Note: Thanks to NetGalley and Tor for providing the ARC of this title.
So, a couple of weeks back I reviewed Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which I drooled over on account of its multiplicity of serious scientific and philosophical themes underlying the sci-fi dressing. Plot-wise it told a first-contact story, an alien intelligence arriving first to take a snapshot of us from orbit using countless tiny, disposable probes (Firefall) and then simply content to linger in the cold outer reaches of the solar system. Inevitably a recon mission was launched, teamed by genetically altered human beings and a vampire (go read the review) and powered by a beam of anti-matter sent by Icarus, essentially a giant solar cell in close orbit around the sun. Things… don’t go to plan.
Rewind the tape a few years. Echopraxia kicks off in the deserts of Oregon in the aftermath of Firefall and the subsequent attempt to contact the force responsible. One of the few non-altered (‘baseline’) humans left, Daniel Brüks is a biologist running from a shady past and consigned to a hermit’s life tracing modifications spreading through the DNA of wild animals. Unfortunately he finds himself in the middle of a crossfire between a religio-scientific order in their tornado-powered temple and an escaped vampire with a bodyguard of philosophical zombies. Before he knows it he discovers they’re all really on the same side, the common enemy being non-baseline humans, and he’s caught up in their flight from a devastating biological agent launched into the compound. Confused and angered in equal measure he’s nonetheless stuck with his saviours/captors as they head for Icarus and escape from those hounding them. Icarus will be safe. Icarus will be empty. Or will it?
Echopraxia isn’t quite the extreme mindfuck that was Blindsight, where heavy-duty idea-cannons blasted you from every page. There’s a lot more straight-up story-telling here, much in the same ‘creeping horror in confined spaces’ vein of it’s predecessor but lightened with more in the way of action and pacing. It’s pure sci-fi which is very much enjoyable for its own sake, regardless of whether you’re up to speed with its history. There’s a lot going on here, from the mysterious monastic superhumans to the vampire and her entourage, from Brüks’s interaction with the crew to the mysterious marine Jim Moore. And once they reach Icarus and the shit hits the fan then it switches gear into full-on space thriller.
That’s certainly not all though. Peter Watts seems to be Neal Stephenson-esque in the wealth and diversity of knowledge he brings to his writing. Here we’re treated to a more detailed exploration of his vampire concept, a truly original and refreshing one. There are more musings on alien anatomy and the potential forms which life may take, stretching the very definition of the word. There are spacecraft and power sources, genetic jiggery-pokery and cybernetic augmentation. Basically twice as much standard fare as you’d expect in any book this size.
It’s the more philosophical meanderings which really rope me in though. This time he engages the intellect on two main fronts; free will and faith. On the first topic he comes down very much in the camp of accepted scientific opinion. Free will, as much as we would love to possess it, is purely illusory and something which we cling to out of habit rather than as a reflection of how the universe really operates. We behave as though we can make choices independent of the stimuli presented to us, we expect others to do the same as evidenced by our justice systems, but this is all purely anachronistic. Not a popular viewpoint, but truth isn’t democratic. No disagreements from me on this count.
His exploration of the nature of faith as opposed to reason is very interesting. In fact it almost infuriated me at times when he seemed to be genuinely propounding faith as a virtue, as opposed to the harmful vice I believe it to be. It wasn’t until reaching the end of the book that I discovered he seems to share my mischievous joy in playing devil’s advocate and chasing any line of reasoning to its ultimate end. The notions he raises, of reason reaching an impasse and being supplanted by something far more akin to religious faith are interesting enough in themselves to be able to suppress my natural revulsion at the thought.
Anway, long story short – Echopraxia is a very worthy successor to the wonderful Blindsight and one which may be more accessible to casual readers. It’s not shy of asking you to engage your brain at a serious level but certainly not to the point where it’s going to burn you out before the end. If anything it’ll leave you refreshed and churning with fresh ideas. Oh, and the notion of reality and an operating system, consciousness as a bug and god as a virus? Well played sir, well played…