By the end of the twenty-first century, we’ll know we are not alone. We will have pushed forward with our own evolution. We will have brought our worst nightmares back to haunt us from the past. And Dan Brüks, stubbornly baseline, reliant on pills to keep up with his tweaked peers, will head into space with a crew that has transcended humanity in search of God.
It’s a common saying in the genre world that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It’s a brave author who turns it into religion, and suggests science is just another form of faith. But Peter Watts, whatever his other faults, has always been brave.
I was excited to hear that there was a companion novel to Blindsight, a hard SF novel in every sense that bamboozled me with its science and left me arguing out loud with its conclusions. It also hinted that there were tremendously interesting (for which read apocalyptic) things happening back home, but given the preoccupations of the novel, these were a story for another time.
I automatically assumed that Echopraxia – as a sidequel – would be the story of that breakdown back on Earth, and I was intensely curious to find out more. Expectation is a monster. So let’s be clear: Echopraxia does explain why things go horribly wrong back home, but it doesn’t provide a ringside seat; nor – in spite of some flirtation along the way – does it dovetail with Blindsight at the end. If you’re hoping to find out what happened next, you’ll be disappointed.
On the plus side, this means Echopraxia can be read as a stand-alone novel. You don’t need to have read Blindsight and you will gain very little from having done so.
Our protagonist is Dan Brüks, a guilt-ridden biologist whose disastrous experiment caused many many deaths in a viral outbreak. Ostracised by the academic community, he has retreated to the Oregon desert to catalogue the local animal and reptile community and try to come to terms with his sins.
As with Blindsight, Watts tells us the story through the most relatable member of the crew (not to be mistaken with the most sympathetic; this is a man who dreams his wife shackled to a wall. It’s not even metaphorical; presumably it’s meant to imply how he feels about her retreat into Heaven, but it’s hard not to recall Maelstrom and give the author the side eye instead).
From the opening chapter, in which Valerie the vampire rips apart a research installation – and it’s taken me until now to piece that back into the rest of the story – it’s clear that the story can’t end well. Dan finds his remote sabbatical disturbed; thinking himself stalked by military assassins, he takes refuge in a nearby monastery.
It’s no traditional monastery. Members of the Bicameral Order subsume their identities into a hive mind to better know the mind of God so that they can may understand – and master – His universe. It’s religion in the name of science, where echolalia and echopraxia are no hindrance to research that is rewriting the book of human knowledge. Or would do, if they ever shared it.
But this isn’t a future in which knowledge is willingly shared. Corporations control governments; governments unleash covert agents that turn entire cities into mind-wiped zombies. People with few choices sign away their personalities and free will to become the perfect soldiers, hard-wired to obey orders (but can they ever leave their indentured service when they have no will to refuse a contract extension?).
Biological engineering has leaked into the wild. Mass extinction is as common as the rise of new species and new diseases. No wonder a significant portion of the population have uploaded their personalities to ‘Heaven’ (a digital construct: think the later Culture novels without the punishment bias). The throwaway world-building is a compelling and horribly believable dystopia.
When Valerie the vampire and her military zombies attack not Dan but the monastery he has taken shelter in, it becomes clear he’s just a human throwback caught in the middle of a greater game. When a third force tries to take out Valerie and the monks both, they make common cause and launch into space, taking Dan with them.
Let’s be clear: these are not post-humans with a great deal of empathy for their less-evolved cousins. The monks abandon most of their fellows to die in the nastiest way; it’s a special forces Colonel who is working with them who drags Dan aboard.
Cue an extended journey in space, during which Dan tries to understand his companions. He has quite the chip on his shoulder about being baseline – but then he’s barely sentient in comparison to his new companions, and they’re all terribly polite about it (well, almost all, although the Colonel assures Dan that Sengupta calls him ‘roach’ as an obscure compliment). No wonder he’s a grumpy fucker.
It’s an interesting set-up: we see the mission through the eyes of the person least equipped to understand what’s going on and least briefed on what happens at every stage. This makes Dan an unreliable narrator. The narrative is skewed by his limited perspective and poisoned by his prejudice. Not that anyone is telling him where they’re going or why; they’d prefer he slept in stasis, but Dan isn’t big on ceding control.
In between trying to throw off pursuit, exploring the Earth’s main source of power (Icarus, the aptly named solar harvesting installation) and trying to decide whether Valerie is terrorizing him, there’s plenty of travel time to discuss weighty topics including consciousness, identity, cognition, consent and faith. For example: if our understanding of the universe is clouded by our limited perceptions – and the way our brain naturally translates them – then we are at best getting to grips with analogies. We can never perceive or grasp the underlying truths. The Bicamerals attempt to transcend this through the hive mind; vampires other have natural advantages (they may look human, but their brains work entirely differently).
Lianna shrugged. “Change your brain.”
“Then it’s not your brain anymore. It’s something else. You’re something else.”
“That’s kinda the point. Transcendence is transformation.”
Dan shook his head, unconvinced. “Sounds more like suicide to me.”
These philosophical discussions were for me the most interesting passages in the book, and I can see how the broader narrative of disaster in space illustrates them to a certain extent (I read for pleasure; I’m not one to Google every scientific reference to ensure I capture all the implications). However, when it came to core plot, it felt like far more was implied than stated, and that became frustrating.
I don’t expect to like the characters of a Peter Watts book; I do expect to understand what’s going on and why they care. Between the veil of Dan’s limited perceptions and the unavoidable obscuration of his companions’ motives, I had little idea who was trying to achieve what or why, let alone how it all fit together. Another problem was that I found Dan by far the least interesting character in the ensemble, but we were stuck inside his head.
I kept waiting for a beat at the end where everything would come together; maybe I was being particularly dense, but it never came. A couple of big reveals along the way were oddly robbed of impact because it wasn’t really clear why they mattered. Perhaps I should have Googled more science. Perhaps my acceptance that Dan was incapable of piecing together what was going on meant I automatically discarded any conclusions he suggested.
It’s a shame, because Echopraxia – like Blindsight – plays with big ideas. I‘m just not convinced it does them justice. Ultimately, for all the discussions, I couldn’t tell you what Watts was really trying to say; it felt more like flailing (or maybe that was just me, grappling for an answer).
That said, it took me 2 readings to really get my head around Blindsight. Perhaps I simply missed the point. I am only a baseline, after all.
It’s worth noting that this level of frustration means I’ll almost certainly read Echopraxia again, especially if a third novel in this universe appears. Glutton for punishment, me.