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 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 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).

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Review – Beyond the Rift

The Canadian biologist and SF writer Peter Watts, in the somewhat sour and defensive afterword to his selection of short stories Beyond the Rift, comments ruefully on the terms he finds often applied to his work: dark, paranoid, dystopian. (Sour isn’t there yet although I guess I’ve just added it to the list.) But, as he points out, “There’s wonder here, too: a diaphanous life-form big enough to envelop a star; mermaids soaring through luminous nightscapes on the ocean floor; a misguided Thing whose evolutionary biology redeems Lamarck.”

The best stories in this selection are the ones that give scope to that sense of wonder. When Watts focuses on the near future, or the earthbound, or the topical, his characters are often one-dimensional ciphers; and there’s always an undercurrent of aggrieved resentment, of sour disappointment in how inevitably awful humanity’s behavior will be. beyond-the-riftBut when he gets out into deep space or deep water his stories, paradoxically, get a chance to breathe; taking time with the setting, and the mechanics of surviving in it, he lets his characters out from under his judgement, and once they’re free they consistently surprise the reader and themselves.

So the standouts here are the stories set in space (“The Island” and “Ambassador”) or in the undersea milieu of Watts’s Rifters trilogy (“Home” and his first published story, “A Niche”). I’d previously read the Hugo-winning “The Island,” about a mother-and-son team of wormhole builders who come upon an intelligent Dyson swarm, and found the downbeat ending to be a gratifying, surprising tonic. “The Ambassador” is less expansive but similar in tone, while “A Niche” is an expertly paced and constructed story, with the kind of ending that makes you laugh in delight at how well the author has set it up and how little you saw it coming.

The characters in these four stories are all edgily, uneasily posthuman, brutally bioengineered for the harsh environments they explore. Their existence is more or less a torment to them, sometimes due to neglect of the human sensibility trapped within the engineering and sometimes due simply to past trauma (there’s a substantial amount of past trauma in Watts’s work, often child abuse).

The Things,” meanwhile, possibly the best-known of the stories here, is a retelling of John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing from the alien’s point of view. It’s clever and enjoyable, a thorough exploration of a truly alien mindset. And it does a great job of making the alien sympathetic — but honestly don’t be fooled:

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That is not a life-form you should be rooting for.

Other stories are less effective. Watts, the son of a Baptist minister, doesn’t like Christianity — in the afterword he calls it believing in “an invisible sky fairy who sends you to Space Disneyland when you die,” and the atheist clichés there give you a sense of his not-terribly-nuanced thinking on the subject. So “A Word for Heathens,” and “Hillcrest v. Velikovsky” spend some time on that. There’s a handful of stories that extrapolate modern technology to pretty modest results (“The Eyes of God,” “Mayfly,” “Flesh Made Word,” etc.). A different reader may get more from these ones than I did, as I tend to find this sort of story the most inessential sub-genre in SF.

“Nimbus” is about, uh, angry clouds.

These stories, as well as a few forgettable others, may spring from Watts’s frustration with modern humanity but they don’t play to his strengths. And I suspect he knows this: it’s probably not a coincidence that his novels take place in the same settings as his strongest short stories. So far, of the novels, I’ve only read the truly magnificent Blindsight, but the whilequel/sidequel Echopraxia, due to hit the shelves in August, is already one of my most anticipated reads of 2014; and based on “A Niche” I’m pretty eager to get to his Rifters trilogy.

November Reading Roundup

Pretty productive reading month here. The highlight was discovering the work of Peter Watts: Blindsight, as I mentioned before, is fantastic, and anyone with any interest in the cutting edge of SF should hop to it. I also read his short story “The Island” (pdf available here) — like Blindsight it’s just paragraph after paragraph of ideas skillfully, thrillingly dramatized. Watts is sometimes called a pessimist because things generally don’t end all that well for his characters, but both Blindsight and “The Island” earn their downbeat endings.

mouthriverbeesI read about half of both Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others and Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees, both from the heroic Small Beer Press. The writing styles are very different. Chiang has an almost naive “non-style,” eschewing any sort of ornament, while Johnson’s style feels like it’s squarely in the mainstream literary world — many of her characters have the ennui and aimless passivity of most everyone in the typical New Yorker story. Both of them are excellent writers, though; especially strong are Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and “Understand,” and Johnson’s title story and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.” Her alien sex story “Spar” is disturbing and batshit crazy in the best way.

No fault of theirs I didn’t read all the stories in either book, incidentally — I usually like to come back to a book of short stories later, so that each story gets its full due and doesn’t start to blend in with the others.

kvanttivarasThe most disappointing read this month was definitely Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. I was interested in this one for the Finnish angle, and I do like SF that limits its setting to our solar system — Rajaniemi’s friend and blurber Charles Stross does a great job of this in Saturn’s Children. And the first few chapters of The Quantum Thief (the ones that secured Rajaniemi a nice three-book deal) have a great, desperate feel with chunky hard SF details: strangelet bombs and induced combat autism and utility fogs and proteomic computers and antimatter engines. You can see why Tor would be excited by those chapters. But the story very quickly devolves into unthrilling reversals of fortune and other painfully recognizable narrative turns — Rajaniemi has obviously internalized Hollywood story beats to a fault. The characters are ultra-thin, tending to fall into various categories of wish fulfillment: they’re pretty much all suave and/or badass and/or fuckable. There’s also a lot — I mean a lot — of this sort of dialogue:

‘I have been thinking.’
‘Really?’
He gives her a reproachful look.
‘I’m allowed to tease you,’ she says. ‘That’s how these things work.’

Pretty meager stuff. The gevulot concept is great, I will say, a sort of ubiquitous, immediately accessible privacy utility used on Mars. It’s quite well portrayed. Also, there’s a certain reveal near the end, regarding the nature of the Oubliette, that is skillfully done. Overall, Rajaniemi has some interesting ideas but the actual form and feel of the novel are just not there yet.

atmomI re-read H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. I say ‘re-read’ but the last time was in my teens when I went on a major Lovecraft kick, tearing through Bantam’s 80’s reissues with the lovely, creepy Michael Whelan covers. I have fond memories of reading these and I still don’t mind Lovecraft’s florid style, though it’s hard to argue with anyone who can’t stand it — it’s there, everywhere, all the time. And boy howdy the guy sure liked his fetid ichor; you can tell because of all the fetor and ichor. Incidentally I also read some short stories by Walter de la Mare this month — “Crewe” and “Missing,” both semi-horror stories where the taleteller tells the narrator more than he intends to — and came upon the following passage in “Missing”:

It was a foul outburst, due in part, I hope, to the heat; in part to the suffocating dehumanizing fœtor which spreads over London when the sun has been pouring down on its bricks and mortar as fiercely as on the bones and sands of some Eastern mud village.

So there was a fair amount of fetor/fœtor sloshing around this month.

Less fetid, but more squalid, was George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I really enjoy Orwell’s second-tier works, but I prefer Coming Up for Air to this one, mostly because the narrator of Coming Up for Air is such a cheerful boob. However if you’re a fan of pre-decimal British money, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is chock full of calculations of how many bob and quid of your bookseller’s assistant wages you can spare on cigarettes and still not die of starvation.

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPAnn Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was a pretty interesting, if uneven, debut SF novel. There’s a strong LeGuin influence, as confirmed by Leckie, particularly the icy setting and gender slippage from The Left Hand of Darkness. Leckie zigs where LeGuin zagged, so to speak, using feminine pronouns as the default where LeGuin used the masculine — though unlike The Left Hand of Darkness where gender is physiologically changeable month to month for the natives of Gethen, the Radch language in Ancillary Justice simply doesn’t differentiate between he and she. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when this one’s translated into Finnish, which also doesn’t differentiate pronoun gender; the slight tension in not knowing a character’s gender off the bat is quite effective, and whenever we find one out later it’s a bit of a thrill. For all I know, though, that thrill died out for Finnish readers long ago.

The first two thirds of Ancillary Justice are well done, with surprisingly assured pace and tone. Particularly strong were the scenes where the sentient ship and its ancillaries (human bodies all with the same consciousness as the ship) are having different conversations with different humans during moments of crisis. Leckie doesn’t line-break in these scenes to indicate the different conversations; she just plows through, and it’s a testament to her skill that just a little extra attention is needed to follow what’s happening, and that the extra effort feels rewarding to the reader.

The last third of the book is still enjoyable, but it’s definitely more careless than what went before, frantic rather than measured. This was somewhat the case with Blindsight as well — it feels like Leckie and Watts each didn’t quite trust their story enough, and so felt that the ending needed to be a drawn-out slew of action-packedness so that the reader would feel like their time spent reading had been worthwhile. Maybe Hollywood has infected us all; someday every film, even romantic comedies and E.M. Forster adaptations, will end with a massive alien attack on New York.

crace-jim-harvest-cover-022613-margI thought at first that Jim Crace’s Harvest, nominated this year for the Man Booker prize, had a trick up its sleeve. One of Crace’s previous novels was set in post-apocalyptic America; and Harvest seemed a bit cagey about its setting, as if it might be only ostensibly set in medieval England and gradually reveal itself to be taking place in the run-down post-oil agrarian future. But, no, my clogs were too clever — even though the year is never mentioned, we’re just in medieval England. In any case, it’s a short, fascinating study of how quickly even the sturdiest community can be corrupted and destroyed, either through commercial interests or sexual jealousy. The narrator, Walter Thirsk, watches as his farming village comes apart due to the influence of several visitors: a surveyor, a dislocated family from another village, the absentee landowner. It’s an earthy read — Crace, through Thirsk, dwells lovingly on the details and routines of farming life.

Like some of the other books I read this month, Harvest goes a little wobbly at the end, with fires and scatterings and rushings to and fro. The threads we’d most like to see tied up are left strewn about; some situations or conflicts needed and deserved more exploration. In this case, it could be seen as a structural choice — things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc., for the story just as for the village. But it almost feels more like absentmindedness, or a not-quite-solid sense of what the story itself demanded. Thankfully no alien invasion, though.

Finally, I finished Introducing Quantum Theory last night. It would be a stretch to say I understood it — actually it would be an outright lie to say I understood it. Who are we kidding? But at this point I’m just trying to get a fuzzy sense of the vocabulary and concepts there in order to lay the base, hopefully, for greater understanding in the future. I’m really in no hurry, right? It’s not like I have to teach a class on it next month or something.

Quote #10

eri“Planets are the abusive parents of evolution. Their very surfaces promote warfare, concentrate resources into dense defensible patches that can be fought over. Gravity forces you to squander energy on vascular systems and skeletal support, stand endless watch against an endless sadistic campaign to squash you flat. Take one wrong step, off a perch too high, and all your pricey architecture shatters in an instant. And even if you beat those odds, cobble together some lumbering armored chassis to withstand the slow crawl onto land— how long before the world draws in some asteroid or comet to crash down from the heavens and reset your clock to zero? Is it any wonder we grew up believing life was a struggle, that zero-sum was God’s own law and the future belonged to those who crushed the competition?

The rules are so different out here. Most of space is tranquil: no diel or seasonal cycles, no ice ages or global tropics, no wild pendulum swings between hot and cold, calm and tempestuous. Life’s precursors abound: on comets, clinging to asteroids, suffusing nebulae a hundred lightyears across. Molecular clouds glow with organic chemistry and life-giving radiation. Their vast dusty wings grow warm with infrared, filter out the hard stuff, give rise to stellar nurseries that only some stunted refugee from the bottom of a gravity well could ever call lethal.”

– Peter Watts, “The Island

My Jetpack and Echopraxia

I’m probably the last person on Earth to find Tom Gauld’s Tumblr You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack but I’m posting it anyway because it’s adorable, man.

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Found it via the illustrations posted in Fata Libelli’s interview with Canadian SF writer/marine biologist Peter Watts. I read Watts’s novel Blindsight this weekend — I’m a little reviewed out so I won’t be writing about it beyond saying that it’s some of the best cutting-edge hard SF I’ve read in a long time, just packed with ideas about consciousness and alien biology. echopraxia-peter-watts-richard-andersonThat makes it sound dry but it’s actually a pretty wrenching read. Watts talks about it a bit in the interview, especially about the almost criminally negligent release by his publisher.

Watts has a “whilequel” (I just made that word up!) of Blindsight coming out in August 2014, Echopraxia, which sounds amazing and sports a magnificent cover from Richard Anderson.

Incidentally, if you’re a fan of John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing, check out Watts’s story “The Things” in Clarkesworld magazine, which presents the alien’s point of view, in other words “why I absorbed those guys and why they should really be thanking me.” The creepy part of it is that the thing makes a pretty convincing case.