science fiction and fantasy book reviewsEchopraxia by Peter Watts science fiction book reviewsEchopraxia by Peter Watts

I was extremely impressed by Peter WattsBlindsight (2006), a diamond-hard sci-fi novel about first contact, AIs, evolutionary biology, genetically-engineered vampires, sentience vs intelligence, and virtual reality. It is an intense experience, relentless in its demands on the reader, but makes you think very hard about whether humanity’s sentience (as we understand it) is really as great as we generally think it is.

The short answer, according to Watts, is no. It’s an evolutionary fluke, was never necessary for survival, and will actually be a hindrance when we encounter more advanced alien species, most of which may have developed high levels of intelligence without wasting any precious brain capacity on sentience, self-awareness, or “navel-gazing.” It’s a very depressing idea, but he drives home his argument with such force that you at least have to acknowledge his points, even if you disagree with them.

So I was pretty excited to pick up Echopraxia (2014), thinking it would continue the story of Theseus crew member Siri Keaton. Despite the climatic events at the end, the story lacked resolution. It even hinted at events back on Earth that whetted my appetite for more.

Imagine my disappointment as I discovered that Echopraxia does not follow the climactic events of Blindsight, so you will not learn anything about the aftermath of the previous story, which really left a lot unresolved. I can understand that Watts wants to explore in more detail the future he’s created, but it seems willfully contrary to not reveal anything further. If he’s eventually planning a third volume that ties the two previous books together, I can understand it, but I found this very frustrating.

Halfway through the book, I feel as if nothing of interest had happened after the initial action set-piece when an army of zombie soldiers led by a vampire attack a desert religious enclave of ‘Bicamerals.’ Then without much warning, old-school ‘baseline’ biologist Daniel Bruks is whisked into space on the Crown of Thorns. The crew is a mix of  modified humans who are vastly more advanced than him. Essentially, the plot grinds to a halt in space, and neither the characters nor the writing captured my interest the way Blindsight did.

I got through half the book without really caring about the story, gave up and tried a second time to no avail. There are none of the mind-bending discussions of alien biology or consciousness that made Blindsight so good. It’s still very dense, scientific jargon-laden writing, but without the central First Contact plot driving events forward, it’s hard to digest. While I found Synthesist Siri Keaton so bizarre and disturbing in Blindsight, he had a human past that was slowly revealed in flashbacks. In contrast, I didn’t find anything of interest about Daniel Burks.

After deciding to give up on this one, I felt a flood of relief and excitement at the idea of starting a new book. I don’t like DNFs (Did Not Finish), but couldn’t see any benefit in slogging on further. If anything, I would much rather go back and listen to Blindsight again, which was an amazing book all the way through.

Published in 2014. It’s the eve of the 22nd century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans. And it’s all under surveillance by an alien presence. Daniel Bruks is a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational. He’s turned his back on humanity, but awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out. He’s trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call The Angels of the Asteroids.