The idea that physics itself might be inconsistent? Even if you considered the possibility in your wildest dreams, how could you test for it when the scientific method only works in a consistent universe?
– Recommended if you liked Blindsight and want more from that universe
Read if you liked: Blindsight
Echopraxia might be the densest sci-fi novel I have ever read – I can’t recall another book where I spent so much time looking up the definitions of words. The author also assumes you have an very established background across a broad range of scientific disciplines. You’re expected to be familiar with: ATP, baryons, diffraction, and fourier transforms, to name just a few.
As the sequel to Blindsight, Echopraxia is a similar classic hard science fiction novel. The story is set in parallel with the final events of Blindsight, and you definitely need to have read Blindsight before you pick up this one. I think it was a little less coherent than Blindsight and it probably warrants a re-read at some point, just so that I can fully grasp all the intricate details of the many plot threads and ideas.
Where Blindsight focuses almost entirely on the phenomena on consciousness and what its “use” could be in a material world, Echopraxia is a witches brew of ideas stewed together and force fed to the reader through a firehose. Off the top of my head, author touches on: God, faith, free will, consciousness, artificial intelligence, transhumanism, and the ultimate limits of science. It’s a lot to take in and process in a single read.
Personally, I wish the book had been more focused on a single thread, and would have especially liked a deeper exploration of the ideas that science might only be able to take humans so far before we need a different way of understanding the universe. In particular, I loved the idea that science only works if the rules of the universe are consistent because that is both a real limitation of the scientific method and something that I have never heard voiced before.
As far as the plot, the story of Echopraxia concerns the experiences of a baseline That is, completely typical and unmodified human in a world full of hyper intelligent trans-humans, whose motivations you can only barely begin to discern. This also contributes to it being a difficult read, as the author says:
The problem with trying to take on any kind of post-human scenario is that neither you nor I are post-human. It’s a kind of Catch-22: if I describe the best-laid plans of Bicams and vamps in a way we can understand, then they’re obviously not so smart after all because a bunch of lemurs shouldn’t be able to grok Stephen Hawking. On the other hand, if I just throw a Kubrick monolith in your face, lay out a bunch of meaningless events and say Ooooh, you can’t understand because they’re incomprehensible to your puny baseline brain… well, not only is that fundamentally unsatisfying as a story, but it’s an awfully convenient rug I can use to hide pretty much any authorial shortcoming you’d care to name. You’d be right to regard that as the cheat of a lazy writer.
The line I tried to tread was to ensure more than one plausible and internally-consistent explanation for everything the post-humans did (so nobody could accuse me of just making shit up without thinking it through), while at the same time leaving open the question of which of those explanations (if any) were really at play (so the post-humans are still ahead of us). (I left them open in the book, at least; I have my own definite ideas on what went down and why, but I’m loathe to spill those for fear of collapsing the probability wave.) It was a tough balancing act, and I don’t know if I pulled it off.
Echopraxia also had more of a horror feel than Blindsight did. I was strongly reminded of the 1982 film “The Thing", because of the similarities in dealing with an extremely powerful hostile entity as well as the terror of being surrounding by beings that is much, much smarter than you are.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, and it presented me with a lot of new ideas I hadn’t encountered before. I’ll close with my favorite, which was this theory of consciousness:
Consciousness originally evolved for the delightfully mundane purpose of mediating conflicting motor commands to the skeletal muscles. (I have to point out that exactly the same sort of conflict—the impulse to withdraw one’s hand from a painful stimulus, versus the knowledge that you’ll die if you act on that impulse—was exactly how the Bene Gesserit assessed whether Paul Atreides qualified as “Human” during their gom jabbar test in Frank Herbert’s Dune.)