Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Echopraxia

Go To

Echopraxia is a hard Science Fiction novel by Canadian author Peter Watts. It is a sequel to the novel Blindsight, though it is set concurrently and the events of both novels take place during roughly the same time period. While Blindsight takes place primarily in the outer Solar System and tells a story of First Contact, Echopraxia instead tells a largely stand-alone story depicting what is happening on Earth and elsewhere in the Solar System.

It's the eve of the twenty-second century. A world where the dearly-departed send postcards back from digital "Heaven" and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically-engineered vampires solve problems intractable to normal humans, and soldiers come with "zombie switches" that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it’s all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.

Daniel Brüks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational. Once a cat's-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands, he's taken refuge in the Oregon desert, turning his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies every heartbeat. But one night he awakens to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out.

Now he’s trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed with whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a vengeful pilot, still searching for the man she's sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. Dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks leads them all to a meeting with something they will only call “The Angels of the Asteroids”. And their pilgrimage might bring Dan Brüks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.

This book features the following tropes (Warning: spoilers below):

  • All There in the Manual: Watts's site offers a lot of interesting in-universe background material, such as the full text of The Bicameral Threat, a fictional report to the Holy See that is quoted at the beginning of several chapters.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Discussed. Brüks's wife was a "cloudkiller"; it was her job to pull the plug on AI networks that had become too smart for their own good. She eventually came to the conclusion that they were genuinely sapient, and quit soon after. However ... there was another class of AI, one so superhumanly intelligent that it achieved sapience and kept right on going, until its mind was incomprehensible to its creators. Those, Brüks says, "worried her."
  • And Then John Was a Zombie: By the end of the novel Brüks learned that he was infected by Portia. He jumped off a cliff when he realized it. The final image of the book reveals even that's not a huge setback for Portia, which slowly puts enough of Dan's corpse back in working order to start moving again.
  • Apocalypse How: In Blindsight, Siri suspects that by the time he returns to Earth, the vampires would have exterminated humanity and taken their places as rightful owners of the world. But the ending to Echopraxia suggests Siri's vision did not come to pass quite like that. What happens to humanity will depend largely on how you define "humanity", and also where you draw the line between success and suicide.
    • There's also a potential Zombie Apocalypse in progress, although not one that will threaten the new powers-that-be, and it's not elaborated on very much in the book.
    • The fall of Icarus results in a worldwide energy crisis. It's mentioned that climate change mitigation requires huge amounts of energy, and the climate is already in a pretty dire state.
  • Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: The Bicameral Order has one, on account of the massive number of revolutionary patents they have their name on. Case in point, they were able to purchase Crown of Thorns - a top-class interplanetary freighter - for three times its market price, with what amounted to pocket change.
  • Audience Surrogate: Brüks spends much of the first act being as confused as the reader - transhumans have a hard time explaining themselves to baselines.
  • Badass Normal: Rakshi calls Brüks "Roach" not as an insult, but rather because baseline humans are damn near indestructible - that is, at least, they're invulnerable to the various hacks and exploited glitches an augmented human might fall victim to.
  • Big Damn Hero: Jim Moore saving Dan Brüks from an enraged Rakshi, then Valerie saving Brüks from a crazy Jim Moore.
    • One of the Bicamerals, Chinedum Ofoegbu, walks out of a hyperbaric chamber to break up a "fight" between Valerie on one side, and Rakshi, Moore, Lianna and Brüks on the other side whilst his blood is practically fizzing. Of course, given the number of transhumans involved, it isn't clear what would have happened if he hadn't intervened, or if the whole thing wasn't a part of an elaborate ploy...
    • Moore pulls the crippled body of Brüks to safety as they flee Icarus. This is interesting because he uses a "Zombie Switch" to disengage his higher brain functions for extra efficiency in an emergency. When he claims "that wasn't me", he means it.
  • Body Horror: Brüks has a moment of this, when he realises how the Bicamerals rewired their brains by making them tumors.
  • Brown Note: Carried over from Blindsight, Vampire brains are wired up in a way that gives them superintelligence, but at the cost of right angles causing triggering fatal seizures. This effect is countered by vampires taking "anti-Euclidean" drugs to counteract this. It's established by the end of the prologue that Valerie has learned how to mess with baseline humans with select stimuli, including inducing the Crucifix glitch.
    Valerie:: "I want you to imagine Christ on the cross."
  • Came Back Wrong: In Blindsight it's established that this happened to Siri, Jim Moore's son. In order to cure his severe childhood epilepsy and save his life, Siri's parents agreed to have a radical hemispherectomy performed on him, literally cutting out half his brain. The kid that came out on the other side is demonstrably not the same - emotionless, without natural empathy. In Echopraxia it's revealed the reason he developed epilepsy in the first place was because he had been infected by the zombie virus while still in the womb; an innocent bystander in a bioweapon attack that was intended for Jim Moore.
  • Character Tics: Valerie clicks her sharpened teeth together and taps her fingers against nearby surfaces. Revealed later as non-verbal communication mechanism which forms part of the method she uses to brainhack mere humans to induce seizures on command, in a reflection of the crucifix glitch that vampires suffer..
    • Sarasti clicks a lot in Blindsight, and Siri hears a lot of creepy, clicky "music" broadcast from the solar system during his long return flight. This is an artefact of the Vampire's ancestral language which is apparently related to the real-world Hadza language.
  • The Chessmaster: It isn't clear who should take this particular title but it's clear that they planned pretty much everything meticulously, even allowing for the myriad of ways in which things could go wrong.
    • It is later observed that the Bicamerals could see the writing on the wall and played to lose, but in a way that let the fruits of their labor survive. On the other hand, Valerie kept them off balance pretty much from the get-go and ultimately hijacks their plan.
    • Valerie is certainly this is her back story. She's held captive in a research lab, has a lethal brain defect for which she is dependent on her captors for protection, and can't meet another of her kind without being driven into a murderous territorial rage. Nonetheless, the humans are totally unable to contain her and she walks out leaving a trail of bodies, obtaining a small private army in the process to further her own ends without much effort.
  • The Corruption (or perhaps The Virus): The Bicamerals modify their brains by deliberately inducing a form of cancer which drastically changes the workings of their minds. Bicameral Initiates are infected with the cancer, and by the end of the process it's not clear whether they can be said to have "survived" it or not, or if rather a new person has been created.
    • Brüks ends up with a mysteriously recurring cancer, suggested to be a pre-existing condition. Rakshi sees something in his eyes which makes her realise what is happening to him. The eyes of the Bicamerals glow, as a side effect of tracer proteins expressed by their cancers. Might be just a coincidence, of course...
    • Brüks is infected by Portia which substantially improves his mind and body at the ultimate expense of his consciousness.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Echopraxia deals in part with the theory of the universe being a simulation; with The Laws of Physics being basically the OS and God being a virus that breaks it. Also, there's no such thing as Free Will.
  • Crapsack World: Just like in Blindsight, things are going to hell in a hand basket.
  • Cure for Cancer: these have been about for decades, and cancer is no longer much of a threat for normal people. If you happen to use cancer-derived biological brain augmentations though, a cancer cure can suddenly become a deadly weapon...
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: Averted. The Bicamerals are basically walking brain tumors linked by organic radio but it is all wetware. Valerie certainly needs no cybernetics. Moore is modified, but seems quite human. Only Rakshi is a little... off.
  • Deer in the Headlights: To look into a vampire's eyes is to remember what it's like to be prey.
  • Doing In the Wizard: In the novel, Vampires are not supernatural but rather are explained as an extinct subspecies of humans that evolved to prey on normal humans in ancient times. This explains the persistent myths and stories about them: these are a kind of racial memory. Many of the qualities of Vampires are given logical, scientific explanations as well. See Our Vampires Are Different below.
    • Played a little more straight in the Bicameral's belief in a supernatural god, but with a twist...
  • Downer Ending: Brüks kills himself when he realizes he was taken over by Portia. Portia manages to continue firing his brain cells and takes over his broken body and walks towards civilization. Humanity will forever be changed.
  • Dying as Yourself: Brüks. He realizes that the hacked Portia is taking over him and decides to walk off the cliff. Sadly, while he dies, his body still lives on. Maybe that was for the best.
    • In a somewhat darker case, one of Valerie's zombies wakes up as it's being terminally "sampled" by one of Portia's tentacles.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Brüks stabs Valerie after the two become almost friendly, during the long, drawn-out process of Brüks' mind being rebuilt by Portia.
  • Expy: Valerie is one for Jukka Sarasti from Blindsight, although way more unnerving. And not entirely working with the rest of the Crown of Thorns crew.
  • Gainax Ending: Portia is a parasite. The Bicamerals infect Brüks with Portia, and Valerie hacks the infection to steer it towards her own ends. It strengthens him and plans to use him as a vector to create a sort of upgraded humans and to disable the glitches in Vampires. Maybe humanity will survive after all, but at a great cost to itself. Maybe.
  • Gone Horribly Right: The work of Valerie, the Bicamerals and Portia all comes together in the end. It doesn't work out well for all its creators.
  • Have You Seen My God?: Echopraxia is half this. The entire purpose of the Bicameral's mission with the Crown of Thorns is to find God... an aspect of which they believe has taken up residence on the Icarus.
  • Hive Mind: The Bicamerals work like this.
    • The Bicameral hives are quite small (the monastery at the beginning of the story has only a few dozen monks), and a hive's component nodes can even act as individuals and communicate with lesser beings if needs be. By comparison, the Moksha mind has millions upon millions of nodes, making it potentially vastly more intelligent. It doesn't seem to interact with human society though. Yet.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Moore's rationalization for shutting down the Icarus array, the source of one fifth of the world's energy, after it becomes all too obvious that it's been irreparably infested by Portia.
    Moore: "Enemy territory. Couldn't be helped."
  • Kill It with Fire: It doesn't get much more effective than throwing the enemy into the sun.
  • Kiss of the Vampire: After returning to Earth, Valerie and Bruks gradually become more friendly, and during one visit Valerie kisses Bruks. He initially thinks she was finally about to eat him after using him for some cheap labour searching in the ruined monastery as she surprises him by suddenly grabbing his neck. She tastes cancer on him, and she gives him an injection to cure it. the injection contained Portia, which infected Bruks and gradually took over his cognitive functions And the two had a conversation about the relation between humans and vampires, Valerie made the following remark in the end:
    Valerie: "Wouldn't it be nice if we could all just get along?" she was in fact talking to Portia, which is gradually taking over Bruks
    Bruks: "I thought we were," before Portia controlled him to stab Valerie to death, so guess Portia didn't like that offer
  • MacGyvering: After Crown of Thorns is forced to shed its engines in order to avoid pursuit, the Bicamerals manage to pull together, with parts left on board, a working fusion reactor.
    • Once they get to Icarus, they one-up the under-powered box-of-scraps jerry-rigged pulsed fusion motor by replacing it with a beamed-core antimatter drive, pretty much the nec plus ultra of reaction engines.
  • Magic Versus Science: Or rather, Religion vs Science, a running theme in Echopraxia, where one of the arguments is that Science must be taken as an act of faith, for even though we can replicate the same experiment over and over and quantify many of the constants in the universe, we do so in the belief that they will not change tomorrow.
  • Metaphorically True: Moore pulls this on Brüks early on.
    Brüks: "You said we were in orbit."
    Moore: "We are. Not around Earth."
  • More than Mind Control: The WestHem alliance goes to some lengths to carefully disrupt, distract and divert disruptive individuals and organisations. Victims are inflicted with various cognitive filters to limit their potential to damage things important to the alliance. Moore suggests that Rakshi is one such sleeper agent.
    • Rakshi can't look Brüks in the eye, or say his name, and seems incapable of recognising that he is the person she has been hunting all these years. She gets better.
    • Vampire's ability to manipulate the mere humans around them may as well be this. No human dealing with a vampire realises that ultimately, all those things that they thought were a good idea? Weren't their own ideas at all.
    • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain (or Nice Job Breaking It, Hero depending on your point of view): Valerie is held captive at a research lab and is the subject of numerous experiments to discover the effects of the crucifix glitch and the limits of her ability to perceive right angles without actually killing her. The experience ultimately makes her immune to the effect.
  • The Nicknamer: Rakshi, she constantly called Brüks “Roach”, and referred Jim Moore as “Colonel Carnage”
  • Noodle Incident: Averted. It is revealed halfway through that Dan Brüks was tangentially responsible for an incident that killed Rakshi's wife that involved an encephalitis variant outbreak.
  • No Social Skills: Brüks, as he tends to run his mouth more than his should, antagonizing people he shouldn't — borders on The Gadfly, if he wasn't antagonizing people that one way or another have the upper hand on him.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Watching the initial skirmish between Valerie's forces and the Bicamerals, Bruks comments that all those cutting-edge transhumans still settle their differences the way "us poor retarded baselines" do. Moore smirks and concedes his point.
  • Oh, Crap!: There are quite a few of these.
    • It's revealed in the prologue that not only can Valerie ignore the Cruciform Glitch, but she has come up with a way to induce it regular humans, essentially flipping the table between vampires and humanity.
    • Once someone has been "sensitized" to the glitch, it can be triggered by anyone if they know the trick. Rakshi uses this on Brüks in the end.
    • Rakshi realises what is happening to Brüks, shortly after she learns who is to blame for the death of her partner and shortly before she dies of a gunshot wound inflicted by Moore.
    Rakshi: "Oh fuck. Are you ever screwed."
    • Brüks gets an awful lot of these. On one notable occasion though, it is when he realizes something at the same time as the super-intelligent hive mind.
      Brüks: This is a sampling transect.
  • Old Soldier: Jim Moore, a commando and officer with a twist. While still quite athletic and a very capable soldier while in his fifties (at a conservative estimate), the structure of militaries and nation states have changed amazingly in his own time, and the first and main line of defense is an unofficial corps of hackers and activists subtly manipulated for espionage and informational warfare done on a government's behalf.
  • The Order: The Bicameral Order is a Hive Mind group that is religiously motivated, and allegedly use faith-based superscience to explore the mysteries of the universe. Despite the strangeness, they are an incredibly successful group, being some of the most intelligent entities on the planet to the point that they become have incredibly wealthy on their patents, but also extremely feared by their political and religious rivals, who prepared to exterminate them at the first pretense. Though inspired more by Eastern religious orders in their philosophy and methodology, they are more like Western religious orders in motivation in that they seek God. It's not clear if they see this as a positive or a negative thing, and its probably not clear to the Bicamerals either until they see it in action. In this instance, they see "God" not as a discreet entity, but more of a process or an event, where physics breaks down. Explaining the matter, they allude to the Simulation Hypothesis, where if the universe is a computer system, then physics would be the OS, and God would be a virus.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Vampires turn out to have been an ancient Human Subspecies adapted to prey on us. They existed millenia ago, before recorded history. Since they were predators, they had to have superior pattern-matching skills (all the tricks of autistic savants plus more) and general intelligence, better night-vision and the ability to put themselves into suspended animation (since, being apex predators, they had to give our populations time to rebound else they would hunt us to extinction). Unfortunately, the super-intelligence comes at a cost: their super-charged pattern recognition tends to get overstimulated when intersecting right-angles take up too much of their visual field. Basically, their brain glitches out and they have fatal epileptic seizures whenever they see anything with corners - thus explaining the origin of the myth about them being weak against the cross. When humans invented architecture, the vampires all died out. The modern-day resurrected vampires have to take "Anti-Euclidean" drugs to enable them to survive.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Also coming in new in this novel are a few flavors of "zombies". The first are people who had been subjected to a virus that destroys the victim's higher brain functions, leaving them little better than walking brain stems capable of little more than fight/flight/fuck. The second type are usually soldiers who were subjected to the same, but have neural cybernetics that allows for much more sophisticated behavior and lets them push themselves to the physical limit, essentially becoming highly effective biological drones. A third type, which is more akin to a modified version of the second type, are cybernetically enhanced human soldiers who have had their brains rewired from maximum efficiency and the ability to turn off conscious thought, leaving no room for second thoughts or emotion.
  • Rock Beats Laser: Downplayed. One epithet used by transhumans for the unaugmented is "roach", referring to baseline humans who just don't suffer from augmentation failure, elaborate hacks, and other problems caused by living on the bleeding edge of technology. Just by virtue of being a tried-and-true human, Baselines are practically unkillable by the specialized means used to neutralize the various transhumans. Otherwise there are no Plucky Baselines in Watts' universe who can out-think or out-fight the transhumans if you're a mere human. If you think you've beaten them, it is because you don't understand what just happened.
  • Shoutout: Echopraxia gives a shout-out to World of Warcraft, during the discussion of simulating pandemics in a virtual environment, something that accidentally happened in real life when pandemic researchers took at look at the Corrupted Blood Incident, even calling it explicitly as such.
  • Shown Their Work: The back of the book has a lengthy "Notes and References" section explaining the various Real Life science items that inspired Watts to write the story.
  • The Singularity: It's gotten to the point that a group of people known as the Bicameral Order have brains so heavily modified that they seem to have merged religion and science, with their scientific discoveries being more like divine inspiration than anything else.
  • The Soulless: Morals, conscience, regret...these are all inconveniences to the working of a proper soldier. So modern human soldiers have "off switches" installed, which simply shuts down their conscious mind. The rest of their brain gets on with the job much more effectively. They're dubbed "Zombies", not in the flesh-eating sense but as a nod to the concept of Philisophical Zombies.
    • Helpless Good Side: The early models of the "off switch" left the conscious mind, er, conscious, due to performance issues when the host was fully switched off. Their body and eyes would operate outside of their control, but they'd get to watch it all happening. Some missions didn't go quite to plan, and the defect was quickly resolved.
  • Suddenly Speaking: "Portia", inside Bruks' head. It doubles as an Oh, Crap! moment.
  • Super-Soldier: All modern human soldiers are this to some degree. With a mental off-switch that turns them into a "Zombie" and significantly enhanced biology; amongst other things, Moore has far more mitochondria than Brüks, making him much faster and stronger. They're totally outclassed by the vampires, however, who are even faster, stronger, tougher, smarter and just basically better in every way.
  • The Svengali: Valerie, in the end.
  • T-Word Euphemism: The 2015 UK paperback edition lacks the awesome old-school sci-fi cover shown above, and also lacks the author's own artwork which appears in other editions. What it does have is a quote from Richard Morgan, who describes the work as "F**ing awesome!", which is unusually unrestrained for front cover text.
  • Team Pet: Dan Brüks is so out of his element, he might as well be this in Echopraxia, at least initially. He decides that this is pretty much how Rakshi sees him.
  • Tempting Fate: In hindsight, "Icarus" might not have been the best name for a device which powered the majority of planet Earth via solar power.
  • Title Drop: There's mention of a "weaponised echopraxia", and an encounter with its aftereffects. The vector isn't mentioned, though most unpleasant things in Peter Watts' work tend to be bioweapons, so it is probably some sort of encephalitis. Victims helplessly mirror each others actions, locked into a feedback loop that traps them til they pass out. Unless they're driving, or flying, or fighting, in which case they don't last nearly so long.
    • A more relevant (but subtle) reading of the title: victims of echopraxia are rendered little more than puppets, dancing to someone else's design. This pretty much describes everyone not a vampire or hive-mind.
  • Transhuman: In the year 2082, you're either transhuman or you're obsolete. Baseline humans are physically and mentally unable to keep up with those who have received augments. The majority of the characters in the novel have some kind of augmentation.
    • Arguably, even most of the augmented beings that could still be called humans in Blindsight and Echopraxia are practically obsolete and are little more than convenient tools for superintelligent AI, vampires and hive minds.
    • Dan Brüks, is the least augmented person so far, and he gets called Oldschool and Roach. He is quite definitely obsolete, but still has his uses.
  • Transhuman Treachery: Pretty much everyone stabs everyone else in the back one way or another. And the end result of the work of the Bicamerals and Valerie is an alarmingly upgraded Brüks who promptly murders Valerie, despite her being a vampire that's normally far faster, more alert, more intelligent and more able to predict human (and hive mind) behavior using nothing but a dumb surgical tool.
  • Trigger Phrase: Valerie is able to implant a hypnotic suggestion on baseliners that emulates the Crucifix Glitch vampires suffer from.
    Valerie:"Imagine Christ on the Cross."
  • Tuckerization: Chinedum Ofoegbu was also the pseudonym of one of the commenters on Watts' blog, back before Echopraxia was even published.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Brüks, the whole damn time. Not even killing himself stops him from being manipulated.
  • Uplifted Animal: Brüks, from a certain point of view.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: The Vampires originally died out because a pair of intersecting lines at right-angles that filled more than 30 degrees of their visual field induced an invariably-fatal grand mal seizure. Upon encountering another vampire they'll go into a territorial rage and attack them immediately, making co-operation impossible. Their eyes are adapted for low light and so daylight is quite uncomfortable for them. It is even suggested that the old trick where you throw a handful of rice on the ground to distract a vampire who feels compelled to count the grains works on them, too. However...
    • Valerie works out how to avoid the crucifix glitch, probably as a result of human experimentation finding out the limits of the problem.
    • Valerie works closely with the other vampires in her research lab in order to escape, as each predicts how the others will act, and works out where they are and what they are doing by observing the reactions of the humans. Perfect coordination, without ever seeing or communicating with each other.
    • A vampire's savant-level mathematical skills and superhuman visual pattern-matching abilities would let them count all the grains of rice (or leaves of grass) in an instant, distracting them barely at all.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Brüks gives one to Jim Moore, Siri's dad, over him now being worried about Siri's well-being when it had been his partial zombie-ism, the augmentations and hemispherectomy that he got to counter the effects that made him the best suited Synthesist for Theseus. Not to mention that the reason why Siri got infected was because his dad was the actual target.
    Jim: He's out there because he's the most qualified for the mission. Full stop. Anyone in my place would have made the same decision.
    Dan: Sure. But we both know why he was the most qualified.