Daniel Brüks is a human biologist living in an increasingly post-human world. Whereas most people have coped with this by sealing themselves into virtual reality "heavens," Brüks has gone the other direction, taking a sabbatical from teaching to live alone in the desert. He pays little attention to the wider world and its ongoing speculation about the fate of the Theseus, a ship whose mission to make first contact with aliens formed the narrative of Peter Watts's previous novel, Blindsight (2006). The nearest habitation in the desert is a monastery of a reclusive religious group called the Bicameral Order, people who believe in God and speak in tongues. Brüks, a proud atheist, considers them irrational and their beliefs contemptible.
He is therefore dismayed when a series of apparent coincidences results in Brüks taking refuge at the monastery and then boarding the Crown of Thorns, a Bicameral Order spaceship traveling to humanity's Icarus power station to investigate rumors of an alien infiltration there. Also aboard are a handful of variously modified humans and a fugitive "vampire." In Watts's world, vampires are a species of near-humans that preyed on homo sapiens until going extinct a few thousand years ago, recently resurrected by humans hoping to take advantage of their predatory intellects, which are capable of feats far beyond that of a normal human.
Brüks is therefore the only "baseline" human aboard a ship full of various kinds of posthuman. Unlike most depictions of posthumanity, Echopraxia does not simply take the line that modified is better. Watts is a biologist himself and employs an evolutionary perspective. His posthumans have modified themselves (or been modified by evolution, in the case of vampires) to be be better at a particular set of tasks, but the human mind is a sufficiently delicate machine that there are negative side effects to any modification. Vampires have brains that are able to plan and anticipate the actions of others to an unparalleled degree, for example, but they have fatal epileptic fits if a right angle (i.e. a cross) takes up a certain part of their visual field. In a more dramatic tradeoff, the Bicamerals have used insights impossible for ordinary humans to win many Nobel prizes, but they can no longer communicate with the outside world except via interpreters who themselves are neurologically modified into "synthesists" like the protagonist of Blindsight. As a smart baseline human scientist, Brüks is the least intelligent person on the ship, but he doesn't have any crippling disadvantages either. The ship's pilot calls him a "roach," which Brüks takes as an insult only to be told:
"you're also field-tested. We've had millions of years to get things right; some of those folks in the Hold are packing augments that didn't even exist a few months ago. First releases can be buggy, and it takes time for the bugs to shake out—and by then, there's probably another upgrade they can't afford to pass up if they want to stay current. So they suffer—glitches, sometimes. If anything, roach connotes a bit of envy."
Brüks digested that. "Well, if it was supposed to be some kind of compliment, her delivery needs work. You'd think someone with all that brainpwoer would be able to cobble together a few social skills."
"Funy thing"—Moore's voice was expressionless—"Sengupta couldn't figure out how someone with all your interpersonal skills could be so shitty at math." (p. 141)
A typical science fiction novel would take this setup and tell a rousing story where Brüks the baseline human saves the day through his courage and his time-tested general purpose intellect, but readers of other Peter Watts novels will know better. Watts's fiction is too thoughtful and, frankly, too dour to traffic in human exceptionalism. Far from a Heinleinian competent man, Brüks has an inferiority complex and, "interpersonal skills" or not, he proves to be more than a little antisocial. He spends most of the novel feeling scared and helpless, forgetting his anxiety only long enough to get into arguments about faith and reason with the Bicamerals' interpreter and a military officer. Watts is a good writer and the psychological picture he paints feels real, but Brüks is realistically tiresome and unlikable.
There's more to like in the world around the narrator. As in his previous novels, Watts has set out to write very hard science fiction and is willing to prove it in an appendix where he ruefully cops to his small departures from the scientific consensus and provides pages of scholarly citations for everything else. There's nothing here that really departs too far from the genre's present consensus future, but it's still a rare pleasure to see it so carefully and consistently executed. If there's any false note here, it's the vampires. It's one thing for a hive mind to produce super-intelligence, but "Valerie" and her fellow vampires perform cognitive feats that seem impossible in light of the fact that, however they might be wired differently, vampires have brains built on the same basic principles and the same scales as that of a human. To suggest they could be capable of accurately predicting the outcomes of chaotic interactions seems to imply something rather similar to the urban legend that we only "use" 10% of our brains. More likely, Watts simply lets his affection for his evolved vampires override his otherwise highly rigorous approach.
Purists will roll their eyes at Watts's postscript and remind us the text should stand alone without authorial explanation, but the bigger problem is that the afterword is often more interesting than the preceding novel. The section describing in detail what the Bicameral Order did to their minds and why is particularly intriguing, for example, but despite their role in the story very little of it made it into the novel proper. Watts has clearly put a great deal of thought and research into his world, but it doesn't feel as though it has been used to its best effect.
Blindsight speculated that perhaps self-awareness was inefficient, a rough edge that will be sanded away by evolution. Echopraxia tries to take this farther by entertaining the possibility that logical reasoning will also go by the wayside. We are told again and again that Bicamerals use faith and intuition, not science, but we never see their prowess in action. There are a lot of discussions about faith, but not the Bicamerals' faith, it's the faith in the Bicamerals themselves required by their only slightly posthuman followers who must hope that unexplained strange behavior is part of some larger plan:
"even now we can barely keep their interest. Once they tip over that edge . . ." He shrugged. "How long would it take you to decide you had better things to do than talk to a bunch of capuchins?"
"They're not gods," Brüks reminded him softly.
"Better than genuflection." (p. 148)
Watching various characters deny and genuflect makes for a decent dramatization of what humans might experience if the singularity is unevenly distributed, but the idea that science and reason are obsolete can't be validated without getting a better look at the way Bicamerals and vampires think. Unless the reader really buys into their superiority, Brüks's frightened anger seems odd and unreasonable.
Perhaps it's too much to ask. The idea that we can't understand posthumans goes back at least to Vinge's singularity, but whatever its intellectual merits it remains a real problem for authors. Giving us a good look at super-intelligence (like the Culture Minds of Iain M. Banks or more recently the distributed AI protagonist of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice ) tends to make it seem fairly mundane and unimpressive. Watts avoids this by keeping the thoughts of his posthumans carefully out of sight. The Bicamerals jabber and the vampire strikes dramatic poses, but that's pretty much all we get. The posthuman aura remains intact, but their interesting qualities are relegated to the appendix—and with them the main intellectual thrust of Watts's narrative.
It's hard to evaluate Echopraxia without comparing it to its predecessor, Blindsight. It invites these comparisons more than the usual sequel because its plot is so similar: in both, a loner protagonist (who has a family member who abandoned him for VR heaven) is an observer going along with a mission to investigate inscrutable and incredibly dangerous aliens with a crew of neurologically atypical humans and one frightening vampire. Unfortunately, this comparison isn't flattering to Echopraxia. Blindsight's protagonist (and all of its characters) were easy to sympathize with because they had willingly undertaken a dangerous mission on behalf of humanity and the aliens they contacted were fascinating and genuinely alien. Echopraxia has a less sympathetic protagonist, a less interesting crew, and a much smaller part for the still delightful and menacing aliens. It's still a rewarding book for fans of hard science fiction in general and Watts in particular, but unfortunately it feels very much overshadowed by its Hugo-nominated predecessor.