Review: Echopraxia

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.

5 thoughts on “Review: Echopraxia

  1. But where Egan is clinical and dispassionate, Watts is emotionally a pessimist,

    Someone more pessimistic than Egan? I was reading Permutation City not too long ago, and all of his characters seemed mired in nihilism and ennui. The ideas were interesting, the setting was interesting, the characters all seemed to be a depressive episode away from slitting their wrists. (And given the revelations of the setting, they should know better about the efficacy of *that* :-P )

  2. Actually, now that I remember correctly, one of the main characters *did*. :-P All I could think while reading it was that here you have people who have basically won the universe (okay, not our universe, but *a* universe), who have infinite time and resources on their hands, and can’t get over how miserable they are about it all.

  3. @esr: “This what cyberpunk wanted to be when it grew up, but never quite achieved.”

    The problem is inherent in the “punk” part of the descriptor. Punk *can’t* grow up. It’s a youthful rejection of prevailing adult norms. If it grows up, it’s not punk anymore. Punk does well at rejecting prevailing norms. Creating new ones to replace them is another matter.

    You can find an interesting timeline of cyberpunk at http://efanzines.com/PC-Cyber/A%20Cyberpunk%20Timeline.pdf A lot of what defined cyberpunk was in the fanzine Cheap Truth, published by “Vincent Omniaveritas”, a pseudonym for Bruce Sterling, who rode cyberpunk to a career as a writer and pundit. You can find Cheap Truth here: http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/~erich/cheaptruth/ (all text files)

    The alt.cyberpunk FAQ is still around, but hasn’t been updated since the 90′s, which says a bit right there. See http://project.cyberpunk.ru/idb/alt.cyberpunk_faq.html (It’s a Russian archive. The last official maintainers web version no longer exists.)

    It might be fun to speculate on the influence Cyberpunk had on the broader field of SF, though I suspect it would be similar to speculations about the New Wave of the late 60′s, whose concern was style, with various people being claimed for the movement somewhat to their own surprise. For instance, Roger Zelazny never thought of himself as a New Wave writer, but was held up as one by proponents. His Creatures of Light and Darkness was a literary joke, where he deliberately tossed in every radical writing technique he knew to see what would happen, and was bemused when it was taken seriously and considered a New Wave exemplar.

    People pointed at John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider as proto-cyberpunk. John just laughed and pointed at Fred Pohl/Cyril Kornbluth collaborations of the 50′s as his influences.

    If it fits the definition a zealot proposes for a literary category, it gets included, and never mind what the authors thought they were writing,,,

  4. Thanks for writing these reviews – after your recommendation I read Blindsight and indeed, quite impressive. What else would you recommend that reaches this level apart from Egan? I find it exceedingly difficult to find SF at this level.

  5. >What else would you recommend that reaches this level apart from Egan? I find it exceedingly difficult to find SF at this level.

    That’s because there’s damn little that good. What leaps to mind:

    Neil Stephenson’s Anathem.

    Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief & sequel

    Andy Weir’s The Martian

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