Feb 172015

echopraxiaEchopraxia, by Peter Watts

Synopsis: A biologist joins a crew to retrieve a sample of an alien life form, and becomes embroiled in the machinations of competing post-human intelligences.

Book Review: The novel follows a baseline (non-upgraded) human, in a world that contains post-human intelligence (groups of humans that have self-modified and networked their brains, as well as a new species of human with vastly superior cognitive abilities). The first half of the book seemed to go extremely slowly. Not because things weren’t happening – there was a lot of action. But the protagonist’s actions didn’t seem to affect anything. They didn’t drive the story forward. It was slow even though the plot and pacing were fast. If you keep reading, you eventually realize why this is.

Because the post-humans in this novel are the equivalents of Lovecraft’s Gods.

Lovecraft is very popular nowadays, especially among people who’ve never read him. Cthulhu has huge name recognition, yet most people know him as a gothed-up Godzilla. Maybe that’s because if you do read Lovecraft now, he’s not that scary anymore. But you can still get the idea of what he was going for. Various sources (as well as my reading) postulate that the essence of Lovecraft is to make humanity brutally insignificant, through the use of opponents so powerful they can’t be opposed, and so alien they are incomprehensible. It doesn’t work in Lovecraft’s writings that well (anymore) because the unknown areas he was exploiting are less unknown now. We’ve been off this planet a few times, space is less mysterious. The deep ocean isn’t as murky. Psychic powers have been shown to not be real. Etc.

It’s been said that a good translator doesn’t translate a work directly on a line-by-line basis. A good translator writes the book that the author would have written if the author spoke the language natively.

This is the book HP Lovecraft would write if he was writing today.

The reason the protagonists actions don’t seem to affect anything is because he is a pawn, and the real players are post-humans. Every action he is contemplating has already been taken into account and incorporated. His decisions are as determined and integral to the real player’s strategy as the falling of a domino, and he has as much ability to alter his fate as that critical domino piece. But it is impossible for him to really know that, he can only determine it after the fact when it looks like everything he did appears to have been exactly what was planned for. So he has to keep believing that he can affect his own life, that his decisions are his to make, as an article of faith. Because maybe they really DIDN’T foresee the next thing he’s doing! The book is a relentless, non-stop campaign of seeing that faith crushed again and again and again. At every turn humanity is utterly powerless, their efforts are futility. Greater forces are now the true players. It is a bleak hellscape of hopelessness.

What’s worse is that we can’t even comprehend what the post-human minds are up to. We are literally incapable of grasping it all, which is why it is never explained. You can catch some hints of the plot of the book if you look hard, but always only in retrospect, and it never fully makes sense. The only way to write a story of a post-human conflict for human readers is to leave them as lost and confounded as the protagonist, because any plot a human could understand wouldn’t be post-human, would it?

And the mood of the writing constantly reinforces the murkiness. Not only are all the sets stark, and too dim or too bright, and rotating, and off-kilter; not only are all the ambient sounds clicking and scratching and buzzing; not only is everyone always holding something back and slightly out of touch… oh no. Watts even goes so far as to make the world require a lot of cognitive effort to understand. He doesn’t say something like “They crashed into an aircraft carrier,” and then proceeds to describe the crashing. He will describe the sensation of being thrown about, and screeching metal sounds, and then take you outside and describe the metal surfaces you are viewing, without ever saying the words “crashed” or “aircraft carrier”, so you have to figure that out for yourself. I don’t know if that was intentional, but it is fatiguing and it makes the world harder to understand, so reinforces the theme of “you are too small to grasp this”.

The isolation in this book doesn’t come from something quaint like being far away from people. It comes from humans slowly enfolding themselves in their own private groups and sub-groups more and more, wrapping themselves up in technological filter bubbles, until all that’s left is themselves. The insanity doesn’t come from looking at something eldritch, it comes from deliberate psychological and physical manipulation spread over a long period to drive you to a desired mental state that is not your own. And the horror of corruption isn’t just something ugly growing in your body, it is the twisting of your own mental processes until gradually you are no longer you… and you know it, but can’t stop it.

This is a horror novel, IMHO. I generally don’t find horror scary. This scared the living shit out of me. For the couple weeks I was reading it my IRL mood took a very dark turn, my life was unpleasant, and things sucked. This is a powerful and amazing book, and it should come with a memetic warning. If you can weather a temporary mood disruption, read this book. If this is not a good time in your life, or you’re worried about downward spiral effects, avoid it like the plague.

This is easily my favorite book of the past year, and I will not forget it for a long time.

Highly Recommended, given the previous warning.


Book Club Review: It feels like Watts is writing to a very specific audience. Readers of SF Horror who are familiar with the transhumanist scene and are somewhat smarter than me. And he doesn’t care if anyone not in that audience understands a single word of what he’s saying. I admire this, but it also makes the book less appealing to a wider audience.

If you can get to the message of the book, you have a lot to talk about. How should we proceed as we inevitably start leveling-up humans? Is it worth pursuing, given the costs? Is it, when you get down to it, basically a new form of genocide?

We got hung up on “What is the plot? Can we figure it out? Can we fill in the holes in our knowledge?” IMHO the answer is “Maybe a little, but not to a degree that matters, and look that’s really not what we should be focusing on. The whole point was that it’s incomprehensible. Let’s focus on the message Watts is pushing.” But the temptation was too great. The discussion was not as satisfying as it could/should have been, nor as in-depth. I’m not sure if this can be blamed on the writing style of the book, but it’s possible. If the emotion of a piece is so strong that it drowns out the message, that’s a flaw.

Still, we had things to talk about, it certainly wasn’t a boring evening, and the novel is great. Give everyone the memetic warning beforehand, ask if they want to expose themselves to a temporary vector of despair like this. If everyone consents – Recommended.

  3 Responses to “SF/F Review – Echopraxia”

  1. That was an excellent review of Watts’ book. Even when he’s not at his best, Watts’ writing is still so damn good and freaky. I never thought of the Lovecraft parallels, but I like that approach.

  2. Very good review. I especially agree on the Lovecraft angle. Seems to me that if today you want to experience something ‘lovecraftian’, you’re better served staying away from tentacles, forsaken towns and necronomicons, and rather seek the spiritual heirs of the man from Providence. I see Watts as one of the most important heirs. All the essence of Lovecraft is present, without the exhausted eldritchery. The uncaring cosmos moves along from simply being that dark inhospitable place among the stars, to a frightening inhospitable mathematical universe which not only itself may not be what we perceive it to be, but also implies we’re not what we think we are.
    But I have to say, as far as impacting my mood, Blindsight did a better job. I think I wasn’t in a good emotional place while reading Echopraxia, but that resulted in me not being able to fully immerse myself in it and enjoy it. Also I may have been trying too hard to extract meaning from each single sentence. Blindsight, on the other hand, had such an impact on me that at first, while reading it and immediately after finishing it, I hated it. I didn’t hated the style, I hated the ideas, they seemed abhorrent in some way, self awareness being a detrimental bug in the system felt offensive. Then, after weeks of thinking about it I came to the conclusion it was one of my favorite books. That had never happened to me before, going from hating to loving a book.
    Maybe I was yearning for a similar experience with Echopraxia, and while I also loved this one, and also felt deeply uncomfortable with some of the ideas (the passing comment about personal responsibility being seen as a quaint throwback due to the knowledge that free will is an illusion, for instance, if the perfect hint for how uncanny this future is), I felt not properly moved. More moved and fascinated than by most other books, but not enough for a Watts book.
    I was also miffed by the fact I didn’t quite get the god angle, if the books was either talking about two different ‘gods’, one being Portia (or Portia being a sort of avatar of this minor god), and another, bigger one, being the one we should be even more afraid of, the mathematical virus god. The narration seemed to hint at Portia being a manifestation of the virus god, or that the bicams at least saw her that way, but when considering Blindsight, even if after Echopraxia one must not take Blidsight at face value, it seems Portia/Rorschach are but inhabitants of this universe which the virus god plays with… or was the bicams interest in Portia due to their attempt to determine what kind of inhabitant is more favored by the virus god? Were Portia’s impossible abilities, or her nature, a sign that the virus god was indeed, well, a virus, a toxic equation? That’s the stuff I’m still unable to figure out. But like you say, maybe we’re not supposed to get it, after all the bicams thinking is utterly in-human.
    Welp, I have to re-read Echopraxia as soon as possible.
    PS Please forgive my bad grammar, English is not my native language… which of course made thinks worst when trying to figure out this book.

    • Your English is very good, I would not have guessed you aren’t a native speaker! I hear that Watts is going to be writing another book in this series, and I also hope that he goes further into the virus god rabbit-hole, although I am starting to worry about not being able to comprehend much of anything if this keeps going deeper. Watts did an AMA on Echopraxia not too long ago… I read some of it, and it was really fascinating, but I stopped after a bit because it felt like cheating. I didn’t want root access to Watts’ motivation, I want to suss it out with my friends by talking about the book. :)

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