„Here, take this milquetoast straight white character, kind of a jerk, keeps talking down to WoC, but he’s just a normal dudebro after all, y’know – and now relate to him! RELATE TO HIM!
Whatdayamean, you can’t?“
Okay, lets give this a proper review.
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 Brüks 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 Brüks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.
Review – ★★★✩✩
Echopraxia is more a sidequel than a sequel to Blindsight. Blindsight blew me away and I feel comfortable in saying that it will very probably end up being my favourite book of the year. Unfortunately, Echopraxia is nowhere near as good as its predecessor – for multiple reasons.
1) Choice of narrator: I felt a certain kinship to Blindsight’s narrator Siri Keeton. I could relate to his difficulties to connect, to his struggling with interpersonal relationships, his misreadings of other people. I saw myself in him – and that’s an extremely rare occurrence. I didn’t expect it to happen again, and it didn’t. To most readers, Siri remained a freak, something inhuman; therefore Watts chose a more standard narrator for Echopraxia: Daniel Brüks, unaugmented baseline human. Brüks is clearly designed to work as a character to relate to, to chaperone readers through the story. He’s also your milquetoast straight white male, an academic and atheist, and more than a bit of a jerk. He spends a big part of the book talking down to a WoC character, trash-talkting her believes and belittling her faith. He’s supposed to be an asshole, a kind of “antihero with a conscience”. But antihero or not, the choice of narrator tells you something about how the author envisions his audience. It’s a vision not including me – or anyone else not fitting the straight white male academic mould. As a result, I felt uninvited, alienated, and quite frequently pissed off.
In a Q&A session, Watts expressed surprise about some readers‘ lack of connection with Brüks. Well, it’s absolutely no surprise to me. Brüks is not only unsympathetic, a person I not only can’t relate to, but wouldn’t even want to know in real life; he also has not agency. There’s not much reason for him – for Brüks, the individual – to be in the book in the first place. To add insult to injury, he also reads like Watts himself didn’t much care for his protagonist. And when the author doesn’t care, why should I?
2) Pacing & prose: Echopraxia starts with what’s supposed to be an action-scene. We get a vampire commanding a zombie army, people spectacularly dying left and right, a hasty flight into space, explosions and whatnot. Unfortunately, this is written in such an obfuscating way that I often couldn’t tell what was actually going on. The author gets completely lost in his similes; but instead of making things clearer, the similes just muddy things further. It’s a textbook case of writing getting in the way of the story. If I can’t picture what’s going on, all action and suspense is lost.
The pacing’s off, too. The story starts with a bang and then just hangs there, with nothing happening. The characters‘ motivations and agencies are kept from the reader till very late in the book. Such mystery can work in favour of a story, upping the suspense. Here, the opposite happened: Instead of thrilled I felt bored to the point of losing all interest to even know the how and why of it. About halfway through, I spoilered myself to see if I should read on. I did and slogging through paid of in the end. Once Portia shows up, things get increasingly more interesting – at fucking last.
3) Themes: Blindsight dealt with the relation between intelligence and consciousness. Echopraxia focuses on the questions of free will versus determinism, and, more importantly, on the nature of God as a virus in a simulated universe (digital physics). I’m not the biggest fan of mixing religion and faith with science, but it can be interesting if done right. But Watts idea of religion is limited to monotheistic believe-systems in the Judeo-Christian tradition, ignoring much older faiths which used to be much more widespread. Western-centrism in action.
He’s also a bit too sure on the topic of free will versus determinism. Not everything is as settled as he might think it is. (Just a day after finishing the book, I read a meta-analysis by the North Carolina State University, showing methodological inconsistencies in neuroscientific studies trying to prove or disprove free will. In short, researchers are biased, and frequently find the results they are expecting to find. Not entirely surprising. Like the NCSU points out, this analysis does in no way mean that something like free will exists. But it puts a question mark behind some of Watts‘ pet studies – Libet, for example).
Despite all its problems, I don’t regret reading Echopraxia. It has a lot of things going for it. Portia, for one. The military zombies seem entirely plausible. And then there’s Colonel Jim Moore. Moore, not Brüks, is the human core of the story: a character showing actual emotion, following a relatable agency. I guess you could easily read his story arc as blatant misery porn; for me, the old Colonel was the emotional anchor, who kept me reading on when I had lost all interest in everything else. I was quite surprised by it, but I genuinely liked him.
So, I struggled with it, but the effort paid of in the end. I found the conclusion quite satisfying, and it leaves a lot of room for a third instalment. It was definitely an experience to read this book side by side with Spinoza’s Ethica (which I „read“ – or, more correctly, tried to read – as background for Samuel R. Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic). Spinoza seems regrettably neglected by today’s henchmen of determinism (although I just saw someone quoting him in the comments to the NCSU study) – maybe he’s too optimistic? Or simply forgotten? Be it as it may, the books complemented each other surprisingly well (or maybe not so surprisingly, if you’re already familiar with Spinoza).