Echopraxia, by Peter Watts

Echopraxia, by Peter Watts
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 076532802X
384 pages, hardcover
Published: 26th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

An anticipated sequel to his 2006 hard science fiction novel Blindsight, Echopraxia exists in the same ‘universe’ but can easily be read on its own as the two novels do not directly share any characters and the plots of each are self-contained. While largely disconnected by story or character, these sister novels do share style and theme, so that those who have read Blindsight can reasonably expect to find a similar work here.
 
Each novel is staggeringly intelligent, dense with science, technology, philosophy, and speculation. The major theme of Blindsight is speculation on the evolution of consciousness and intelligence. In Echopraxia these themes are revisited, but they are expanded upon into new arenas, not merely rehashed. I personally found the first novel both infuriating and wondrous. Much of how I responded to it held true for my reaction to Watt’s latest.
 
However, I began Echopraxia actually relieved and hopeful, for in addition to its heady, hard SF mastery, it appeared to not be avoiding actual action. The novel opens with Daniel Bruks, a field-biologist who has fled into exile into a remote wilderness. Bruks has fled from a humanity that is becoming decreasingly biological in favor of technology and computation, and he has fled a horrific violence for which he unwittingly served as pawn.
 
A sudden attack on an isolated desert monastery near Bruks pulls him into their conflict with other factions of Earth’s growing post-human society and leads Bruks, along with some other visitors to the monastery, on the monk’s journey to discover a truth of the divine at the center of the solar system.
 
The opening action of the novel sets the stage for the actual bulk of the book, which similar to Blindsight, skips action for the play of ‘big ideas’ between characters, the relatively familiar/normal Bruks and the more foreign post-humans (which include zombies and the vampires already familiar to readers of Blindsight that Watts has so fabulously rendered plausible in a hard SF setting.)
 
As Blindsight contained the very basic SF trope of first contact as a basis for its deep investigation into those themes of consciousness/intelligence, Echopraxia‘s plot at its simplest level bears familiarity to the much maligned Star Trek V to delve more seriously into the concept of the divine and of faith and science in understanding/predicting the universe. I personally find myself drawn to these themes, and for that reason (in addition to some more moments of entertaining action) I ended up appreciating this novel to its predecessor.
 
The heavy nature of the ideas in Echopraxia make it a novel that really requires rereading to sufficiently grasp, and it is the type of novel that makes you want to talk to other people about, at least in terms of those themes/ideas. Thus, as with Blindsight and much of hard SF, the ideas here trump the actual fiction. Over some drinks you’ll want to talk about the science and the speculation on matters religious and biological and physical. You won’t want to talk about the characters much or what happened in the story because those details are all relatively throwaway.
 
As fascinating and as intellectually stimulating as Echopraxia is, its entertainment never goes beyond academic. So filled with post-human characters and events the very human reader finds very little to emotionally connect with, leaving the novel feel rather hollow outside of the ‘hard SF/technology’ department. This novel is going to be loved by people who appreciate a secular and actual scientific take on the concept of divinity and who aren’t uncomfortable with emphasis on speculative, sometimes disturbing, scientific content above more traditional aspects of story. While not my favorite kind of SF, this is well done.
 
Four Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from Tor Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett
Publisher: Corvus Books
ASIN: B006G0VGEM
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2012
Source: NetGalley

While the ideas behind this novel aren’t particularly new, it is a rather unique take on the scifi story of colonizing another planet. In the case here, the science fiction events of leaving Earth, crossing interstellar space, and landing on an alien planet all take place in the past. The setting here is roughly two generations in the future, where the inbred and increasingly crowded population that arose from a single woman and single man thrive in relative ignorance of what it is to be human, and what exactly life on Earth is like.

This colonization did not proceed purposefully, but as an act of rebellion that didn’t go as planned, leaving two people stranded on an alien world and three making a desperate attempt to make it home to Earth, promising to send help. The offspring of those stranded individuals, that Adam and Eve, if you will, live in a hope of ritual and myth that Earth will come for them one day to take them to their true home. But, some of the younger generation begins to question these myths, and more importantly, what the population should do on this alien planet while waiting for an uncertain future.

This plot set up is fascinating, and chapter by chapter I was eager to see where the story would go, despite the fact that it proceeds rather predictably. The story is told through point of view chapters covering a handful of key characters, notably the main protagonist and a young girl who supports him. Written from this point of view of humans who live on an alien planet in deep ignorance and myth, the language of the book works fabulously well. Unfortunately, however, no individual character ends up sounding particularly unique, leaving me flipping back to a chapter’s start to remind myself whose POV I was now following.

Nonetheless, the strength of the novel lies in its general characterization of humanity. “Dark Eden” chronicles the redevelopment of a human civilization in all of its ugliness: a departure from close-knit family hunter gatherers to something with far greater potential and darkness alike. The people here are at the earliest stages of intellectual and technological developments, giving a new freedom to life and a greater sense of the reality in which they live. Yet at the same time this new knowledge and ability creates strife and murder. In this way the novel is indeed a simple retooling of the classic stories of something like Genesis, a repeat of the Garden of Eden for humanity, now on another world in the universe. The characters are all suitably complex and interesting, they seem to have the best intentions for the group as a whole, yet have aspects of selfishness, an ego linked to their brilliance.

Another strength of the novel is in the description of life on this alien world. The biology is intriguing and Beckett uses a language rich in sensory description, particularly onomatopoeia, to bring the reader into this fascinating alien environment where these all-too-familiar humanity finds itself. Despite some flaws, this novel has a lot of excellent characteristics going for it and ultimately I really enjoyed entering this world and watching the story unfold. The ending occurs somewhat arbitrarily, leading one to easily imagine future stories set in this world, a prospect I would welcome if new themes could be explored the way Beckett addresses elements of “the Fall” here.

Though originally I gave this four stars on Goodreads, it has stayed with me since, and its power in that regard makes five stars reasonable.

Five Stars out of Five

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00DTTQBDE
363 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
(Originally Publ. 1990)
Source: NetGalley

The entry for M.K. Wren in the “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” aptly describes this novel as ambitious and eloquent. I was unfamiliar with her work before coming across this ebook reissue, but now I will eagerly pick up the “Phoenix” fantasy trilogy for which she is apparently best-known.

“A Gift Upon the Shore” uses the post-apocalyptic scenario to delve into two unique responses to wide-scale tragedy where civilization has collapsed and individuals are forced to give up or survive. The first response is one of fear and the erection of a rigidly controlling, false worldview based around the worst of Biblical literalism. The second response is one of careful rationality, deciding to preserve what is beautiful about humanity: art, knowledge, and compassion.

The conflicts between these two world-views drives the plot of the novel, related through the first person present point-of-view of protagonist Mary Hope, an elderly teacher living amongst (though philosophically apart from) a small Christian community. The origins of her present conflicts within the community are related through her first person past recollections of the advent of nuclear holocaust, her survival along with friend Rachel in solitude as they turn to preserving Rachel’s library, and their joyous, though ultimately disastrous, encounter with another survivor sent forth from “The Ark” to find potential mates to repopulate the devastated Earth.

The dichotomy between the rationally agnostic (or atheist) Rachel or Mary and the fervently ignorant religion of other characters has led some to criticize the novel as anti-religious or anti-Christian. This is only true, perhaps, if you accept reason and faith as diametrically opposed. Instead, the novel is more aptly described as being a reaction against the anti-intellectual Conservatism that we sadly see all to frequently coming from political and social news. Wren’s target is not Christianity itself, but rather a form of religion that grabs hold of simple, comforting answers or interpretations and holds onto them vehemently in the face of reality, because if they were to acknowledge reality their rigid and weak system would crumble, leaving them exposed to fear and despair. Rather than investing energy to support a dogmatic system of suppression, Wren argues that something more divine (and, I would argue, more religious) is possible, namely focusing on what is beautiful about humanity and about creation.

Wren masterfully uses female characters, something sadly not that common in science fiction. Rachel and Mary are each memorable, finely rendered and realistic characters. However, the other characters are less developed. The major antagonist is dogmatic repression made manifest and many of the rest are simply literal weak-willed followers. This arises from Wren’s separation of the two philosophies: one very liberal humanistic and the other totalitarian and thus unsympathetic and less ‘humane”.

These religious or philosophical points of the book are thus perhaps too overt and not presented as complexly as one would hope. But, the heart of the novel doesn’t lie in simply presenting the conflict between these two opposing ideas, it lies in Wren’s appreciation for life and the world, which the beliefs and behaviors of Rachel and Mary merely echo.

Here is the true gift presented by Wren to the readers of the novel: her descriptions of nature are profoundly beautiful. Numerous passages describing the Oregon coast and its surrounding ecosystems are rendered in hauntingly poetic language. Reading this and thinking of another literary ‘post-apocalyptic’ novel, “The Road”, I can only think how much more evocative and meaningful is “A Gift Upon the Shore”, though admittedly, they are very different kinds of books. This is truly eloquent and ambitious, and though it may not attain the profound heights that it strives for, I would easily recommend it.

Five Stars out of Five