AUGUST 25, 2014
PETER WATTS’ NEW novel Echopraxia is science fiction on steroids — or better, on some intensely mind-bending and energizing drug that hasn’t been invented yet. Watts writes “hard” science fiction, focused on the themes of posthuman mutations and technologically enhanced sensory and cognitive powers. His new book is closely grounded in actual cutting-edge research in neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary theory — and he has a “Notes and References” section at the end to prove it, with 140 footnotes, mostly citing scientific journals.
But Echopraxia is also fun in a visceral way, with space travel and lots of high-speed action. There are zombie attacks, targeted viral infestations, and close escapes from traps cleverly engineered by extraterrestrials. Superhuman intelligences play 11-dimensional chess, with merely “baseline” human beings as their unwitting pawns. All in all, Echopraxia is ferociously intellectual pulp writing. This may sound like an oxymoron, but I mean it as high praise. The book induces a vertigo of speculative information overload.
Echopraxia is a sequel to Watts’ previous novel Blindsight published in 2006. Both books are set in the late twenty-first century. Blindsight tells the story of a disastrous encounter with aliens from another star system. These “scramblers” (as the human characters in the novel call them) are cognitively and technologically superior to us in every possible way — except that it turns out that they are not conscious. They lack any sort of self-awareness. They know things, but they don’t know that they know them. They act to avoid pain, but they don’t actually feel the pain.
Blindsight not only makes this scenario plausible, but suggests that consciousness as we experience it may well be an evolutionary disadvantage. If we were able to bypass conscious reflection, and just act intuitively — as we are in fact urged to do in pop psychology bestsellers like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink then we would most likely be more efficient predators. For that matter, we would also be more successful CEOs and derivatives traders. The novel slyly suggests that the world’s corporate elites are already evolving in this direction, jettisoning consciousness in favor of “fast thought,” or efficient, algorithm-based behavior. Blindsight makes clear that the price we would pay for such an achievement would be to lose those non-utilitarian things (like art and other forms of culture) that make us distinctively human, and even those basic attributes (like empathy and a sense of fairness) that we share with other mammals.
Echopraxia pushes this line of speculation in even stranger directions. The novel can be read independently of Blindsight, although there are details that make more sense in the light of the earlier book. Echopraxia introduces us to a whole range of posthuman, as well as nonhuman, “cognitive subspecies.” There are people who are still recognizably human, but whose brains and bodies have been augmented by means of surgical implants, genetic and chemical tweaks, overclocked metabolisms, and an optimized neural architecture. But we also meet vampires, zombies, and hive minds, who are human-derived, but whose degree of humanity is very much in question. And beyond even these strange figures, we encounter the holy grail for which most of the book’s characters are searching: an artificial intelligence of alien origin, a sort of “postbiological,” computational slime mold left behind by Blindsight‘s scramblers.
All of these beings defy merely human comprehension. Their existence is extrapolated from technologies that already exist today: this is what makes Echopraxia science fiction rather than fantasy. But these posthumans have all passed beyond a certain threshold of complexity. They are no longer commensurate with their human origins. It is not just that we cannot follow their logic, or understand what they are saying; we cannot even imagine what it is like to be them.
Echopraxia, like a number of other recent science fiction novels, is therefore really about the Singularity: that mythical moment, supposedly only a few decades off, when technological change will have become so extreme as to “rupture the fabric of human history” (to use the words of tech guru and Singularity cheerleader Ray Kurzweil, recently named Google’s Director of Engineering). The Singularity figures heavily in Silicon Valley mythology. It’s a techno-utopian fantasy of the End of History: sort of a religious vision for atheists. A number of science fiction writers have mocked it as “the Rapture of the nerds.”
Echopraxia takes a grimly realistic look at this mind-blowing scenario. Rather than either celebrating the Singularity as a kind of male-adolescent fantasy of omnipotence, or denouncing it as a robo-apocalypse nightmare, Watts thinks hard about the concrete differences that it would make, and the conundrums to which it might give rise. Ray Kurzweil proclaims that, after the Singularity, “we will transcend biology, but not our humanity.” Watts warns us, to the contrary, that we are well on the way to jettisoning our humanity; but that we cannot, for all that, escape the constraints of biology.
Watts transforms the familiar popular culture motifs of zombies and vampires by giving them biological rationales, and presenting them as exemplary posthumans. Vampires, already introduced in Blindsight, are superpredators from the dawn of human history. Their stealthy habits, great strength, and sharpened cognitive powers are adaptations that help them to track and capture their prey (us). They went extinct thousands of years ago; but they are revived through genetic reconstruction. Large corporations hope to get a competitive edge by using captive vampires in management roles. The vampires are brilliant strategists, after all, and they are untroubled by ethical qualms. Of course, things don’t turn out quite the way the companies want. The vampires easily escape their human controllers and run free to pursue their own agendas.
As for zombies, they are simply people whose higher thought processes have been turned off. This is done either by surgery, or as a side-effect of bioengineered viral plagues. Zombies function autonomically, without conscious awareness. Their mental apparatus is “reduced to fight/flight/fuck” basic responses. They make great soldiers and sex slaves, because they follow orders unquestioningly. They are in fact subject to the malady that gives the novel its title: “echopraxia” is the condition in which a person compulsively imitates someone else’s actions and behavior. When they are not under hierarchical control, they simply imitate one another, and go on rampages like in the movies.
Echopraxia also introduces us to the Bicameral Order, a quasi-religious society of hive minds. The monks of the Order optimize their brains by stimulating cancerous growth in carefully chosen groups of neurons, while cutting back and weeding out others. They are literally “thinking tumors… they’d turned their brains into cancer.” But that’s not all; they also network these optimized brains together to create a single supermind. In such a state, the Bicamerals are no longer separate individuals; their identities are completely subsumed. The sheer processing power of this group mind is enormous: it can grasp physical reality on the quantum level. No wonder the Order has won numerous Nobel Prizes, and gotten rich from filing basic patents.
All this power and insight comes at a price, however; there are always biological and energetic bills to pay. “You can optimize a brain for down there or up here, not both. Anyone comfortable thinking at Planck scales, they can barely cross the street unassisted up in the real world.” The Bicamerals need baseline human helpers to accomplish the simplest everyday tasks. They also need specially trained interpreters to translate their insights into terms that regular scientists, let alone the rest of the world, can understand. For they no longer use language in the way that ordinary human beings do. Instead, they moan, scream, and babble: they speak in tongues like people in the throes of religious ecstasy.
Indeed, at the level the Bicamerals are working, there is no real distinction between scientific insight and religious revelation. They work intuitively; and their intuition “ties into the same parts of the brain that give you the rapture.” We can read this, of course, reductively: experiences of spirituality and the divine can be explained away as quirks of brain chemistry. But the opposite seems true as well, at least in the world of the novel. The Bicamerals describe what they do as “faith-based” science. They don’t use anything like the scientific method as we know it to come up with their results. And yet these results work, and pass all empirical tests.
Watts is a former marine biologist, and he is on record as an atheist, as well as a supporter of scientific claims about global warming and evolution. He has no time for supernatural explanations, or for denialism. But I think that he is getting at something deeper here. Even science, one of the characters in the novel points out, “depends on faith… Faith that the rules haven’t changed, faith that the other guys got the measurements right.” If the world were altogether contingent, as the speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux claims, then the rules and measurements will not necessarily stay the same, and we might well blink out of existence at any moment.
For that matter, as some of the novel’s characters also point out, even immediate subjective experience involves a process in which our brains correlate massive amounts of sensory data, combine the data with memories and assumptions, and project the result as an internal model — a simulation — of the outside world. We have to accept this model as essentially correct, even though we know that optical illusions, schizophrenic delusions, and hallucinations always remain possible.
The point of all this is not universal skepticism, but rather the opposite: the sheer fact that we cannot be completely skeptical. Our basic grounding assumptions might well turn out to be wrong — in fact, this is what happened in physics at the end of the nineteenth century. And things that have worked pragmatically up to now might not do so in other times and places — some physicists have recently proposed that the “laws of nature” might not be constant and eternal, but might instead vary across the history and expanse of the universe. But we cannot stop believing, just as we cannot stop breathing. We are forced to go on, assenting to premises and drawing conclusions. The buck has to stop somewhere.
Everything in Echopraxia is filtered through the point of view of the main character, Daniel Brüks. He is a biologist of the old school — he actually does field work, rather than restricting himself to computer simulations — and he is the closest the novel comes to a “baseline” human being. Daniel provides an anchoring point for the novel, precisely because he does not quite understand most of what happens to him. He is in the same position as we are, trying to make sense of things and events that by their very nature go beyond the limits of ordinary human understanding.
When Daniel is swept up into a voyage through the solar system, and then back to Earth again, he assumes that he is just there for the ride; his presence can only be an accident. But it turns out at the end that he has an important role to play, albeit an involuntary one. I won’t spoil the novel’s suspense by being any more specific. But I want to suggest that the shape of the book’s narrative — its veering between randomness and unavoidable fate — reflects the workings of its main subject, the process of evolution (both biological and technological).
Evolution is a powerful force, but it is blind and repetitious. A century ago, when people thought of anything like a life force, they assumed that it was creative and progressive. Today, we are more likely to entertain the image of life as a virus endlessly replicating itself — an infernal machine that cannot be turned off. At one point, Echopraxia goes so far as to suggest that even God is a virus, a sort of glitch in the “operating system” of the universe. More generally, the novel tells us that our dreams of transcendence — whether religious or technological, those of the Rapture or of the Singularity — are themselves reflections of the same endlessly iterating viral process. This is not a nihilistic conclusion, necessarily, since it does suggest that there is something rather than nothing, ongoing self-organization rather than blank emptiness. But it is not a comforting conclusion either, as it lays waste both to our humanist complacencies and to our fantasies of somehow getting beyond our human (biological, but also social, cultural, and political) entanglements and limitations.