Echopraxia

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I was a big fan of Blindsight and really enjoyed discussing it in various places so it’s no surprise that this sequel was one of my most anticipated books. Unfortunately even after I’d gotten my hands on it (I chose to buy it as an ebook from Google Books), I took my time reading it because I ended up being very annoyed by it. After finishing the book, I went around the Internet to read up on various discussions. The regulars at Broken Forum mostly liked it but on Reddit and other places, I find that mine is not an uncommon opinion.

Peter Watts calls this a sidequel rather than a sequel. Though it is set after the events of Blightsight, those consequences have yet to percolate back to Earth. Protagonist Daniel Brüks is a biologist and, more significantly in this novel, a baseline. Apart from intelligence-enhancing pills that he needs to take to keep his tenure as a professor, he is unaugmented. This makes him the low man on the totem pole in a world with hyperintelligent vampires, the hive-mind of the Bicamerals and of course the non-conscious aliens introduced in the previous book. In what looks like a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Brüks is caught up in a confrontation between the vampire Valerie and her army of zombies, non-conscious and non-intelligent thralls, and a group of monastery-based Bicamerals who can harness a pet tornado. His adventure takes him to space where all parties seem intent on making contact with the aliens, appearing this time in the form of a slime-like goo.

Whereas the driving point of Blightsight was the insight that consciousness is unnecessary for intelligence and is a waste of resources, the theme here is free will and how it doesn’t exist. In line with this Brüks is a character who in this story has no agency at all, one reason why this is an annoying novel to read. He is constantly aware that all of the other characters around him are much more intelligent than he is and spends most of the time having no clue what is going on. This means that the reader is left in the dark right alongside him. Eventually it even becomes clear that everything that he has ever done were all moves in a horrendously complex plan hatched by these hyper-intelligences and that he has been manipulated and programmed for who knows how long. The ultimate revelation is that even these beings don’t have free will and they dance in tune to God himself, presented here as a kind of virus that conflicts with entropy.

I often complain about movies having too much exposition but Echopraxia has the opposite problem with it comes to describing what actually happens in the novel. It’s bad enough that Brüks has so little information to work with, but even when he does manage to make leaps of insight, he often doesn’t share those with the reader. Watts take such a perverse delight in obfuscating matters that it can be hard to understand even action scenes that unfold right in front of Brüks’ eyes. After extensively reading discussions on the novel including a very informative AMA that Watts held on Reddit, I’m pretty sure that I now understand everything that the author intended to be understood. But I don’t agree that a reasonable reader could get all that from just the text.

I do admit that Watts has certainly mined deeply into the scientific literature for plenty of cool ideas. The bibliography at the end of the book makes for a fantastic resource and I found it more valuable than the novel itself. It’s just that citing a stream of these discoveries and insight don’t automatically make for a good story. Structurally, the novel consists mainly of Brüks being passive and powerless to contribute much of anything while other characters drop by to explain things to him only to die off shortly after. All these ideas are poorly integrated into the plot and with the point of view character being such a bystander to the action, it makes the novel feel boring. If the really interesting things are happening one level above Brüks, shouldn’t one of these characters be the protagonist instead, even if he or she can’t offer the perspective of a baseline human?

Another really annoying thing is that Brüks spends a lot of time being terrified by Valerie. Watts seems to enjoy hyping up the vampires’ prowess so much that it feels like wanking sometimes. It’s cool that the vampires are so intelligent that they can cooperate without needing to communicate with each other. But at some point, one wonders why they ever went extinct if they so much better than regular humans in every way. I also find it odd that after describing the non-conscious intelligences as coolly effective and free from emotions in the first novel, the end of this novel seems to humanize them again. Valerie actually seems to yearn for and enjoy the company of an intelligent being comparable to or exceeding her own. Why would a non-conscious super-predator have such feelings?

One reader commented that Echopraxia is so bad that it retroactively ruined Blindsight. I wouldn’t go that far but I would like to point out that I had a lot of questions about the first novel which was why I spent a lot of time looking for discussions about it on the Internet. I felt that Watts must have some kind of grand plan and some clever reason for introducing some of the ambiguities and even contradictions, it’s just that I wasn’t smart enough to catch his meaning. After reading this, I now think that a lot of that was just Watts throwing lots of ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. Due to the strength and originality of its central premise plus how exciting its first contact scenario is, Blindsight was a great success. Not only is the main idea in Echopraxia much less original, it isn’t even much of a sci-fi adventure. That’s why it’s just a mediocre novel.

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