Though far from what one thinks of as typical hard sf, Peter Watts’ 2006 Blindsight was one of the genre’s most cutting edge stories knowledge-wise. The larger societal mindset still trying to catch up to the implications of modern neuroscience, Watts used fresh data to fictionally present many of the roots of human behavior brain research is uncovering. The follow-up novel eight years in the making, 2014’s Echopraxia is, at least, worth the wait. Though lacking a similarly engaging main premise, Watts’ continues with an agenda of hyper-determinism, producing a harsh, challenging look at the mind and its potentials.
Wikipedia defines ‘echophenomena’ as “’automatic imitative actions without explicit awareness,’ or pathological repetitions of external stimuli or activities, actions, sounds, or phrases, indicative of an underlying disorder.” Echopraxia is the ‘action’ portion of the definition. Beyond mere hammer-to-the-knee, it refers to the deep, sub-conscious motivations of human behavior, differing worldviews, and the manner in which people respond to the exigencies of life. These are the areas Watts expands the idea in Echopraxia. From religion to existentialism, the limits of science to pure fear, a broad array of topics are confronted by one man taken on a trip he wished he could have avoided.
Echopraxia is the story of Daniel Brueks, a biologist working in the Oregon wilderness to exterminate species with corrupt DNA. The monastery in the desert below, with its pet tornado, is his entertainment. But when attacked by an unseen, inhuman entity, it proves his only refuge. Meeting monks and soldiers, scientists and laborers within, when the attack shifts to the monastery Brueks quickly finds himself on the Crown of Thorns—a space vessel capable of orbiting the sun at close distance. Things getting further and further out of control, someone, or something, from the solar system is also bent on getting at those inside the vessel. A pawn on a game board of biotechnically advanced rooks, bishops, and knights, Brueks spends every moment thereafter scrambling to stay alive as post-humanity unleashes itself around him.
Echopraxia’s storyline is not linearly, rather laterally connected to Blindsight. (Siri’s story dovetails into Bruek’s toward the conclusion, answering questions regarding the fate of Earth at the end of Blindsight). Watts shifts the tension from a mysterious alien entity to something closer to home: other humans—or at least the various forms humanity has been modified into. Vampires, zombies, bicamerals, biomodified humans—all carry on their strange existences around Brueks as he maneuvers the zero g corridors of the Crown of Thorns trying to get a handle on their alliances, intents, and simply enough, mode of existence. Possessing only a few simple implants, Bruek’s body is veritably Neolithic compared to Valerie the vampire, Cooper the soldier, and Lina the upgraded human. Each type providing Watts a different stage to expound his ideas, the inherent consciousness, behavior, relationships, and neuroscience collectively form the conceptual core of the story.
And expound Watts does. At times feeling like pure rant, and at others like integrated exposition, the unrelenting ultra-realist worldview of Blindsight continues in Echopraxia. (“Truth had never been a priority. If believing a lie had kept the genes proliferating, the system would believe that lie with all its heart” is just a sample quote.) Where the worldview was expressed in Blindsight via characters confronting the unknown, and thus complementing the story, in Echopraxia, there is more straining, more forcing of the underlying ideas into the plot. Not always intrinsic to conversation or stream of thought, there are moments, some chapter openings for example, where the fourth wall becomes visible—not penetrated, but perceptible. For this, Echopraxia lacks the cogency of Blindsight, and can at times feel like a soap box rather than description of a human dealing with the “people” and world around him. Certainly there are moments they work together satisfactorily, the ending well done, for example, but there remain moments wherein a dislocation of agenda and plot is visible.
In the end, Echopraxia carries on the ideas of Blindsight by presenting scenarios wherein people confront the deepest psycho-neurotic aspects of being human. Digging deeper into possible varieties of post-humanity, the neuroscience of zombies, vampires, bicamerals, the uploaded, and the biomodified is presented in comparison to a “normal” human as each come to terms with existence in their own way. Watts writing style still filled with dark satire and cutting commentary, he continues to press the accelerator of determinism to the floor, driving at a point where humanity must face the realities of their physical existence if they are to ever progress. I’m not certain Echopraxia equals Blindsight, but it remains at the bleeding edge of research into the brain and human behavior, and for this is as relevant as can be in hard sci-fi today.