Echopraxia (2014) by Peter Watts

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Set in 2096, some 15 years after the events of Blindsight (2006), Echopraxia paints a bleak picture of humanity on the verge of falling apart from under the pressures of posthumanist experiments. The Blindsight series (2006-2014?) is a multi-layered investigation into the nature and evolutionary purpose of consciousness and logical reasoning.

The story follows retired biologist Daniel Brücks. Brücks has turned his back on society and is now living quietly in the Oregon desert, sampling the local wildlife, hoping that one day he will find an animal whose DNA has not been overridden by biotech pollutants. Brücks is a modern-day Luddite, and even if he wanted to return to academia he wouldn’t be able to get tenure without first undergoing a series of brain augmentations. The story kicks off when he is caught up in a violent conflict between his nearest neighbour in the desert, the Bicameral Order, a vampire on the loose, and the outside human society. Brücks has no idea what is going on, nor is he happy when he wakes up onboard the spaceship, The Crown of Thorns, headed for Icarus, the antimatter fuel station used to power the Theseus expedition. It transpires that as of lately signals have been coming down the antimatter beam, supposedly the same alien signals that led to the Theseus expedition in Blindsight (2006).

Contrary to Blindsight (2006), Echopraxia homes in on the terrestrial alien, Brücks’ fellow crew members so far removed from his own baseline that he struggles to understand them. Not least the Bicamerals who control the mission and make up the largest, albeit largely segregated contingent on the ship. The Bicameral Order is basically a hive-mind construct, a marvel in Planck-scale engineering that involves controlling cancerous cells to create a synaptic super bloom and amping up intuition to facilitate inspiration. The Order’s religious nature stems from the augmentation of part of the brain that is host to rapture, and there is no real distinction between scientific insight and religious revelation at the level at which the Bicams are operating. In the real world the Bicams can barely cross the street unassisted and the they need baseline human helpers to accomplish the simplest of everyday tasks. They also rely on specially trained interpreters to translate their insights into terms that regular scientists can understand. They don’t use normal language to communicate making it impossible for any normal human like Brücks to have a conversation with them.

With the Bicams always ten steps ahead, there is no point even in trying to second-guess what they are up to, and Brücks understands very little of what goes on around him. He can only assume that he is there for a reason. His only lifelines are the few heavily enhanced humans (Trans) also onboard the ship, such as the military officer Jim Moore, not that they are able to wholly comprehend the Bicams’ grand scheme either. It doesn’t help that they all hold him in low regard, nicknaming him ‘the roach’. They do have the courtesy to explain to him that it is not necessarily meant derogatively: in evolutionary terms, roaches are field-tested, optimised for survival. Brücks might be intellectually inferior to his shipmates, but his species’ many iterations mean that he is unlikely to break down. Meanwhile, Valerie the Vampire is threatened by right angles (hence the crucifix) and Bicams are only as good as the latest update. The Trans all begin to confide in Brücks though, maybe because as a roach, it is safe to confide in him, but perhaps also because deep down they nurture a nostalgic longing for the humanness they themselves have lost. 

Even if the concept of singularity isn’t forefronted in the novel, it is clear that Earth is on the verge of spinning out of control, plagued by zombie problems in Pakistan, environmental disasters and agricultural collapse. Art is a thing of the past, from when people had to be manipulated to feel something, now technology generate artistic experiences. Machines do everything. They ask all the questions and design the experiments to answer them. Describing his era as a Post-Anthropocene Explosion, Brücks believes that he is witnessing the end of his species, leaving the question open-ended as to whether the future belongs to run-away AI, vampires, or any of the human subspecies such as the Bicams, the membrains, the multicores, and the Chinese Rooms.

In Blindsight (2006), Watts speculated that self-awareness is a rough edge that will be sanded away by evolution. In Echopraxia he entertains the idea that logical reasoning, rationality, is the evolutionary by-product of controlling one’s environment, not, as is more commonly believed, the pursuing of truth, and thus might be heading for the dustbin as well. The Bicams certainly achieve better results by divine inspiration. In fact, the whole Bicam project, cutting out all evolutionary garbage and replacing it with ‘something else’, is based on the idea that the mind is so rotten with misrepresentations that it has to be damaged before it can make a truly rational decision.