Existence by David Brin

Cover for Existence

As I was reading this book my thoughts kept flipping between two different ideas:

  • “Wow, this would make a really great movie.”
  • “Wow, this would make a really great video game.”

The book moves with a good cinematical pace leaping between the perspective of Briar Wilkes and her son Zeke as they manage the hazards and obstacles of an 1870s apocalyptic Seattle. Priest sets up her story well by giving us an alternate history where the American Civil War is still being fought after sixteen years which has driven technology beyond its historical level. After a tragic incident with an earth boring drill (the titular Boneshaker), a large section of Seattle’s financial district collapsed and a strange gas was released into the city. This gas, aside from being toxic to humans, has the bizarre property of being able to raise dead people into ravenous zombies. The afflicted part of the city was walled off as a protective measure and most of Seattle’s inhabitants lived around the outside of these walls. There is a sizable community that continued to exist inside the wall living life the way they want to. It is within this society that much of the action in the book occurs. Aside from a prologue outlining the incident that strikes Seattle, we are thrown directly into the story and gain much of the character’s background through flashbacks and their narration.

This book falls squarely into the Steampunk genre with the requisite goggled and gas-masked characters and lots of fantastically anachronistic machines and gadgets. There are some excellent scenes dealing with the zombie (called “rotters” in the books) hordes and with the mad scientist character that has set himself up as the despot of the walled-in society. There is also a unique mix of characters that our two protagonists encounter inside the wall. As is usual in stories like this, everyone we meet has their own reasons for being here, some of whom are straightforward about their motives and others are mysterious.

Past all the swashbuckling adventures and cool Steampunk vibe, this story is really about a mother trying to find her son and willing to do anything to accomplish that task. Muddying the waters are themes of loss, betrayal and the consequences of keeping secrets. We get to see, at times, people operating at their very best and people at their worst. You know, the literary properties that have a great effect on readers. Priest does an excellent job developing characters that we can feel strongly, both negatively and positively.

It becomes clear near the end of the book that the author intended this to be part of a multiple volume work as she introduces a new conflict early enough for it to develop and pique our interests and close enough to the end to ensure there would not be a resolution. This is fine though, as she is able to wrap up the main plot that has driven us through the story and to give us answers to questions that hang around from early in the book. Also fortunate is that the sequels, Clementine and Dreadnought, are already available.

Overall, this was a very thrilling book to read and fully satisfied my anticipation for it. The author evidently did an extensive job researching the area and the time period that the book was set. In her afterword, she explains the reasoning behind several key historical changes. Blended into that alternate Seattle we got a excellent mix of characters and plots that made the entire book a lot of fun to read. I certainly hope that someone licenses this for a film or television series (a miniseries of the entire trilogy might work) as it would make excellent entertainment in one of those mediums as well.


Genre: Alien Contact, Hard Science Fiction, Near Future, Science Fiction

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