Book Review: Echopraxia (Peter Watts)

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by Peter Watts
Tor Books (August 26, 2014)

Maybe worship. Maybe disinfect. The Bicameral Order’s approach to God is somewhat unusual – but that might be the least unusual thing about this organically linked hive mind. Daniel Brüks, a baseline field biologist, doesn’t feel quite capable of understanding them – or rather it? But he gets caught in a plot that’s much bigger than him and involves the Bicamerals, vampires, zombies and aliens. Sound absurd? If so, I’ll take a guess that Echopraxia is your first encounter with work by Peter Watts. However, it likely won’t be your last once you start reading – at least if you like well-developed, original SF.

Echopraxia is the sequel to Blindsight, Watts’s Hugo-nominated novel published in 2006. It’s not necessary to read Blindsight before reading Echopraxia but I would recommend it. Many of the events and characters in the current novel can be viewed in a different and more illuminating light, and may seem more complex than at first sight without knowledge of Blindsight.

I cannot avoid starting the review with a comparison between those novels: Blindsight hooked me in within the first pages, the first sentences actually, and didn’t even for a moment loose grip afterwards. Where Blindsight started with a perfectly built dark, thick atmosphere, Echopraxia begins with more action, opening up with an exciting prologue that provokes many questions for those who had read Blindsight. It then moves to introduce the main character, Daniel Brüks before shifting to a longer exposition after bringing him together with the Bicamerals and ultimately aboard a ship, Crown of Thorns.

The reader is shown how the Bicams work and meets other crucial characters, but for a while it seemed to me too much like a prolonged introduction, even though there was a lot of good action. However, this feeling dissipated as the voyage of the Crown of Thorns continued on her way through the gravity well to the Icarus Array, a device which powers a significant part of human civilization.

Later, as we get to the Icarus Array, things move faster and are more gripping. We encounter a fascinating entity and witness an event that might be considered first contact since most of humanity hadn’t learned about Theseus‘s discoveries in Blindsight (Theseus is a ship introduced in Blindsight). From that moment on, the pace doesn’t slow down and the questions don’t cease. The more you read on, the more you suspect that in the world in which the characters live, things fall apart, to quote Yeats (also quoted in Echopraxia, for a good reason). But there is a kind of sad beauty in it, as there is in the fight against it. In the end: silent awe.

Nonetheless, Echopraxia didn’t reach Blindsight‘s qualities for me. It is worth mentioning that Blindsight is one of my very favorite SF novels and a hard one for any book to compare with. It would be highly unfair to make this comparison if Echopraxia wasn’t its sequel. However, Echopraxia is also a very different story in many aspects and I expect some readers to like it even more than Blindsight.

Because of its not-exactly-baseline protagonist, Blindsight had a very distinct and enthralling voice. Siri Keeton was an observer, and brilliant at it. Seen through his eyes and filtered through his unique mind, we got to know Theseus‘s bleeding edge crew intimately and from unusual angles. I really cared for each of the characters (yes, even the vampire Sarasti).

I didn’t have such an easy time with Echopraxia‘s characters, viewed primarily from Brüks’s perspective, which might be the reason why the book didn’t hook me in as instantly as Blindsight. Moreover, good old baseline Brüks is somewhat confused about the things happening around him for most of the time, plotted by the opaque Bicameral mind and taken on faith by other characters. As a consequence, the reader can sometimes feel in the dark, too. Brüks is also a rather passive main character at the beginning, which makes perfect sense but might contribute to my difficulty getting drawn into the story. It’s true that Siri Keeton had by the definition of his profession a largely passive role, too, but it didn’t feel like that at all; his unique voice made up for it by orders of magnitude.

Peter Watts showed in his newest novel that “faith-based hard SF” is not an oxymoron and can result in an original, captivating, intricately built story. I’m especially curious how it’s going to be perceived throughout different parts of the world. For someone who isn’t a lifetime atheist from a largely atheistic country, it might have even more strength and deeper nuances than for me. Nevertheless, though it was not as enthralling and mind-blowing for me as Blindsight, I enjoyed Echopraxia very much and certainly had a lot to ponder about after reading it. I can well recommend it to anyone who likes original plots and hard SF full of interesting thoughts.

Other books by Peter Watts:

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Julie Novakova

About Julie Novakova

Julie Novakova was born in 1991 in Prague, the Czech Republic. She works as a writer, journalist and evolutionary biologist. She started publishing in English in 2013 (The Brass City; The Symphony of Ice and Dust). Before that, she had published three novels and about twenty short stories in Czech. She also works as a reviewer, columnist and interviewer mainly for the Czech SF magazine XB-1.