Read March 2021
Recommended for sincere, devoted Peter Watts fans
If it wasn’t for my co-readers of Blindsight encouraging ourselves onward, this would have been a solid DNF. While Blindsight explored what individuality and personality, Echopraxia mostly just explored Watts’ navel.
I started it with enthusiasm, looking for a continuation of the story of Siri and his father, Colonel Moore. When it opened with a scene following the parasitologist Daniel Brük around his live-animal traps in the desert, I could not have been more pleased. The state of the Earth and of civilization in ten years or so post-launch of the Theseus gradually becomes clear. Unfortunately, there aren’t many details that carry over from Blindsight. Group minds have developed further, although that’s somewhat unclear, and a semi-religious order, nick-named the ‘Hive,’ has a nearby monastery where they have a controlled tornado. We also learn about the slow decay of the shared computer-reality Heaven, and the fast-moving environmental decay of the planet. There have also been plagues, with resultant zombie-like people remaining. It’s a bleak, but not implausible vision.
Narrative is largely limited to Brük, although we occasionally jump to another. What is truly unfortunate for the reader, and I’m echoing a number of other reviewers here, is that Brük is largely clueless about what is happening, and literally ends up going along for the ride. A sudden attack drives Brük toward the safety of the Hive monastery and that’s when the ‘plot’-I use the term very loosely–begins. The attack coincides with the Hives’ desire to know more about the Theseus’ fate, and the Colonel’s desire to know more about his son’s.
“Moore had told him as much as he could understand, Brük supposed. There would be more. Solutions to problems no baseline could even see, let alone solve. A careful clandestine exit stage left, while unwitting pursuers followed a bright burning decoy toward the land of the comets. All spread out across the curve of his own personal diving belt, numbers and diagrams”
Once in space, things get less coherent. Brük finds himself engaging in philosophical debates with one of the highly augmented contractors, Sengupta. Many who read this talk about Watt’s exploration of the philosophy of minds, and some of that comes into play here. I’ll be honest with you though; unlike Stephenson who likes to stick with an idea and explore with endless detail, Watts seems to be more of a disciple of the two-beer school of thought: drink two beers and write down all the ideas that you and your friends talk about while hanging at the bar. They’re cool ideas, but do they mesh? Form a cohesive whole, the way they did in Blindsight? I’d give a resounding ‘no,’ on that one.
“Truth had never been a priority. If believing a lie kept the genes proliferating, the system would believe that lie with all its heart.”
I realized I was in trouble when I realized how much I disliked the books’ main character, Brük. While I thought at first he might be on a journey of Personal Transformation, it became clear he’s Everyman, a viewpoint to express and argue ideas. Not only does he lack plot agency, he’s also not likable. He dislikes almost everyone he encounters in the story, and those he supposedly ‘likes,’ he often actively antagonizes. He refuses offers of helping hands, yet is wounded when hands are extended to him. He is blatantly, excessively contrarian, hypocritical and oh-so-very human, and is easily the least enjoyable character in the book.
Side characters were actually far more interesting. The intensity of Valerie the vampire had her stealing her scenes. Lianna, ambassador between Hive and ‘baselines,’ actually acts as more of an emotional center and explainer, translating for the reader. There’s very little humor, but some of the few moments come from Sengupta:
“And then, more cheerfully: ‘but if the mission does go pear-shaped, wouldn’t you rather die in your sleep than be wide awake and screaming when you get sucked into space?'”
As always, Watts occasionally hits poetic beauty with his writing, and while it was often self-indulgent, I couldn’t help but admire it.
And the ending. I stuck with it, hoping for a pay-off at least in plot, and perhaps details on The Theseus and the lifeforms from Blindsight. What was most frustrating is that while it was interesting, so much feels unresolved. Because Brük is left out of the discussion and missions, the reader is left with third-hand cluelessness as to plot details. We have to infer events after Brük encounters the fallout.
So, it barely works on plotting. Does it work on a philosophical front? I’d say no. Again, this is the 2 beer school of philosophy, where you sit down and draw upon a decade or two of wide-ranging knowledge in conversation, tugging on various strings and seeing where your ping-pong of ideas takes you. Unlike Blindsight, nothing here feels particularly cohesive, except perhaps some of the discussions about group mind/processing. Mostly it’s scattershot and annoying. While I hold up Blindsight and Starfish as stellar excellent examples of sci-fi done right, I’ll never recommend Echopraxia.
Many, many thanks to Phil, for the bon mots and wise thoughts, Nataliya, for the sympathetic frustration, and for Stephen and David on the sidelines, sympathizing.