Echopraxia and Emergence; or, Haunted by Slime Mold

Yesterday I finished reading Peter Watts’s Echopraxia which, along with his Tor.com short “The Colonel,” expands the universe of his previous novel Blindsight (technically it’s a “sidequel,” not a sequel, to that novel). Like Blindsight, it’s a pretty great read, telling the story of Daniel Brüks, a baseline-human biologist pulled seemingly by chance into a journey toward the sun with a crew of hive-minders, a vampire, an army colonel, a socially challenged pilot, and a lot of psychological baggage.

A quick nitpick: Watts really overuses italics. He should really trust his own talent and not feel compelled to juice every few lines of dialogue or description with it:

He’s asleep?” Brüks looked back at the ceiling; Moore was spinning more quickly now, head out, legs spread in a V, the strap winding tighter between man and metal. In the next instant he was airborne again.

“Sure.” Lianna’s dreads bobbed gently in the wake of her nod. “What, you stay awake when you exercise? You don’t find it, um, boring?”

Strip out the italics, and that passage — and really every passage with italics in the book, aside from those with vessel names and thought excerpts — will feel more estranging, not less; and estrangement is certainly the goal here.

There are also a few missteps that are surprising from an actual biologist — he includes the line “Valerie waited, patient and empty, less than two meters from his jugular,” when it’s the carotid artery, not the jugular vein, that’s the scarily vulnerable blood vessel in the neck. This is the sort of detail Watts normally thrives on getting right so it’s a surprising flub.

Lastly, Watts misstates the nature of entropy, which always drives me crazy:

Life didn’t throw entropy into reverse — nothing did — but it put on the brakes, even as it spewed chaos out the other end.

Gah! This is the pop-culture misapprehension of entropy at its most flagrant. Taking low-entropy energy and spewing out high-entropy energy is not “putting the brakes” on entropy. It’s entropy! Entropy doing what entropy does! echopraxia-peter-watts-richard-andersonSaying that life is somehow edging around entropy’s strictly policed perimeter is just giving ammo to creationists.

I mention this stuff at the start here because everything else about the novel, from the fantastic Richard Anderson cover to the haunting, perfect, unexpected ending, is dynamite. Watts actually doubles down on his high-risk high-concept Pleistocene vampire conceit (see what I did there? See how annoying it is? God now I can’t stop) with the addition of scientfically created zombies of several flavors, and the result is tremendously unsettling. Watts takes his near-future setting seriously, and he always puts in the thought to figure out a scientifically plausible rationale for even the most outré ideas (and the reading time — the quantity of primary sources he references is always impressive, even when some of it is from the late 21st Century).

He also seems to be putting conscious effort into improving his literary style and his plotting. Some of the stories in Beyond the Rift were awkwardly written, but Blindsight saw a real improvement and Echopraxia has felicitous phrasing and just-right word choices on every page. Watts’s similes are often especially evocative: “Spacesuits hung there like flensed silver skins…” or “The bow of the ship began to topple, slow and majestic as a falling redwood” or:

He soared through an ocean of stars, dimensionless pinpoints: abstract, unchanging, unreal. One of them broke the rules as he watched, a pixel unfolding into higher dimensions like some quantum flower blooming in time-lapse.

This is fine writing. But what really draws readers to a Peter Watts novel is the diamond-hard SF concept work. Echopraxia, like Blindsight, is overflowing with bold speculations — this time about Darwinian competition, and the nature of the universe’s basic substrate, and the definition of intelligence, and spaceship design, and a dozen others tossed off just for the thrill of it, any one of which most SF writers would gladly build a whole novel around.

Watts’s ending this time is heaps stronger than the frenetic action piled up at the end of Blindsight. Here we get an eerie, deceptive détente between two species with no reason to trust each other, followed by another eerie détente between two species with no reason to trust each other, and it’s a powerfully unsettling resolution, fraught with horror.

Stray observations:

  • Looking over my review here, it’s a little unfairly front-loaded with nitpicks, mostly about italics. So I’ll say now, in italics and in boldface as well, this book is a fantastic read.
  • One of the most interesting, and ultimately horrifying, elements of the story is the slime mold-like substance discovered on a vast solar cell station by the crew of the Crown of Thorns (Watts still has a bit of a hang-up about religion, though the polemics are a bit more subtle here than in Beyond the Rift). As I said, I finished Echopraxia yesterday; today I started Steven Johnson’s book Emergence, a pop-sci exploration of the nature of emergent systems, and the introduction is all about slime molds. Watts gets into some emergence theory in his novel — the neurons not understanding the brain, that sort of thing — and it makes me wonder if he’s read Johnson’s book, which was published in 2001.
  • I mentioned that Richard Anderson’s cover is terrific, but so is the cover image for “The Colonel” at Tor.com. I really dig Anderson’s elusively sketchy illustration style.
  • Watts took part in a really enlightening Q&A over at Reddit’s SF Book Club, specifically about Echopraxia. Worth checking out, he seems like a gracious and funny guy.
  • Based on the description of the vampire Valerie, I feel pretty certain this Helmut Newton photo of Sigourney Weaver circa Alien 3 is a dead ringer (pun intended).

weaver-newton

What I’m Reading – Sept 9

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here’s what I’m reading this month:

My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard — or as my wife calls it, My Snuggle. I finished this last night and found the exploration of one man’s life, in all its excruciating minutiae, utterly gripping. Knausgaard goes against a whole slew of writing conventions, describing in paragraphs what most writers would gloss over in a clause and shooting off on tangents that go on for pages. It’s a studied artlessness, with often-mundane writing about mundane experiences that nevertheless illuminates a life from the inside. Joshua Rothman, writing in The New Yorker, puts it well:

I don’t think Knausgaard is working up to some big philosophy of life, at least not consciously. Instead, he’s amplifying his life, playing it as loud as he can, trying to get inside it — and letting its vibrations get inside of him. The struggle doesn’t “mean” anything, but it is something: not a tune, but a frequency, uniquely his. Perhaps we each have our own.

Book 1 (there are six volumes, though so far only the first three have been translated into English) focuses mostly on his adolescence for the first half, and the death of his father for the second half. Knausgaard, born in 1968, is only two years older than me, so a lot of our cultural touchstones are the same despite the fact that he grew up in Norway and I grew up in Northern California. Very interesting stuff — I’m sure I’ll get to the second book in the next year.

Post Office is my first Bukowski. I’m not really a nostalgie de la boue sort, but I got it into my head to read him for some reason. I’m about halfway through — it’s pretty funny in spots, but there’s nothing transformative here for me and I probably won’t seek out his other work.

I’m hoping to get more out of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. This will be my first Sebald, despite several friends’ encouragement over the years. I have a soft spot for books about eastern England (I’d still like to give Graham Swift’s Waterland a re-read some day) and a soft spot for books named after astronomical phenomena, so…what could go wrong?

I’m pretty excited to read Authority, the second book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. Annihilation, the first book, was unsettling in all the right ways. The intriguing premise felt grounded in the real world, despite the overwhelming, otherworldly horror, by the portrayal of the damaged protagonist and the close attention to the details of the Florida setting. Really just a masterfully controlled novel.

The Damned United will be my second attempt at a David Peace novel. I tried Nineteen Seventy-Four a few years ago but found it just too bleak and nihilistic despite Peace’s evident literary ability. Although crime novels aren’t usually something I seek out, I was attracted by the grubbiness of northern England in the ’70s — all that rain and tacky outerwear! But ultimately the disregard for human dignity, the casual brutality the author displayed for the characters and the characters displayed for each other, defeated me. I’m hoping the soccer football angle of this one will make it funnier, though still in a grim way. If I dig it I’ll definitely put his book about the 80s miner strike, GB84, on my list as well.

Quote #20

jacobs-room“Old Professor Huxtable, performing with the method of a clock his change of dress, let himself down into his chair; filled his pipe; chose his paper; crossed his feet; and extracted his glasses. The whole flesh of his face then fell into folds as if props were removed. Yet strip a whole seat of an underground railway carriage of its heads and old Huxtable’s head will hold them all. Now, as his eye goes down the print, what a procession tramps through the corridors of his brain, orderly, quick-stepping, and reinforced, as the march goes on, by fresh runnels, till the whole hall, dome, whatever one calls it, is populous with ideas. Such a muster takes place in no other brain.”

- Virginia Woolf, having a bit of a “Dickens moment” in the otherwise quite unDickensian Jacob’s Room

Virginia Woolf and the Undescribed Internal World

Rereading Joshua Rothman’s marvelous New Yorker article about Virginia Woolf, I’m drawn to this paragraph again and again:

Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance—and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.

The whole thing is worth a read but I don’t have much to share about it because I’m keeping that private…

Clarion West 2014 – Holy hell in a fucking flower market

Now that Clarion West is over I’m having trouble knowing what to make of it. I’m still processing it. Certainly it was a huge boost for my writing — I learned tons, and personally felt like the stories I produced the last three weeks were miles better than what I wrote the first two. (Week 3′s story felt weirdly transitional — it’s probably salvageable but it has deep flaws I need to work on in revision.)

Really the whole experience was a hell of a lot more intense, exhausting, and exhilarating than I expected. There were plenty of days when I felt like I was just in a constant explore-my-own-shortcomings loop, often in my writing but even more so just personally — in my character and temperament and disposition, in how I relate to people and how I apprehend them. There were some nights I just felt defeated by myself, by the messes in my head. It’s weirdly unsettling being around people you really admire.

On the other hand I feel like most of the time I provided, at least externally, a stable presence for some other folks who were going through the same peaks and troughs I was. I even sort of adopted a tattoo’d, bepierced Australian daughter, Marlee, who’s a wonderful person, a trusted friend, and a fantastic, inspired writer.

There were in fact a lot of really, really good writers there. I think if I were younger I might have found the skill level of some of them a bit disturbing, but as it was I could admire it without any sort of ill will or jealousy, and just enjoy their work as a reader.

The stories I wrote while I was there were:

  • Week 1 – Periphilia (1300 words)
  • Week 2 – The Iterations (4100 words)
  • Week 3 – Round About the Keel With Faces Pale (4500 words)
  • Week 4 – Worspect Hobbing (2100 words)
  • Week 5 – Harrower (1000 words)
  • Week 6 – What Would Blackshaw Do? (1200 words)

There’s a definite inverted-V shape in the wordcounts there. My week 4 story was a breeze to write, but after that I found that I just couldn’t get myself to do the work of constructing characters for a 4k-5k length piece. As I was writing a conventionally structured Week 5 story, I realized at 10pm of the night before it was due that I just couldn’t do it. I had too much head-weather aside from the effort of writing careful characterizations, evocatively described settings, etc. So I scrapped it and wrote it in the style of Beowulf over the course of three or four hours, and I was pretty happy with the results. (The title of this post is a quote from it — gotta get that alliteration into your Anglo-Saxon epic any way you can…) My fellow student Shannon (super-talented) said “When you don’t give a fuck you produce stuff like this,” which is pretty apt. I think she meant it in a positive way…

I came out of the whole experience reinvested in writing — not just in novels, which is what I’ve always been working on, but in short stories as well.

Some other stuff:

  • I quit coffee while I was there. It was combining with the rich food (we had a chef making lunch and dinner for us Monday through Thursday so, uh, poor us) to murder my stomach, and not slowly either. So I whittled my intake down day by day until I eventually gave it up altogether. I feel really good now and have no plans to go back to it. I did take up rum-and-cokes while I was there, but I’m now giving those a wide berth as well.
  • It was the first month I didn’t read a book cover-to-cover since at least 1987. In other words, I’ve read at least one book a month since at least seven of my classmates were born. Yikes, man.
  • The instructors were uniformly great. Paul Park got replaced at the last minute by James Patrick Kelly because Paul’s eye was going to explode, and Jim did a great job jumping in and helping us through the inevitably weird first week. Kij Johnson is crazy awesome in pretty much every way, Ian MacDonald is an avuncular shaman, Hiromi Goto is a sure-eyed diagnostician and a joy to be around, Charlie Jane Anders is full of good ideas, and John Crowley is a great guy to talk books with as well as being a master teacher.
  • My classmate Curtis signed with a literary agent while he was there. Congrats, Curtis!
  • We played some fun games I’d never played before: Cards Against Humanity, Fiasco, Dixit, the Things, telephone pictionary. If you get a chance to play The Things with Jim Kelly, by all means do so. But don’t play with Alison – she has a lot of great qualities, including being a super-talented writer and artist, but screaming when she’s tapped to become a Thing is not one of them.
  • I was luckier than a lot of folks in that I could see my family pretty regularly, since I live here in Seattle. My wife came to most of the parties, and my son even came to a few. I also spent a few nights out of the Clarion West house with them, which helped me to keep a steady heart when I really needed it. In the words of Bruce Wayne:

luckyoldman

Clarion West on Dagobah

Clarion West starts on Sunday; today I start picking folks up at the airport. Right now I feel pretty relaxed about the whole thing but I suspect that’s like Luke at the start of his Jedi training.

This blog will probably be pretty quiet from now through July. I suspect that, at six weeks, the workshop is longer than Luke’s training period on Dagobah, considering that, while he’s there, Han and Leia just fly around amid the asteroids for a day or two before going to Bespin (though granted without hyperdrive, somehow) and hanging out there long enough to wonder where Threepio got off to. I’m guessing that whole part of The Empire Strikes Back adds up to…a month? Maybe?

“Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily.”

I read “Who Goes There?” for the first time this morning, the novella by the infamous John W. Campbell (writing as Don A. Stuart) that served as the basis for The Thing From Another World and The Thing and The Thing and “The Things” but is unrelated to The Thing. It’s a quick and fun read but man, those adverbs:

The huge blow-torch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue. The Thing on the floor shrieked, flailed out blindly with tentacles that writhed and withered in the bubbling wrath of the blow-torch. It crawled and turned on the floor, it shrieked and hobbled madly, but always McReady held the blow-torch on the face, the dead eyes burbling and bubbling uselessly. Frantically the Thing crawled and howled.

I’m just going to repeat those first three sentences because I want you to try and really imagine what the hell’s going on there:

The huge blow-torch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue.

And the writhing and the withering and the wrath! Great stuff.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 83 other followers