Book review: Echopraxia, by Peter Watts, Tor Books
August 20, 2014 | 12:25 pm
Blindsight, the immediate predecessor to this novel, was one of the most original, inspiring, disturbing works of science fiction in recent memory – a First Contact story that practically rewrote the entire sub-genre, and ensured that no other attempt at that theme could ever be the same again – not least because of the questions it raised about what contact with an alien intelligence might imply about ours. Peter Watts has doubled down with Echopraxia, which picks up from the same timeline and follows to even more disquieting destinations. Readers who haven’t encountered Blindsight already will miss a lot of the tropes in Echopraxia, not least Watts’s unique take on vampires (now supported by zombies), but then reading that book is something they should be doing anyway.
Peter Watts the legend is already a work in progress: the research scientist who doubles as a genre-redefining author, the polymath specialist, the pioneering self-published author who builds a career while giving away his books for free, Canadian victim of judicial assault by U.S. border guards at the 49th Parallel, survivor of necrotizing fastitis (which has a walk-on, or rather, slime-on, part in this book), etc., etc. Early on in Echopraxia, I was a tad alarmed that he’d mellowed out, become a nicer and more settled, less driven chronicler of the near future. That was until I learned what was really going on – and the process of revelation is fundamental to the plot. I needn’t have worried – or rather, I will be worrying a lot in future, but about the doomwatch warning signs that Watts has planted along the route of the March of Progress. Yes, maybe some of the characters and the personal and social detail (versus the technical detail) are still perhaps a little thin, but maybe less so than in Blindsight, and it definitely doesn’t hurt so much when many of your protagonists are tweaked posthumans to begin with. Yes, there’s more than a touch of scientific determinism going on, but it’s hard to call this reductionist when it’s so rich in ideas and imagination. Yes, there are similarities with the previous novel – space shot to encounter mysterious alien infestation, paranoid protagonists watching each other like hawks, traps sprung on distant orbiting artifacts, etc., – but Echopraxia goes one better – or worse, depending how optimistic you want to be about the future of humanity, or what lies beyond it.
Along the way, you have to process a lot of information. Peter Watts delivers datadumps like Escoffier makes sandwiches. Technobabble is intrinsic to his style, but it both works aesthetically and is babble in the glossolalia-revelation sense: not meaningless but almost overwhelmingly meaningful. And perhaps it’s an indicator of what this novel and its predecessor have done for its genre that it’s hard science fiction written by a hard scientist, who taps disciplines outside his own, not some Gernsbeck technophile but one who’s not afraid to follow the conclusions that real science suggests about our nature, human consciousness, religion, free will, and a whole lot of other sacred cows. Oh, and science itself doesn’t get away scot-free either. As for science fiction, well, traditionalists in the field now face some hard choices: either lobotomize themselves to dumb down enough to continue to approach SF without seeing the implications of what Watts is doing; or get serious about the science part of science fiction; or throw up their hands in helpless despair and go away and try some other genre instead. Horror, maybe – because Echopraxia also manages to be more truly frightening than much self-styled horror fiction.
Even while traveling and with a whole lot of other shit going on, I snarfed down this book as soon as it downloaded, and am writing this review at 6am after waking early to finish it. Recommended doesn’t even begin to.