Back in 2006, I found Peter Watts' Blindsight to be a fascinating and thought-provoking book. So when I learned that Echopraxia would be a sort of sequel to Blidsight, I was really looking forward to see where the author would take his story next! The best thing about it was the fact that it was accessible hard science fiction featuring an interesting cast of disparate yet engaging characters. I was hoping that Watts would manage to come up with a similar effort, but sadly it was not to be. Indeed, Echopraxia is hardcore hard scifi, something that mainstream genre readers will have a difficult time getting into.
Here's the blurb:
Prepare for a different kind of singularity in Peter Watts’ Echopraxia, the follow-up to the Hugo-nominated novel Blindsight. It’s the eve of the twenty-second 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 soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it’s all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself. Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat’s-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he’s turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out. Now he’s trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a pilot who hasn’t yet found the man she’s sworn to kill on sight. 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.” Their pilgrimage brings Dan Bruks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.
As was the case with Blindsight, the notes and refrences found at the end of the novel show what sort of extensive research the writing of Echopraxia required. Many claim that Peter Watts is on the cutting edge of science fiction and it's hard to argue the point. Be that as it may, although Blindsight was based on science and contained loads of scientific facts and jargon, the book also tackled enough philosophical issues to make it truly stand out from the other science fiction works out there. Which made Blindsight a demanding but utterly satisfying read. On the other hand, a lot of what goes on in Echopraxia, even after reading the notes and references, was quite beyond me and prevented me from appreciating this one as much as its predecessor. Hence, I fear that this novel truly is for hard science fiction aficionados.
One of the central themes in Blindsight was consciousness. In Echopraxia, once of the main themes would have to be free will. Or the lack of free will, to be exact. But where the ties to the theory of self-awareness were easy to see and follow in Blindsight, there is a lot of confusion involved in the reading of its sequel. I blame myself, not the author. I just didn't have what it takes to understand and appreciate Echopraxia at its just value. Given all the mixed reviews out there, I'm not the only one who experienced that problem.
The pace is decidedly uneven throughout. At times atrociously slow, with episodes during which you have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on. And sometimes things move at a much quicker pace and everything feels rushed. This makes Echopraxia a very hard work to enjoy, as you often feel like you are utterly lost and drifting aimlessly. Like the main protagonist, for the better part of the novel you simply let the story progress ahead of you, hoping for a good payoff down the line. Unfortunately, for mainstream SFF readers like me, that payoff never comes.
In Blidsight, Peter Watts featured a unique cast of characters. And it was the characterization that made it such an enjoyable reading experience. Not so with Echopraxia. Dr Daniel Brüks is far from a likeable protagonist. And the same can be said of the supporting cast. For the most part, Brüks, like the reader, is lost as he is forced to embark on this wild ride. The enigmatic Colonel is the only interesting character of the bunch.
In the end, unless you are already a fan of cutting-edge hard scifi, chances are you'll occasionally find yourself in over your head as you go through Echopraxia. That's how I felt, in any event. The more negative and lukewarm reviews come from readers expecting something as fascinating and entertaining as Blindsight, and I would tend to agree with most of them. Then again, fans of hard science fiction all gave this novel rave reviews. So I guess it's just a question of knowing what you are getting yourself into. The books starts strong and finishes strong. But the middle part of the book can be extremely confusing at times.