Scientist Daniel Brüks is what everyone sneeringly calls a baseline, a human being with so few augments that even the drugs he uses to make himself smarter (drugs required so he can qualify for tenure at his university job) are taken in pill form rather than via the clever synthesizer and pump arrangement all the cool kids use. He accesses the Internet much as we do, looking at displays rather than dumping the information right into his brain.
This outmoded and retro approach to technology gets him branded ‘old school’ by people who really mean technophobic, wimpy, and downright eccentric. But Dan has bigger PR problems than mere Luddism. Some of his research has been used to kill people, and guilt has driven him out to the desert. There he camps, hides, and commits research, sampling the local wildlife to see whether any of them might be baselines in their own right, or if all of their DNA has been overridden by humanity’s various runaway biotech projects.
Dan’s nearest neighbors, if you don’t count undead snakes with mangled genetic code, is a monastery full of people who have used customized cancers to adjust their intellects into super-genius hive minds. No pills for these guys: the Bicamerals, as they’re called, have been making revelatory discoveries, and crediting a process that owes more to speaking in tongues than the scientific method. The brain-tweaking process has left them unable to communicate normally, so they also employ people called jargonauts to translate—and more importantly patent—their discoveries for them.
Daniel doesn’t bug them, and they leave him alone, at least until the day when an army of combat zombies, remote-controlled by a vampire named Valerie, shows up and tries to take them on. Good thing the monks have a tornado to turn against them, right?
Yeah. It’s not necessarily what you’d call a simple story.
If you’re hoping Echopraxia might eventually veer away from Daniel Brüks, or at least take him somewhere near the vicinity of Siri Keeton, the narrator of the previous Peter Watts novel, Blindsight, you should know up front that it’s never going to happen. The two novels take place in the same universe, and there is a tie: Siri Keeton’s father is Jim Moore, whom you may also have met in Watts’s Tor.com story, “The Colonel.” (If you haven’t read it, this can wait. Go on. I’ll be here.)
And, of course, the same universe means it’s got those same terrifying vampires.
When the combat zombies start invading his patch of desert, Dan takes refuge in the monastery. Neither side seems to win in that initial clash. Instead, the Bicamerals and Valerie agree that all they’ve really achieved is to attract the attention of something even bigger and meaner—the government—and maybe they should just flee the scene together.
They take Dan with them, because otherwise—they assure him—whoever sweeps in to clean up will surely interrogate him in a profoundly thorough and unpleasant fashion. So he finds himself aboard a ship called the Crown of Thorns, headed into deep space with Jim Moore, the jargonaut Lianna, scary scary Valerie and everyone else who was at the monastery when the hostilities broke out.
Once the ship is out in space, Daniel is all but superfluous to its ends. He’s not augmented, so he can’t be of much use to anyone. He doesn’t have an assigned task, unless it’s keeping his meat warm for the day when Valerie finds herself wanting tartare. The crew is broken into hostile camps with radically different agendas, and he is all but physically incapable of understanding a tenth of what’s going on around him. Lianna explains what she can, and Jim gives him a few pieces of the puzzle—the portions of the crew who can communicate gossip endlessly about each other, as humans always do—but for all intents and purposes poor Dan might as well put on a fuzzy suit and take up a vocation as the ship’s pet.
This doesn’t stop him from trying to figure out what’s going on, which is one of the admirable things about this character: Dan was happy to wallow in guilt, out in the desert, but ignorance is another thing entirely. Anything he can grasp, he will, and even though he’s outclassed on every intellectual front, he and we begin to see that the Bicamerals and Valerie are in pursuit of something, way out in space, that may not be scientifically distinguishable from your basic omnipotent deity.
It was impressive enough, in Blindsight, to see how Peter Watts went about creating a vampire born of science, complete with a traditional allergy to crucifixes that had nothing to do with religion. Seeing a hard SF author go on a fictional quest for God, though, is another order of magnitude. It’s a gutsy thing. Ambitious. Though Watts is by no means saying we’ve got it wrong with the scientific method, he points out that our faith in science is essentially a form of faith, admittedly one bolstered by its ability to predict how the world will work, given various stimuli.
Watts’s novels blow the mind pretty much on every page, but what I also noticed about this one is that his writing style is getting ever more elastic and beautiful. (I’ve written about this in a revisit to his first book, Starfish.) Every word has been tuned and polished: there’s a perfectionism at work here, a refusal to write a novel that’s merely as good as the last one if something better can be wrung from cutting edge science and the English language. There is some real tour de force writing in this book.
Dan Brüks isn’t the only compelling character in the book, of course. Lianna, who exists to interface the Bicamerals with ordinary humans, goes out of her way to make his ad-hoc imprisonment bearable, and the ship’s pilot is hilariously off-putting and yet oddly lovable. Jim Moore’s quest to find some trace of his missing son will indeed tug at the heartstrings. And Valerie is somehow more unnerving than the ship’s captain, Jukka Sarasti, from Blindsight. Perhaps it’s merely that sense that she’s working against the crew rather than with them, but the utter ruthlessness of her is deliciously hair raising.
To say more about what happens in Echopraxia would be unforgivably spoilery, though so I will leave you with some basic truths: First, it’s terrific. Second, you can read it immediately, whether you’ve read Blindsight or not. Third, just because the book is oddly concerned with the nature of God (though perhaps not the divine, exactly) that hasn’t kept Watts from providing his by-now usual index full of science references to show how the research could possibly support his thinking.
Fifth and last, it’s often good to wrap up a novel like this with a drink. Quite a strong one. It’ll be awhile before you absorb the ideas in Echopraxia, not to mention the outcome of Dan Brüks’ unexpected trip to the void. What he finds there, and passes on to you, is more than a little unsettling.
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travel horror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” the second of a series of stories called The Gales. Both this story and its predecessor, “Among the Silvering Herd,” are prequels to her Tor novel, Child of a Hidden Sea.
If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.