December 25, 2014

Review: Echopraxia

Echopraxia by Peter Watts

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yes, it's Peter Watts time again. I said I intended to read all of his books; this is the second, and I've begun Starfish. But this review is difficult to write, as hard as Echopraxia was to read. I still don't know what to make of it, I think. At the very least, it will need another slow, close reading to sort it all out. Hopefully, after a while, Watts will make it available as a free download, as he did Blindsight.

(This is rather a novel way to build one's audience, however--write dense, twisty books that practically mandate a purchase, because the reader has to make more than one pass to truly understand them. If s/he ever does. Right now, I have my doubts...)

First impression: This is not so much a direct sequel to Blindsight as it is a parallel one, and a rather meta sequel at that. Siri Keeton, the protagonist/narrator of Blindsight, figures in this book as a distant minor character, as his "story" (actually the previous novel) is gradually retrieved from the communicative transmatter stream by his father. (This leads to a quirky, amusing brain-fart in a couple of places--Watts quoting from his own book, and from a plot perspective, legitimately doing so!) Siri's father, Jim Moore, is in this book, but he's not the protagonist. Daniel Bruks, a "baseline" (non-brain-augmented) field biologist, is.

Echopraxia is as stuffed with hard sf ideas as Blindsight: transhumans, hive minds, free will, determinism, religion, digital physics, God-as-virus, zombies (and the previous iteration of genetically resurrected vampires also plays a prominent role in this book), a "time-sharing cognitive slime mold" named Portia, an artificial tornado/power source called a "vortex engine", pattern recognition, and last but definitely not least, a jaw-dropping ending that left me pounding the wall--but, paradoxically, looking forward to the final book in the series, whenever Watts decides to write it.

(Also: the "notes and references" section at the back of the book is indispensable. I enjoyed it almost as much as the book itself.)

This isn't the stunning gut-punch Blindsight was. It's also not a bad book, even though I only gave it three stars. I liked it, but I liked it a shade less only because it doesn't seem so tightly focused as its predecessor. The plot is more meandering, and lacked a clear destination, at least to me. I couldn't root for Daniel Bruks like I did Siri Keeton; Bruks is just along for the ride and is very much not in charge of his own destiny. (Except right at the end, which upped my sympathy for the poor bugger quite a bit.) Of course, this could also be due to my own deficiencies as a reader, especially when it comes to the depths of physics and neurobiology Watts is plumbing here. For instance, I thought "echopraxia" was such a cool-sounding word, but I had no idea what it meant, so I looked it up. It's the "imitation or repetition of the body movements of another person, sometimes practiced by schizophrenic patients." Never say you're not edumacating me, Peter! ;)

Don't get me wrong--I think Peter Watts is one of the best science-fiction writers I've ever read, and his work is definitely worth your time. You also can't really read this book without having first read Blindsight, and Echopraxia may feel like a letdown as a result. But these books are NOT light, easy reads, and a reader has to approach them with that mindset. Peter Watts is worth the effort, however. How many authors can you say that about?

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