Peter Watts writes complex, dark novels full of intellectual fireworks – disturbing tours-de-force that question our most cherished notions of consciousness, self, free will, and agency. I often disagree with his logic and conclusions, but he plays the game honestly and shows his work – usually with extensive citations to the published literature in half-a-dozen scientific fields.
His new one, Echopraxia, takes up what happened on Earth after the First Contact in Blindsight (2006). I won’t summarize the plot, which is really only an excuse for Watts to do “literature of ideas” at breakneck speed and intensity. The atmosphere is more important – a sort of paranoid neuro-bio-punk in which mind manipulation has become so subtle and ubiquitous that the evidence of the senses is unreliable and every ‘final’ theory about who has done what to whom is subject to sudden and explosive refutation. This what cyberpunk wanted to be when it grew up, but never quite achieved.
Watts has been compared to Greg Egan as a writer of diamond-hard SF, and the comparison is apt. But where Egan is clinical and dispassionate, Watts is emotionally a pessimist, and you have to watch for where this interferes with his logic and causes him to paint a bleaker picture than the facts actually justify. An example in this novel is the minor plot point that by 2093 most human legal systems, having absorbed the anti-free-will arguments of mechanistic physics, have abandoned the notion of individual culpability. Readers of my essay Predictability, Computability, and Free Will are equipped to notice that Watts has skipped some steps and landed on a mistaken inference here. There are other similar problems.
Still, I strongly recommend this book (and the rest of Watts’s work) for anyone who relishes intellectual challenge and an attempt to grapple with big questions in their SF – and what is the genre about, if not for the sort of conceptual breakthrough that can bring? Even when Watts is wrong he is brilliant, and when he is on his game he can break genuinely new conceptual ground. Some of the stuff in this novel about the theological implications of computational models of physics (yes, I said theological implications) is like that.
This is SF at a level above even where the likes of Charles Stross and Hannu Rajaniemi have been playing. I hope Watts gives us a lot more of it.