Blindsight and Echopraxia by Peter Watts

The Firefall duology was fantastic, and I needed to write something about it. Unfortunately, the real hook, and the themes, behind these works are so closely interwoven with the progression of the plot that I couldn’t do any real in-depth exploration of what I loved without spoiling the whole experience. Could I just write something spoilerey? Yes, and maybe next time. I’ll get better at writing these with practice. This is just putting words on a page trying to make the feeling of these books last longer. I could never do these justice anyways.

Blindsight and Echopraxia are books about post-human intelligences in conflict with one another. Post-humans are powerful entities who have, through whatever forces of selection that created them, dismissed sentient thought in favour of more capable cognition. Our cast includes:

Ancient vampires, who evolved alongside mankind dozens of millenia ago as our predators, doomed by a genetic glitch resulting from their small population, resurrected from stasis who find themselves perfectly at home in the final years of the 21st century with their immense pattern-matching capabilities and powerful perception

The Bicambrials, a hive mind of genetically modified once-were-humans whose gaze has expanded far beyond the scope of the solar system, making incredible scientific progress without adherence to anything that could be remotely considered the scientific method.

[REDACTED], a torturous, nightmarish [REDACTED] found far beyond the standard limits of the solar system, in orbit around a previously undetected gas giant, which [REDACTED].

Your bog-standard super-intelligent AIs, which have long outgrown the needs of their creators, strange phenomena moving through human societies that act like forces on their own to be directed and controlled, and a few different types of zombies, just to make sure you have all your bases covered.

And among them, the poor, pitiful, conscious humans. Some have been augmented by powerful modern technology: drugs, genetic altering, psychological tweaking, technological implants, etc, in a frantic attempt to keep up with post-humans. Those who forgo these augs are called “baselines” and have long since been left in the dust. Next to the movements of these exalted minds, the humans, our POV characters, are like wasps in a hurricane, pawns on numerous simultaneous boards, desperately trying to figure out which forces are moving them, and to what ends.

Now, these two books are some of the densest science fiction I’ve ever read. It took a while to get through (over seven weeks, in hte background of these last two incredibly stressful months). While consciousness and (the lack of) free will form the focus of the two books, there are hundreds of small concepts tossed around over the course of its chapters. I’ve never gotten so much science fiction per page of science fiction before, and it never gives you a chance to breathe. They’re not long books, but getting through them was a real effort, though incredibly rewarding. Peter Watts draws his ideas from current research in physics, biology, physiology, and scatterings of other fields, and each book ended with a list of 100+ citations that inspired his speculative fiction. I can’t wait to reread these in a few month’s time with a few dozen wikipedia tabs and journal articles open.

What would a human hive mind look like? Well, you are already a hive mind of sorts. Studies have shown that the two halves of your brain can function completely independently, and when one half is sedated, a noticeably different personality emerges from the isolated half. When the two halves of your brain are connected, your two consciousnesses merge seamlessly into one. Could additional minds, connected with very low latency, merge further? Would the capabilities of the merged mind continue to grow as each brain-half is able to specialize further as part of a greater whole? And what about when multiple minds inhabit the same space, in parallel or series?

How small could you condense an intelligent mind? There exists a real genus of jumping spider, Portia, which possesses surprisingly smart, albeit very slow, problem-solving ability, described as mammal-like, using a brain significantly smaller than the head of a pin, just 100,000 total neurons (compared to the 86 billion possessed by humans). Modern literature theorizes it does this by solving problems piecemeal, over hours, before executing a complex attack all at once. How far could that principle be pushed? If intelligence can be achieved independent of physical computing size, could self-awareness be too?

Like many other hard scifi books I adore, Firefall’s human characters fall fairly short of being fully fleshed-out. This makes the books feel mechanical at times. Next to the exploration of these questions, alongside so many others, the actual story falls secondary in retrospect. Not that the story is weak, or slow, but that the revealing of the details of Watts’ metaphysics and internal logic on minds and sentience is experienced in tandem with the story’s flow. On these big questions, the protagonist and reader are in lockstep.

Blindsight follows Siri Keeton, a highly augmented synthesist, sent as part of a small crew to investigate a strange object found in the asteroid belt. This happens shortly after an event known as “The Firefall”, where some sixty-four thousand burning entities simultaneously scan the entire surface of Earth, catching the world’s authorities completely unawares. The crew includes a handful of heavily modded specialists, the absolute best in their respective fields, and is headed by the vampire Sarasti. It doesn’t build itself up as horror, but blindsight is terrifying at times. The slow unravelling of the form and nightmarish landscapes and mechanisms of [REDACTED], coupled with the increasing unreliability of Siri’s perceptions of reality, completely drew me in.

Echopraxia follows Dan Bruks, a mostly baseline field biologist (save a few brain-enhancing meds) who finds himself in the middle of an intense and precisely orchestrated conflict between a rogue vampire, Valerie, her zombie army, and a colony of Bicambrials. The gang makes a quick escape towards Icarus, the antimatter power plant orbiting the sun that powers one fifth of earth’s grid, where they encounter [DIFFERENT REDACTED].

The story takes place vaguely a few months after (speed of light delays make continuity confusing) Blindsight (a sidequel?) with the assumption it is read after. The two plots aren’t very interconnected, but do tell a larger tale far better than one line of continuity could on its own.

Watts definitely writes for a specific type of reader, and thankfully that reader is me. It may be hard to follow, and thick with interconnected ideas at times, but you can’t say it isn’t deeply thought-provoking. I had a wonderful time. 10/10 would recommend cautiously. If you can get through the first 70 pages you’ll be able to get through the whole thing, and it’s a wild ride.

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