Echopraxia – Peter Watts

I think I need to start by quoting the author’s Notes, at the back of the book:

“I aspire to a certain degree of discomfort in my writing, on the principle that if you never risk a face-plant, you never go anywhere new. And if there’s one surefire way to get me out of my comfort zone, it’s the challenge of taking invisible omnipotent sky-fairies seriously enough to incorporate into a hard SF novel. The phrase “faith-based SF” may, in fact, be the ultimate oxymoron – Clarke’s Third notwithstanding – which means that Echopraxia could be my biggest faceplant since βehemoth (especially in the wake of Blindsight, which continues to surprise with all the love it’s garnered over the years). And thanks to the lack of empirical evidence (as of writing, anyway) for the existence of deities, I can’t even fall back on my usual strategy of shielding my central claims behind papers from Nature.”

This face, this is not my happy face.

It’s not that I object to the broadest sweep of his opinions, per se. Well. I kind of do. But I certainly object to his phrasing of them. And the way the opinions lace themselves through the book is… while not exactly objectionable, certainly uncomfortable. And I say this as an atheist. There is “I don’t believe in god(s)” and then there’s “omnipotent sky-fairies”. The distinction is an important one, I feel.

Given that this opinion becomes preeeeetty clear fairly early on in the novel (view-point character is somewhat author-sympathetic), I don’t think we were ever going to be firm friends, this book and I. Which is a shame. I’m trying to balance out my reading with a bit more SF (shut up look I’ll read The Reality Dysfunction eventually), but this is only putting me off. I know you can mix your religion and your space-opera and have it work – The Sparrow is fantastic, for goodness’ sake – and even if you think you can’t or don’t want to, there’s no need to be so… dismissive about it. And I know I can enjoy his writing style, as I really did enjoy reading Blindsight. This one though… the subtle digging at religion all the way through just niggled at me throughout. When I got to the end of the story, it had only got so far as “eh, that was kinda annoying”. And then the author’s note retcons the whole thing into full-blown “ugh, do you have to?” for me.

I’m honestly not sure why this annoys me so much. But it does. And enough to spoil what bits I might otherwise have enjoyed. I’ll try to leave it aside though for the rest of my thoughts, as it doesn’t necessarily have to colour one’s perception of everything else he does. I’m just not going to stop it colouring mine.

As I said, I really did enjoy reading Blindsight (if a fair while ago – possibly in the pre-blog days of yore). Watts has a really pleasing writing style, after about the first five pages spent getting into it. I think I liked it more in Blindsight (but I think for plot-reasons it was overemphasised there… may be misremembering). Echopraxia too demonstrates a really lovely way with words. Just in and of itself, that is an excellent thing and I commend it. It’s sort of… distracted, almost. It adds to the slightly confused feeling (okay, this may just be me) of the enormous info-dump of future-tech you get near-constantly throughout the story, as well as being something of a counterpoint to the speech style of one of the major characters. To me, this puts us even more firmly (as if we needed it) in sympathy with the protagonist, whose speech is much more “normal” than Sengupta’s, and much closer to the narrator’s style. Rakshi Sengupta, however, is a bit different. The world of the book is one where there’s a lot of augmented humans wandering around with superior/different mental capabilities, some constantly plugged into things other than just eyes-and-hands-and-faces reality. Rakshi is one of these. Her manner of speech is thus quite… alien… like she’s not really linked up to the real world outside of her own head. By giving her this really noticeably different style of speech, by making her so markedly different from the “baseline” human protagonist, Watts seems to drive us away from her (and what she stands for) and closer to Daniel Brüks, out hero. He does something similar-but-different with Valerie-the-Vampire – her speech marks her out as separate not just to Brüks but to all of humanity.

I digress. Suffice it to say, Watts does some really cool things with his writing.

That’s kinda where the good things I have to say end…

There’s plenty of stuff Watts does – with the plot, the characterisation, whatever – that I know he’s done carefully and deliberately. You can so tell. But that just… doesn’t work for me. I appreciate the skill of it, and the aim of it, and execution of it. But I don’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it.

The plot definitely, for me, is that. You drift along in confused ignorance with Brüks, and it isn’t really until fairly close to the end that anything really begins to make sense. And I don’t like that. There’s the sudden crescendo of pace and revelation that builds out of nearly nowhere, and then it’s the end of the book and where what why how did that all happen? Like I say, it feels deliberately done, carefully done, but I don’t like it. I suppose this is a niggle I have with a lot of hard SF. Understanding is nice. Can I have some please? In fantasy, that does tend to come fairly easily. It’s not that the concepts are necessarily easier to grasp, I don’t think, and there are definitely confusing ones out there, but I always get a sense with the hard SF that I’m not meant to have a hope in hell of understanding even a third of what’s going on, tech-wise. Magic is comprehensible, if potentially inexplicable. The workings of the non-corporeal sentient AI or whatever? Not so much. But I think Watts exacerbates that ignorance too, keeping us muddled right the way through the book, and I object to that.

I was also never going to get on with the hero. He’s just… objectionable. Irritating. Somehow smug while thinking himself less capable, less clever, less everything than the augmented humans around him. And just not very nice. It’s hard to find anything worth clinging onto about him that lets you care what happens to him. And because we see the rest of the cast through his… somewhat simplistic gaze, they are stripped of their complexity, leaving potential but nothing actual worth holding on to. They just feel… flat. Maybe that was an intentional thing, maybe with all their augments they’re meant to feel less human than humans. But… I want characters. I want people to care about. And I don’t have that, really. There are the ingredients of it – I have reasons to care about them, and really good reasons that Watts has spelled out neatly and that we can all see. But there’s no feeling behind it. I know why I should care. But I still don’t. Not even a little bit. There’s just something flat and cold and clinical about the whole process, and without the… *waves hands inarticulately trying to find a non-pretentious way of phrasing this*… human feeling to latch onto, it just doesn’t work.

And the science/exposition/world-building… well… you know how I said I objected to being kept in ignorance for most of the book? Yeah… not my favourite aspect of the whole thing. The sheer info-dump shock of future-setting at the start is… well it’s convincing. But again, it’s not enjoyable…

I was talking to a friend about reading this book earlier, and he summed it up essentially as:

“Peter Watts books are *good* but not necessarily *fun*”

That’s pretty much it, if I’m honest. I can ramble on and on about it, but what it will essentially come down to is that. He does what he does with skill, but I just didn’t enjoy it.

To some extent, I think this is just a symptom of me not really getting on with dramatic, hard SF, space-opera style novels. But I will contest that it is also this book in particular. So I’m going to persevere, read a few more of this genre before I give it up as a hopeless cause. Yes, one of them will be The Reality Dysfunction. It will. I am determined. But there will be a lot of lighter things, fantasy and non-fiction in between.


The ‘blog has gone a little out of order, just now. I was intending to write about After Dark, Red Queen, and Disavowed before I got to this one (having finished them first) but I finished Echopraxia having had three home-made jam-tarts (containing way too much jam) and rather a lot of caffeine and suddenly I had to TYPE ALL THE THINGS because I had a lot of opinions all of a sudden at 11pm.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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