jueves, 11 de septiembre de 2014

Echopraxia, by Peter Watts

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)

Review soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Echopraxian Fits by 12 Harmonic Chaos (Spotify, YouTube).

In my opinion, Blindsight is one of the best science fiction novels of the 21st century. It is bold, intelligent, original, thought-provoking... And it is (somehow) based on real science (yeah, even the part about the space vampires). Thus, I was looking forward to Echopraxia from the moment, many months ago, that I knew it was going to be published. I regret to say that, when I finally got to read it, I was quite disappointed.  

The book is, mostly, a sort of Campbellian monomyth but without the enlightenment part. In fact, Daniel Brüks, the main protagonist, involuntarily embarks on a road trip with a motley crew of posthumans including (of course) a vampire, some zombies and a hive-mind of monks. Almost all of them, it goes without saying, are orders of magnitude more intelligent than Brüks and have their own agendas in which he is but a roach (metaphorically and even literally). The problem is that Watts chooses to be so cryptic, that there is a distinct risk of the reader's feeling like a roach too (metaphorically and even literally).  

But my main issue with Echopraxia is that the plot is quite thin, almost inexistent. I had a really hard time finishing the novel because I wasn't able to find anything that piqued my interest. In fact, I stopped reading several times and started (and finished) other books, and returning to Echopraxia always felt more like a chore than a pleasure. No mysteries to unveil, no sense of a story developing or of conflicts that the protagonist needs to (and can) overcome. To put in a nutshell: no real reasons to keep reading.   

It is true that, by the end of the novel, there are some hints that might shed new light on the hows and whys of some events that seemed random at the moment. But by then you would have endured 300+ pages of arbitrary decisions, unfathomable motivations and disjointed scenes. Too expensive a toll, if you ask me.

I understand that all this may very well be an intended effect. The baseline-human protagonist is completely out of his depth and the reader gets to experiment it in his own flesh and brain, so to say. Confusion, disorientation, inadequacy. Both Brüks and the reader feel unable to affect (and, sometimes, even to understand) what is going on because they lack the intelligence that the other characters have. But I can't help thinking that that is not enough to sustain a whole novel and to keep the reader interested. At least, not in my case.

On the positive side, I must say that I found some of the info-dumps and dialog just brilliant, as it is often the case with Watts's work. I especially enjoyed the conflict between scientific and religious beliefs and, of course, the amazing idea of the slow, parallel, distributed thinking of the Portia. That part was almost on par with Blindsight. However, the reflections on free will, allegedly one the main topics of the novel, were not that inspired and, to me, much less interesting than the speculation on consciousness and intelligence of the previous novel. 

Of course, your mileage may vary and the reviews that I've read so for are much more positive than this one, but, much to my dismal, I can't recommend reading Echopraxia. It has some neat ideas, I'll happily concede that, but ideas alone do not make a novel. In my humble opinion, a novella, or even an essay, would have been a much better way to convey them. 

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