Book Review - Echopraxia
Echopraxia by Peter Watts
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Language: English
ISBN : 978-0765328038


It’s the late 21st century and the world may, or may not, have gone through the Singularity. Or maybe it’s just about to. Or something.

People store themselves away in virtual Heaven, their bodies maintained by machines, while their minds explore every facet of virtual existence they can imagine. Through implants, drugs, and surgery, humans have managed to upgrade their intelligence and spawn new forms of mind. But not necessarily without side-effects. Vampires have been resurrected and walk the Earth once more (they’re actually a superhumanly intelligent offshoot of humanity that preyed on us for thousands of years in between long periods of hibernation. They went extinct when it turned out their intelligence came with a price: looking at right angles puts them into epileptic convulsions and then death. The invention of technological civilization, and its penchant for straight lines, was basically the end of them). Global warming has made parts of the Pacific Northwest into a desert and forced the use of vast geoengineering projects to sequester CO2. And not so very long ago Something took a snapshot of the entire Earth and beamed what it found out into deep space. An expedition was sent out to learn what it could, but hasn’t been heard from since.

In this world of superhumans and conflicting forces, Professor Daniel Bruks finds himself caught up in a conflict (or is it an alliance?) between a rogue vampire and a religious group mind that suppresses higher brain functions so that it can think beyond the bounds of human limitations (and it has the patents to prove it). Flung into orbit by an artificial tornado, pressed into service on a mission to the Icarus Array orbiting the sun, Bruks will learn of wonders and horrors both superhuman and inhuman, possibly just before becoming something more than either.

OA Relevance: Moderate to High

Echopraxia is the sequel to Blindsight, a novel in which Watts first introduces us to his future world and Firefall, a night when millions of falling alien objects ‘took the Earth’s picture’ with a resolution down to one meter and beamed the results into deep space. An expedition was sent out to try and find out what was at the location the message was sent to and ends up encountering strangeness both outside the solar system and within itself.
In Echopraxia, we are shown what has been going on while the expedition has been on its way, specifically in the character of Daniel Bruks. Bruks is determinedly baseline human, but feels constant pressure in his losing battle to compete with augmented peers. In the course of the book we see a number of hard science concepts dealing with the brain and human senses, as well as mysteries of nature and the nervous system. There’s even a technical appendix at the end to provide background information and references for those who want them.
Watts writes a fantastical story that is nevertheless firmly grounded in cutting edge biology and neuroscience. In feels somewhat like the early Interplanetary Age, although with rougher edges, and it’s not clear how much the Solar System has been developed at this point in history.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

The story itself is very well done, but a bit introspective at times. Watts spends a lot of time depicting the mental and emotional life of his main character, but doesn’t really give us much about the other characters (most of whom are barely human, so perhaps understandably) or the world in which they live in. There are brief mentions of things that hint at amazing achievements (the Icarus Array, orbital habitats in cis-Lunar space) and major problems (CO2 build up, desertification), but little in the way of exposition or depiction to really tie it all together into a coherent whole for the reader. This may be at least somewhat intentional since the main character is very much a baseline human (like the audience) and spends a lot of the book trying to figure out what is going on.

Overall Rating:

A mind-stretching read that is intriguing (especially if you have an interest in neurobiology and a future that is anything but the ‘standard sci-fi setting’ or ‘standard cyberpunk’). By the end of it, you may not be sure exactly what is going on. But you’ll have had an interesting journey getting there.

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