On a recent flight to Denver, I found that my new tablet was not cutting off sound to its internal speakers when I plugged in headphones, which meant that everyone else on the plane could hear it. So I stopped using it and switched over to the Kindle, where I was about 85% of the way through the lengthy 1990 novel Earth by David Brin. I finished it during that flight.
I've been reading this book a chapter or two at a time for several weeks now. At first, it had that sprawling quality that some of Brin's novels have, where it's hard to keep track of all the different characters while it's not yet clear how they'll relate to one another, or what the central storyline is about. (Not all of Brin's novels are like this; Kiln People has a fairly straightforward narrative, for instance.) This was even more true because Earth tackles the incredibly challenging task of doing a near-future prediction, being set about fifty years into its future, so it spends a lot of time exploring that setting and establishing it. Every chapter, for instance, ends with a little snippet from the world -- a posting to a Net forum, a transcript from a TV show, a news article, etc. Few if any of these are central to advancing the actual plot of the book; some reflect it, but many aren't even related to it, and they all are primarily there as a way for Brin to show us his imagined version of the world. While these are fascinating stuff, early on they tend to further the sense of the story being fragmented and hard to keep track of. (I suspect this would be felt less if I had sat down to read it a hundred pages at a time, instead of a dozen pages every few days.)
It doesn't take long for the storyline to start to coalesce -- that is, for one of the various things going on to rise to prominence as the central plotline. That said, that central plotline starts, by about a quarter of the way through the book, to seem like it's going to go a certain way, and then near the halfway point it seems like it's on its way to resolution, and then it turns out that was just part of what the story was about. That keeps happening until eventually you get to where you're no longer even trying to figure out what, at the end, you'll have said the book's story was about. You're just going along with the narrative, which is more like what real life is like -- you don't exactly look at the events in the newspaper and wonder how the story will end; while one incident might "end" for a while, it's still just part of a larger tapestry of other events that go on, and don't necessarily have an ending lined up.
And yet the story does indeed build to one of the most powerful and compelling finales I can think of in any science-fiction novel ever. And while some out-there stuff happens, it's not like Kiln People, where the end starts feeling like an essay at times, trying to get you to buy into a premise that's so busy being mind-blowing it has no time left to be whapping you in the face with impact. The mind-blowing bit here is quick, and has been set up for so long that it's both surprising and totally out of the blue, and yet perfectly ready for you to accept. And it doesn't slow down the "oh my god" of the surrounding stream of events and twists.
So the book, in the end, has three things going on. First, a really compelling, rich, plausible yet surprising, and insightful vision of a possible future. (Brin gives us a short essay at the end which helps explain some of how challenging this is, and why it ended up the way it did, which only enhances my appreciation of the task and how well he did with it.) Second, a broad spectrunm of interesting characters, situations, and occurrences, some of which end up central to the main storyline, some of which are more incidental, but almost none of which end up going quite where you'd guess. And third, a storyline that builds up so much intensity that by the end it's hard not to end up laughing and crying at almost every page.
The book also is striking in how much of it is really very visual. This is way, way too big to make into a movie. But given a big enough budget -- and it would really need a very big budget -- it would make an incredible three-year TV series. Except of course that there's absolutely nothing in here that would serve as the ending of each episode or season. What I'm imagining is just a sixty-hour-long movie, which I mostly want to see because I would love to see so many of these visuals realized. And because, unlike many novels, very, very little of it is the kind of thing that you have to strain to convert to a visual medium. There's no great need for voiceovers of internal monologue (there's some, but not as much as a lot of books that live and die on it) and not a lot of stuff that you couldn't see (though one long scene set in a pitch-black cave complex would be tough to translate).
Much to my surprise, I find myself asking the question, do I like this better than, the same as, or not as much as Startide Rising? I have loved Brin's work enough to consider him one of my top two or three sci-fi authors, but even while I've loved to bits so many of his books, I didn't expect to see anything threaten Startide Rising. But this might be it. I'm not quite decided, and I probably won't. It's enough to say it's in the same area -- which makes it one of my favorite sci-fi books of all time.