Blindsight & Echopraxia by Peter Watts

Frequenting /r/printsf sometimes you’ll see someone talking about a text you enjoyed with references to sampling other authors. Peter Watts kept showing up so eventually I wanted to sample the work he is most lauded for (currently Blindsight).

Blindsight and its sidequel Exchopraxia were released in omnibus form as Firefall. These were impressive texts, but when looking more into him I became enamored with the nuggets of lore spread around his website. The writing, the typesetting, the tendencies to include legitimate references to academic discussion supporting his fictional spins… this guy has a knack for upholding the hard side of science fiction. He has a highly active blog and frequently engages with the community via a bunch of different mediums (e.g. goodreads, reddit). He cultivates fan-art and alternative media for his texts, along with releasing many openly under permissive licensing, for example Blindsight.

These two blurbs from his author page really struck me after I’d read through hist texts:

Peter Watts is an awk­ward hy­brid of bi­ol­o­gist, sci­ence-fic­tion au­thor, and (ac­cord­ing to the US De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity) con­victed felon/tew­wow­ist.

He spent ten years get­ting a bunch of de­grees in the eco­phys­i­ol­ogy of ma­rine mam­mals and an­other ten try­ing make a liv­ing on those qual­i­fi­ca­tions with­out be­com­ing a whore for spe­cial-in­ter­est groups. This proved some­what tougher than it looked; through­out the nineties he was paid by the an­i­mal wel­fare move­ment to de­fend ma­rine mam­mals; by the US fish­ing in­dus­try to sell them out; and by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment to ig­nore them. He even­tu­ally de­cided that since he was fic­tion­al­is­ing sci­ence any­way, he might as well add some char­ac­ters and plot and try sell­ing to a wider mar­ket than the Jour­nal of The­o­ret­i­cal Bi­ol­ogy—al­though he re­tains the aca­d­e­mic habit of ap­pend­ing ex­ten­sive tech­ni­cal bib­li­ogra­phies onto his nov­els, both to con­fer a ve­neer of cred­i­bil­ity and to cover his ass against nit­pick­ers.

With this kind of background and particular social charge, how can his writing not be interesting? Even more so, these texts are a challenge to slog through and feel like you understood the story completely. There’s a lot of discussion on-line, and thankfully Watts himself has elaborated about these stories in several places. We’re to expect another text in this series eventually. Watts had a nice answer to the general complaint of Exchopraxia being not necessarily forthcoming in this reddit post:

The problem with trying to take on any kind of post-human scenario is that neither you nor I are post-human. It’s a kind of Catch-22: if I describe the best-laid plans of Bicams and vamps in a way we can understand, then they’re obviously not so smart after all because a bunch of lemurs shouldn’t be able to grok Stephen Hawking. On the other hand, if I just throw a Kubrick monolith in your face, lay out a bunch of meaningless events and say Ooooh, you can’t understand because they’re incomprehensible to your puny baseline brain… well, not only is that fundamentally unsatisfying as a story, but it’s an awfully convenient rug I can use to hide pretty much any authorial shortcoming you’d care to name. You’d be right to regard that as the cheat of a lazy writer.

Themes

For each set of text(s) I’ll try to pull out the themes that most interested me, sometimes I’ll fixate on more conventional literary theme while other times I’ll fixate on a specific technology (generally preferring science fiction). The hope is to keep around a list of the impactful elements of the text and use those as jumping boards to other texts when in conversation or recommending something to a colleague. There are always far more themes in the text than I feel like I should catalog, so please if any one of these strikes you as interesting dive in to the texts. There is also a risk in reading too much into these as I’m not being entirely careful not to spoil parts of the story that you should experience through self discovery.

These texts are pretty dense, rarely do I re-read sections on my passage through but with Echopraxia in particular I had to go back and re-examine large swaths to make sure I was grasping what is going on. Ultimately I don’t think I actually understood this text in full, however between Watts supplementary interviews and a pretty comprehensive post by a fellow reader I can feel more confident about my understanding. Looking forward to the next book in this universe.

Consciousness as an Evolutionary Necessity/Oddity: throughout both texts Watt’s talks about consciousness significantly. At first there is mostly a discussion of consciousness being a sort of necessary evolutionary abstraction wrought from the myriad information streaming from all of our senses and needing to be processed (we can’t do it directly, we do it subconsciously because it’s far too much to handle… from a perspective of thermoanalytics and other arguments that he makes). I believe that some of this is pretty heavily influenced by concepts from Spinoza. The first text, Blindsight, focused far more on consciousness as the protagonist kind of transforms from a non-human reflective chinese room to a something that has true humanity/consciousness. The second text digs into consciousness as a sort of evolutionary oddity for survival, then uses that as a jumping off point to dig into religion & science comparisons from a lens of game theoric utility. Watts discusses this further in a post Echopraxia release discussion.

Utility of Religion & Science: Very early on in Echopraxia Watts introduces the Bicameral Order and through it he unexpectedly shatters a common science fiction trope about science always trumping religion. I’m explaining this in words that are far clunkier than his own introduction and exploration, but this might be one of the most intriguing aspects of the book. In looking around for references I stumbled across Feyerabend:

Starting from the argument that a historical universal scientific method does not exist, Feyerabend argues that science does not deserve its privileged status in western society. Since scientific points of view do not arise from using a universal method which guarantees high quality conclusions, he thought that there is no justification for valuing scientific claims over claims by other ideologies like religions.

Apparently this body of work wasn’t known to Watts when he dove into these ideas, so it’s pretty interesting that there is some legitimate historical debate around a concept that Watts felt that he was originating in Echopraxia.

It wasn’t that Watts was deliberately creating and anti-trope, instead he was providing a meaningful metric for which to measure any ideology and objectively evaluate performance. Pretty wild stuff, didn’t expect to have so much discussion of religion and science in a text like this, as well as having that all further muddled by the exploration of consciousness.

The very end of Echopraxia Watts introduces the idea of “entering the prism”, which seems to stem from some real academic work by am Ezequiel Morsella, of which Watts elaborates quite a bit more in this blog article.

Cognitive Doping: Utilization of stimulants is apparently a common practice in academic circles today. Even at the primary and undergraduate level we’re seeing significant abuse of amphetamines. Dissasociative hallucinogens are starting to have more mainstream discussion in terms of academic use for stimulating creativity. So, this is all stuff that is going on today and Watts throws it into his stories but advances the timetable by fifty years.

Transhumanism: In both of the texts Watts introduces novel concepts of transhumanism. There is a sort of standard mix of concepts like neural implants and reproduction without sex, but then he introduces things like revival/manipulation of human species offshoots (particularly vampires recovered from the distant past) for particularly beneficial skills.

Humans Biological networks as Computing Entities: In Blindsight there is a good deal of discussing information processing as a multi-tenant problem biologically, this is stepped up further with the introduction of the Bicameral Order in Echopraxia. This theme was woven into the discussion of Religion and Science in an exceedingly interesting fashion.

The Chinese Room: Just dive right into this page and if you’re at all interested, well both texts bring this up in juxtoposition of humanity/consciousness quite often.

Jumpoff