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.

Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie

Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Permuted Press
ASIN: B00DX0F4L4
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

In “Suffer the Children”, DiLouie successfully provides readers with a horrific scenario, the start of civilization’s collapse when all the children in the world drop dead. Then he ups the ante by making the situation get even worse. He does this with writing, with language that is chillingly conveyed without hesitance or sugar-coating. The result is a terrifying ride through a parent’s worst fears realized (creepy and personally moving even for someone without children) and the rapid decay of individuals into monsters, embodying genetic selfishness at its most extreme.

The novel, in this way, is exceptionally powerful horror, built upon a basic human fear tied to our reproduction and sense of family, told at a great pace and keeping fans of the genre entertained. However, a significant criticism lies in the fact that this horrific scenario playing out in the novel seems utterly fabricated. DiLouie spends small sections later in the novel to try and give a rational explanation behind the events. More developed (and modern) than a similar type of attempt in a similar kind of story, “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson, DiLouie makes a similar error of trying to give definition to a horrific event of fantasy (a negative ‘miracle’). The explanation has a reasonable basis, but still fails to explain the facts of the plot, not least of which is the simultaneous death of children en masse within time zones, traveling a morbid constant wave around the globe.

The plot thus feels very artificial, set up precisely by an author to maximize the horror and the worst of humanity that ends up being brought to surface. Similarly, DiLouie employs characters that end up feeling increasingly like puppets. On the one hand this is because the adults become puppets of sorts within the actual plot. But also they begin to act with extreme personalities and defects that simply seemed designed by the author.

If the reader is able to maintain enough suspension of disbelief to ignore or look past the ample set up and card tricks being employed in plot and character within the novel, they will probably love this. If these kinds of details and authorial maneuvers negate or take away from positive aspects of the novel, the reader will be disappointed. There is exceptional horror and deep rooted human fear here, writing that will pull at the heart-strings of emotions. But this can only be enjoyed if you can look past the fabrications that are so clearly in play to produce the effect.

Three Stars out of Five