. Sometime in the near future, a massive war takes place: all the nations of the world have ganged up on… Switzerland! The result, due to atomic booby-traps and lots of other nastiness, is a giant smoking/radioactive crater where the Swiss Alps used to be. And what was the reason for the war? Citizens of the world got fed up to the point of military action over financial improprieties, as part of a paradigm shift against the culture of secrecy that let the world’s villains (and bankers) stash their ill-gotten gains in Swiss banks.
Now it’s true that a lot of the continuing chatter around Earth has to do with its apparent predictiveness. Yes, it’s true that book either predicted for the first time or described accurately for the first time lots of stuff that has already come true, like spam (and lots of other online cultural things), the Mississippi breaking its levees, the precise operation of ebooks, environmentalists making common cause with hunters/fishers, and so on. I don’t know, I don’t find this type of prophetic focus all that interesting (for example, I agree with this comment about “Prophets of Science Fiction”). To me, the Helvetian War is way more fascinating, since it’s not something that will ever literally come true, but the metaphorical implications are way more intriguing to contemplate.
As for the glorious messiness of the book, let me talk about the plot first. Earth begins with a crackerjack opening. Alex is a researcher in advanced physics and energy sources, and his current research project of harnessing a pet black hole for limitless energy falls down on the “harnessing” part and instead becomes “oops, this black hole just escaped and since it’s now at the centre of the earth it will devour the entire planet in about two years.” That could be a pretty focused narrative, complete with deadline! But there is a ton of other plot material in the book. The black hole is gathering matter, and meanwhile we get teen gang members in the midwest scaring old people, immigrants in South Africa learning ecology, and lots, lots more. For myself, I took the title as a giant clue implying a certain amount of expansiveness.
Then there’s the matter of the ending. Without giving too much away, Brin takes the book in a distinctly 2001 direction. I spent a bit of time reading through the Amazon reviews, and this was a notable point of pain for those who didn’t care for the book. Having read most of Brin’s other books, I know the metaphysical ending (or less kindly, the wacked out ending) is not entirely a surprise – he likes this kind of stuff , and prides himself on the “big thinks” approach. For Earth, Brin sets up the ending pretty carefully: a lot of the apparently off-topic bits of flavour feed into the ending in a direct way. But it is a leap; again, in the same way that 2001 is a leap. For 2001, Kubrick gave the audience a bit of warning with the murder-bone-to-spaceship transition, whereas Brin picks up in the equivalent of the space travel section, then sticks to that relatively realist mode until the ending. I guess it comes down to whether you think Brin has earned that ending. This was a re-read for me, so I knew what was coming, and with that foreknowledge, I have to say that the book takes the big leap as a realistic extrapolation of what came before! Fun stuff, since it is indeed all a little nuts.
Earth has a large and messy cast of characters, the aforementioned gangmembers and many, many others. And yes, some of the characters have very little impact on the conclusion. However, I want to point to two characters who spend most of the book immersed in their own well-developed political and ecological philosophies, but then have the most direct impact on the ending, and both of them women. Jen Wolling, Nobel laureate and ecological heroine, loves to rile up her fans, and, more pertinently, puzzle out the nature of consciousness. Daisy McClennon, hacker extraordinaire and ecological purist, uses her powers to ferret out corruption and pollution, and would love nothing more than to cleanse the human stain from mother earth. They both have interesting things to do along the way, even though none of it relates to the black hole storyline, but when the clash between them comes at the end, it’s a doozy! And everything wraps up with a bow. It makes Earth a rather memorable book on two counts that don’t always come together all that easily: pure science-fictional ideas and worthy female characters. For that, kudos to Brin.
Brin is a fun author to read, outside of his books too. I highly recommend his blog, Contrary Brin.