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Echopraxia Hardcover – August 26, 2014
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“A paranoid tale that would make Philip K. Dick proud, told in a literary style that should seduce readers who don't typically enjoy science fiction.” ―Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
PETER WATTS is the Hugo nominated author of Blindsight and has been called "a hard science fiction writer through and through and one of the very best alive" by The Globe and Mail and whose work the New York Times called "seriously paranoid."
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The central character is baseline human Dan Brüks, a biologist and tenured professor who resists all the wiring and implants that most people take for granted. As Exchopraxia begins, Brüks is in the desert where he finds Bicamerals threatened by a not-so-controlled-or-confined vampire and her zombie helpers. Soon the Bicams and the vampire join forces (more or less) because they appear to have a common but unidentified enemy. An attack from an unknown source sends Brüks and the Bicams and the vampire and a baseline military officer and some other characters scrambling to a spaceship that is itself chased and attacked by the unknown enemy. Figuring out who (or what) is engineering the high tech attacks is one of the plot's three mysteries. The second involves a mysterious something -- the "Angels of the Asteroids" is the roughly translated name bestowed by the Bicams -- and its association with Icarus, a space station that acts as a conduit of unlimited solar energy. The third involves the abrupt disappearance of the Theseus, a spaceship that investigated mystery number two, on which the military officer's son was serving.
Peter Watts has a better than average prose style. I like the way he renders dialog in a character for whom language is too slow to keep pace with thought. Characters have carefully designed personalities. Brüks and the military officer are both carrying a bundle of guilt, a byproduct of being baseline humans who can't jettison inconvenient emotions. The plot moves quickly, particularly in the novel's second half, but it does not short-change character development or the refinement of themes (including the benefits and disadvantages of being human rather than transhuman) that are central to the story.
The novel's background is filled with ideas, some familiar and others fresh. Watts doesn't assume that readers are stupid and need their hands held. Concepts that don't seem to make much sense initially (like "smart paint") are eventually made clear, usually through context rather than direct explanation. Watts scores points with me for avoiding needless exposition.
While Echopraxia is science-heavy science fiction, Watts also scores points for recognizing and engaging the limits of science -- which is not to say that the novel prefers a religious approach to understanding phenomena, despite the importance of transhuman monks to the story. Watts understands that too many people have blind faith in the ability of either science or religion to supply correct answers to all questions when, given our relatively primitive evolutionary state, we don't even know what questions to ask. Watts provides an antidote to arrogance, a reminder that it is wrong to belittle others because their understanding of the universe (or of our tiny part of our single universe) differs from our own. Echopraxia makes a strong argument for the importance of keeping an open mind about ... well, everything ... because the odds are good that whatever we believe to be true is fundamentally wrong.
Apart from being intellectually engaging, Echopraxia tells an entertaining story. The combination of an intelligent background, a fun plot, important themes, and strong characters make Echopraxia a rewarding read.
With Echopraxia he returns to the delightful reflection on the nature of thought begun with Blindsight. He takes the reader to the border of a human singularity, maybe the best crafted narrative I've ever read about this theme in speculative fiction.
His prose is both a delicate and multilayered filigree of characterization, insight about the nature of consciousness, religion, science, and faith, and at times feels like a punch to the stomach as death comes quick and unespected.
In order to fully enjoy his work you should read Blindsight (simply the most interesting first contact plot i've ever read).
You may skip The Colonel short-story, although it's mildly interesting and inexpensive.
Echopraxia depicts a world on the eve of a singularity, or more exactly, an ongoing singularity. Everything held by thin strings, ecological catastrophes, bio-terrorism, mind control schemes gone rampart, people who simply gave up and took refuge in Heaven (digital self crafted universes). Security forces unable to cope with the rising menace of hive minds (grid linked individuals supporting superintelligent consciousnesses).
The AI preponderance in Blindsight, as advisers to the ruling body, has been droped in Echopraxia. Somewhere along the way they became victims of genocide.
It features a delightful ensemble:
. Bruks, a baseline, non augmented, Biologist with a very dark secret, the central character and narrative point of view;
. Jim Moore, soldier, spook, high ranking and extremely able earth defense officer, grief striken father of Siri Keaton, main character from Blindsight;
. An augmented transhuman pilot with a deadly grudge;
. A powerful hivemind, maybe the single most powerful consciousness on earth, in search for "God" ;
. Valerie, a posthuman "vampire" free from the engineered constraints to keep her under control, with an entourage of zombie unconscious soldiers.
These strange characters embark on a perilous odissey to the sun in order to find a powerful alien life form, hiper intelligent but maybe not entirely conscious, which has been interfering in humam affairs since Blindsight in subtle ways.
There are no nonsense plausible descriptions of "vampires", the nature of "crosses", zombie soldier, mind control, and spceculation about science and religion and what tells them appart, fear, evolution. His take on "vampires" is the most innovative i've ever read.
It takes a while to get into. Bruks POV lets the reader full of doubts and not really grasping what is going on for a while.
However it is a good narrative choice, gives us our own perpective in a world of wonders on the border of magic.
Watts is heavy on science (he even explains his bibliography at the end, which i personally find quite pleasing).
But it is never a distraction nor a burden. Some quick searches will end doubts, but they are not really needed. Much is inferred from context.
I take it as a kind respect for the reader. We are not taken around in fastidious and redundant explanations.
A must read, a pearl to any sci-fi reader.
Like the first book in this diptych on sentience, sapience, and solipsism, he provides an interstellar first contact situation with dynamic characters, somewhat surreal settings, and thought-provoking conversations. He probes and tests various ideas of what it means to be self-aware, extrapolates our current world of have and have nots (in terms of both genetic and technological advantages) to a hyperbolic degree, and gives pithy interesting footnote discussions of the ideas. A researched novel. My cup of tea.
What I found least interesting was his use of zombies and vampires. His “variation on a theme” is delightful, the purpose for their construction is vague. Zombies seem to replace the dumb, hard to destroy, unthinking biological droids. Vampires are stand-ins for super-intelligent predator AIs who appear to play with normal (baseline) humans, all the while using them in some higher level strategy game humans rarely glimpse. Placing humans as a type of delusional automaton that believes it is alive, sentient, etc., in between these extremes is useful to the ideas conveyed, but using overused zombies and vampires seemed stale.
I came away caring more for the novel’s ideas than for any of the characters. As others have commented, reading the footnotes elevates the experience.