How do you follow up an Award-nominated Hard-SF novel on posthumanity and the evolutionary and Darwinian value of consciousness if you've shot your load (the author's wording, not mine...) on the topic on the first novel? Peter Watt's answer is by expanding the scope of players for humanity's future (which might not contain much humanity as we know it), and by adding religion to the mix – as he points out, 'faith-based Hard SF' might well be the ultimate oxymoron. Might. And, of course, the fitness to survive question keeps posing itself.
Peter Watts is an award-winning Canadian SF Writer, a lapsed marine biologist, a survivor of necrotising fasciitis, and a convicted felon (just ask the TSA) who will not enter the US again. I guess there are worse fates...
His output to date includes the claustrophobic, end-of the world (and it had it coming) Rifters trilogy, two collections of short stories (including the one with the most self-effacing title ever: Ten Monkeys Ten Minutes), the Hugo-nominated novel Blindsight, and now the follow-up to that story, Echopraxia. Echopraxia is coming out, more or less simultaneously, in English, Russian, French, German, Polish, and Japanese. In the UK it will only be available in a few months' time, until then you then you either get a book called Firefall, containing both Blindsight and Echopraxia, or you buy the US edition, of course...
Echopraxia is the involuntary repetition of someone else's movements. How this fits into the larger story is clever, and cannot be part of this review, it would spill ways too many beans!
The key protagonist the story is told through is Daniel Brüks – a Biologist and Researcher, on an extended research sabbatical in the desert after some hushed-up scandal (Watts lets us hang for a long time until he spills the beans on that one), who gets caught up in the action when a Vampire (who should not be out on her own in the first place) attacks a Bicameral Monastery close to his research camp with her 4 Zombies (Zombie – a soldier with most of his conscious functions either removed, or switched of. Very fast. Very dangerous. No memories, 2nd thoughts, or regrets). Bicamerals are a kind of hive-mind, who have modified their brains to hugely increase their cognitive functions, especially their pattern-matching. The effect of combining a group of such modified minds is startling - as Brüks is told, the Bicamerals own half the patent office; and not everyone is enamored with having such post-human intelligences around.
Brüks himself is a Luddite, an wholly unmodified and unaugmented baseline human. A “roach”, as he is called by some of the other protagonists. And now he gets thrown together with a group of Bicamerals, Valerie the Vampire (who mysteriously, or rather for reasons Brüks does not understand, has joined forces with the Bicamerals) and her Zombies, and 3 augmented humans on the spaceship Crown of Thorns, headed for the sun. Or, rather, headed for Icarus, the sun-orbiting power station we know from Blindsight. Another crew of damaged humans, post-humans, and a vampire, albeit in a rather different permutation this time...
We are passengers, looking through Brüks' eyes. Watts fails to evoke the claustrophobic feel of the first half of Blindsight, or of Starfish (no, I don't know if he aimed to do so again for this story in the first place). But he delivers, yet again, a fascinating story, with lots of drive despite the frequent explanations. And we always hunger for more knowledge, more insight, as we're at the mercy of Brüks the baseline, and his information and information processing deficiency in comparison to everybody else in the story. And I did not like Brüks. He's a throwback, a liability, and an argumentative arse, just for the sake of it. All the post-humans are so much more sympathetic. What's this say about me?
This is another meditation, nah, exposition on the value and role of consciousness. It is the other side of the story of Siri Keeton, the other side of the scales to the events in Blindsight. It is a treaty on the nature of what we consider reality (look up Digital Physics, and weep) and on Science vs Religion – how similar they are, once you dig down to the underlying principles! How much harder to distinguish! And on the possibility of free will (forget about it), to top it all.
The chapters start with relevant quotes – frequently thought provoking, and always hinting at thoughts and layers below the action/activity in the story. The very first one is by Cicero: “We do not destroy Religion by destroying Superstition.”
Especially the final 3rd makes for compelling reading – once all the pieces are in place we're heading for something which, after reading it repeatedly, I'm still not sure is a Greek Tragedy, the 2nd coming, or the lead-up to some kind of a Banksian Sublimation.
The story is followed by a short essay on the scientific theories and hypotheses used for the science in the story. And by a lengthy list of citation. Ass-coverage, meet SF publication. (And just to be clear, I really rather like this, especially the explanations).
Should you read this? Bloody well you should – Watts is one of the most important Hard SF writers of these latter days.
Should you also read Blindsight? Yes, of course, it's a great book, and it will give you some contact points for this one.
Must you have read Blindsight? No, I would not think so, Echopraxia can stand on its own. But given that Tor have just brought out the two stories in one book (Firefall) it's not too hard to, no?
More Peter Watts
Series Number: 2
Author: Peter Watts
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher URL: http://www.tor-forge.com
Publication Date: Aug 2014
Review Date: 140902
Topic: Hard SF