Echopraxia (Firefall 02) by Peter Watts

Echopraxia: meaningless repetition or imitation of the movements of others as a symptom of psychiatric disorder.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

It’s the eve of the twenty-second century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it’s all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.

Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat’s-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he’s turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out.

Now he’s trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a pilot who hasn’t yet found the man she’s sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call “The Angels of the Asteroids.”

My impressions:

It was a book equally complex and convoluted like the first part, Blindsight, but also somehow less impressive. It mentioned a lot of ideas about religion, consciousness, the mind, awareness and free will and still it left me strangely cold in the end. Let me explain why I felt that way.

The premise was very similar, you would want to say recycled, to the first part: a man was being forced to undergo an epic journey – take that term in its widest possible meaning. In the first part it was Siri Keeton; now you get to meet his dad, Jim Moore, who tries to help a poor, obsolete biologist, Daniel Brüks, to survive as a non mission-critical crew member (a.k.a roach) of The Crown of Thorns, a  top-notch spaceship which has to discover what happened to Theseus Siri’s ship.

After all Dan got involved by accident and it wasn’t his fault, was it? Overall free will seems to be the main theme of the narrative. You see characters manipulated by hidden forces into taking strange decisions while they think they are deciding on their own. You witness a powerful vampire, Valerie, playing with other crew members like a cat with mice. You wonder what is happening with the humans, a species so successful but also so disastrously stupid at times. So why I wasn’t so terribly impressed anymore?

I grant it: after penning a truly brilliant first part it’s hard to meet exorbitant expectations of your readers. If I had to say why I consider this part worse, I would say mainly because Echopraxia swung egregiously toward a heavy reliance on technical tropes while leaving plot and character far behind. While machines might be interesting, those are humans who I would like to follow around and befriend. Still I couldn’t.

Biologist Daniel Brüks, Echopraxia’s protagonist, felt a bit too flat to be called a really interesting and believable character. Brüks as an intellectual “baseline” (i.e. an unaugmented human amongst transhuman companions)––a loner and natural skeptic who mourns his wife – often sounded a bit like a machine. His defining feature is bemusement as he is swept into an extraterrestrial conflict he neither understands nor cares much about. Brüks is accompanied by a host of characters who are about as dull as he is (with the possible exception of military strategist Jim Moore, kept in the background for too long). The origins of their motivations, goals and conflicts are unclear at the outset and arguably even less clear at the novel’s conclusion. If such a trick was deliberate then I am not sure what its aim was; if it was an accident then an editor should have intervened.

Final verdict:

A faith-based hard sci-fi position which I felt was a bit too dry, too focused on technology and not enough on psychology. Points for effort but I liked the first part better. Would I give any possible continuation a sporting chance? Maybe.

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10 Responses to Echopraxia (Firefall 02) by Peter Watts

  1. blodeuedd says:

    Dry? Ugh, no thanks

  2. Melfka says:

    I wonder if the topic he chose (faith, versus the previous one: contact with alien lifeform) caused the book to come across as less brilliant.
    Having said that, it makes me wonder what you’d think of his “Starfish” (I heard many people didn’t like it because of the characters being society’s outcasts), but I really liked it.
    By the way, check you email when you have a chance. 😉

    • I’ll check it at the nearest convenience :).
      Yes, the topic was more ambitious but still it felt as if the author was employing simply the same scenario.
      The Starfish didn’t bother me so much as the lack of relatable characters and Valerie the Vampire who was just a weak shadow of Jukka, unfortunately, nothing more than a prop.

  3. Carole Rae says:

    This plot sounds kinda familiar….not sure where…..mmmmmmm I could be just crazy (which is basically true).

  4. heidenkind says:

    I’ve had this experience with some favorite sci-fi authors, myself. Oh well! You can’t always hit it out of the park.

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