Echopraxia and Emergence; or, Haunted by Slime Mold

Yesterday I finished reading Peter Watts’s Echopraxia which, along with his 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 scientifically 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 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).



The Promise of the E-ELT


Great article in the Guardian about a massive telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT, being built in Chile (once they’ve blown the cap off Cerro Armazones). The first thing that got my attention was the description of the existing observatory complex at Paranal:

More than 100 astronomers, engineers and support staff work and live there. A few dozen metres below the telescopes, they have a sports complex with a squash court, an indoor football pitch, and a luxurious 110-room residence that has a central swimming pool and a restaurant serving meals and drinks around the clock.

Sounds swank. I could definitely imagine a satisfying stay there: eat, sleep, exercise, investigate stellar phenomena, repeat.

The second thing that got my attention was this quote from Cambridge University astronomer Professor Gerry Gilmore:

“We can see exoplanets but we cannot study them in detail because – from our distant perspective – they appear so close to their parent stars. However, the magnification which the E-ELT will provide will mean we will be able to look at them directly and clearly. In 15 years, we should have a picture of a planet around another star and that picture could show its surface changing colour just as Earth does as the seasons change – indicating that vegetation exists on that world. We will then have found alien life.”

Uh wow. I did not realize this was on the horizon. I’m certainly hoping it’s not just hyperbole.

In the Outer Dark, the Monster Planet Lurks

Pardon my language, but holy heck! “Intriguingly, the astronomers said that details of the orbits hint at perhaps an unseen planet several times the size of Earth at the solar system’s distant outskirts.”

Others suggest that a rogue planet, ejected from the inner solar system, dragged out the Sednoids as it flew through the Kuiper Belt. Dr. Trujillo and Dr. Sheppard point out that Sedna and 2012 VP113 have similar values for one orbital parameter known as the argument of perhelion, as do several other bodies at the edge of the Kuiper Belt. That could be a sign of the gravitational influence of an unseen planet.

Computer simulations showed that the data could be explained by a planet with a mass five times that of Earth at a distance of 23 billion miles from the sun, too dim to show up in current sky surveys.

Harold F. Levison, a theorist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who models the begining of the solar system, agreed that was a possibility. “I think they’ve convinced me there’s something going on,” he said of Dr. Trujillo and Dr. Sheppard. “But I think it’s too early to say that it’s a planet.”

If there is a planet, that could reopen the debate over the definition of “planet.” Something that far from the sun would be unlikely to have “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit,” as required by the International Astronomical Union’s current definition. That could lead to a confounding situation in which something larger than Earth would be classified a “dwarf planet” like Pluto.

My first thought, considering the mass, was gas giant. But according to New Scientist it’s likely to be “a giant, unseen rocky world, 10 times the mass of Earth”:

…WISE was looking for the tell-tale warmth of gas giants – a rocky “super-Earth”, like the one Sheppard’s team suggest, would be too cold for the telescope to pick up. “This is too faint for WISE,” says Ned Wright, the space telescope’s principal investigator. Even if the planet has a small internal heat source – and absorbs some sunlight, it would still not generate enough heat to register, he adds.

Not sure about the discrepancy between 5x and 10x Earth, because basically I’m a little too freaked out for a close comparison of the articles.


Quote #17

‘”These signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process. The process follows the same form, the same structure. To apprehend it you will follow the signs. All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth — I know I presume — you must look into the technology of these matters. Even into the hearts of certain molecules — it is they after all which dictate temperatures, pressures, rates of flow, costs, profits, the shapes of towers…”

“You must ask two questions. First, what is the real nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control?”

gravitys-rainbow“You think you know, you cling to your beliefs. But sooner or later you will have to let them go…”‘

– The séance-channeled spirit of Walther Rathenau in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Rathenau also alludes to the mysteries of coal-tar chemistry, specifically Perkin’s synthesis of mauveine, used as mauve dye (“…the first new color on Earth, leaping to Earth’s light from its grave miles and aeons below.”) All in all it’s one of my all-time favorite scenes in a novel — a creepy, prophetic little slice of liminal horror that I’ve cracked open to read a hundred times since I first read it twenty-five years ago.

Compiling a Worldwide Genetic Atlas

Just amazing: tracing the genetic legacy of Alexander the Great in Central Asia, among many, many others:

Dr. Myers and his colleagues have detected European ancestry that entered the Tu people of central China between the 11th and 14th centuries; this, they surmise, could be from traders traveling the Silk Road. They find among Northern Italians an insertion of Middle Eastern DNA that occurred between 776 B.C. and A.D. 550, and may represent the Etruscans, a mysterious people said by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus to have emigrated from Lydia in Turkey.

Quote #15

dr.moreau“For that reason I live on the broad free downland…I have withdrawn myself from the confusion of cities and multitudes, and spend my days surrounded by wise books, bright windows, in this life of ours lit by the shining souls of men. I see few strangers, and have but a small household. My days I devote to reading and to experiments in chemistry, and I spend many of the clear nights in the study of astronomy. There is, though I do not know how there is or why there is, a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven. There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope. I hope, or I could not live. And so, in hope and solitude, my story ends.”

– Edward Prendick describing pretty much the perfect existence at the end of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau

Die, Silly Journalistic Convention, Die!

My feelings about Richard Dawkins are conflicted at best — he’s brilliant and The Blind Watchmaker is a fantastic book but he seems to have become kind of an asshole sometime in the last ten or twenty years. However, this article (“Die, Selfish Gene, Die!”) is just silly. Dobbs huffs and puffs trying to force a supposedly counter-intuitive spin onto what is, from my reading, a well-established and not terribly controversial idea: that phenotype depends in large part on the specifics of gene expression rather than simple genetic makeup. And he takes forevvvvvvver to do it, picking a senseless fight with Dawkins in the process in order to create the sort of “contrary to perceived wisdom” narrative that magazine journalists love nowadays.

Ian Tattersall, meanwhile, briskly explains the phenomenon in a page or two of his excellent book Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins:

ian-tattersall-photo_profile_fullIt has long been known that most protein-coding genes act to determine more than one physical characteristic, and that most physical features are determined by several genes. But it was widely assumed that there must have been a general relationship between the number of genes and the complexity of the organism, and the recent discovery that humans, with their billions of cells, have only around 23,000 protein-coding genes — about the same number as a tiny nematode worm with only 1,000 cells — came as quite a shock. What’s more, the protein-coding genes turned out to make up only about two percent of the whole genome, as the totality of the DNA in our cells is called. How could so few genes govern the development of an organism as intricate and complicated as a human being? And what was the rest of the “junk” DNA doing?

The answers to the two questions are closely related. Some ingenious recent investigations have shown both that the effects of a coding gene depend largely on when and how long it is active in development, and that part of the “junk” DNA is significantly involved in switching protein-coding genes on and off during that process. It also turns out that a coding gene’s effects depend on how active it is during the time it’s enabled by those “switch” genes, and that yet other stretches of “regulatory” DNA govern the vigor with which the coding genes are expressed in the development of the tissues. What is more, differences in the expression of the same basic gene may have huge consequences for the phenotype (the observed features of the individual).

Seems pretty straightforward. But hey, take that, Dawkins!

Tattersall’s book is excellent, incidentally–it’s a solid summary of the current state of paleoanthropology, and it’s mercifully free of the weird throat-clearing tics so common in popular science writing nowadays (I’m looking at you, Connectome). Plus it has the greatest “oh you caught me in the middle of my work” author photo ever — see above, Tattersall barely stops writing in order to throw a sullen glance the photographer’s way.