I’ve always been more of a fantasy reader than a science fiction reader. However, in recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to the over-the-top contemporary space opera by the likes of Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books. But head of the pack is Peter Watts.
I’ve described his novel Blindsight to friends as what you’d get if Cormac McCarthy and Iain Banks collaborated on Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a tale of first contact, damaged yet hyper-functioning humans, space vampires, and the future of the human race packed with searing prose and delivering a dizzying and ultimately bleak analysis of the evolution, function, and value of consciousness.
I recently finished the sequel, Echopraxia. Once again, Watts delivers a fast-paced, meticulously-researched, outrageous adventure. This expedition sees an old soldier, an unmodified human biologist, a desperately-obsessed pilot, a pseudo-religious hive mind, their translator, and the obligatory space vampire encountering an alien artifact that could be the answer to all their prayers or damn them all and humanity with them.
Both Blindsight and Echopraxia are impossible to finish without calling into question concepts you’ve taken for granted all your life. Where Blindsight looked at consciousness, Echopraxia wrestles with issues of autonomy, belonging, reality, (trans)humanity, and the existence of God. Watts bases all of his science fiction in real science–his books end with thirty page essays explaining the sources of the concepts the populate the novels and sharing what is speculation and what is current state. He packs all this information into the body of his story and does it without being pedantic or boring. There are no lectures or overlong stretches of exposition.
Part of his success is his mastery of pacing, but most of it is his vivid and savage language. Even the simplest discussions by his characters are peppered with gems like:
You could resort to analogies, I suppose. Force transhuman insights into human cookie-cutter shapes. But most of the time that would just get you a bleeding metaphor with all its bones broken.
Or this exchange as one character tries to understand the transhuman hive mind Bicameral Order:
“They micromanage tornadoes, Lee. They turn people into puppets with a wink and a wave, they own half the patent office. They’re about as helpless as a T. rex in a daycare center. So why haven’t they been running things for years?”
“That’s like a chimp asking why those hairless apes aren’t slinging bigger feces than everyone else, if they’re so damned clever.”
And yes, he just had a character use an analogy to explain transhuman insights after having another character criticize the practice, calling into question the entire second exchange while acknowledging that the only way we can understand something as alien as the Bicamerals is through analogy.
Kind of hurts my head, but in a good way.
This is exactly the reason why I read Watts. He makes me think and pulls no punches doing it. Yet at the same time, he delivers the action, adventure, adrenaline, high technology, and speculation about the future that I expect from the best of today’s science fiction.
But be warned, he’s not for the faint of heart. His vision of the world is bleak. One review on Goodreads called Blindsight the best book they’d ever read, but one they were unlikely to read again. The clearest warning I’ve seen is reviewer James Nicoll’s comment (which is prominently-displayed on Watts’ own web site):
Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.
It’s a serious warning and should be taken that way. But if you’re willing to look into the abyss and want to be challenged while being entertained, you can’t do better than Watts.