science fiction, new weird, old weird, very weird - and everything else
not always save for work. never nice.
Echopraxia is more a sidequel than a sequel to Blindsight. Blindsight blew me away and I feel comfortable in saying that it will very probably end up being my favourite book of the year. Unfortunately, Echopraxia is nowhere near as good as its predecessor – for multiple reasons.
1) Choice of narrator: I felt a certain kinship to Blindsight’s narrator Siri Keeton. I could relate to his difficulties to connect, to his struggling with interpersonal relationships, his misreadings of other people. I saw myself in him – and that’s an extremely rare occurrence. I didn’t expect it to happen again, and it didn’t. To most readers, Siri remained a freak, something inhuman; therefore Watts chose a more standard narrator for Echopraxia: Daniel Brüks, unaugmented baseline human. Brüks is clearly designed to work as a character to relate to, to chaperone readers through the story. He’s also your milquetoast straight white male, an academic and atheist, and more than a bit of a jerk. He spends a big part of the book talking down to a WoC character, trash-talkting her believes and belittling her faith. He’s supposed to be an asshole, a kind of “antihero with a conscience”. But antihero or not, the choice of narrator tells you something about how the author envisions his audience. It’s a vision not including me – or anyone else not fitting the straight white male academic mould. As a result, I felt uninvited, alienated, and quite frequently pissed off.
In a Q&A session, Watts expressed surprise about some readers‘ lack of connection with Brüks. Well, it’s absolutely no surprise to me. Brüks is not only unsympathetic, a person I not only can’t relate to, but wouldn’t even want to know in real life; he also has not agency. There’s not much reason for him – for Brüks, the individual – to be in the book in the first place. To add insult to injury, he also reads like Watts himself didn’t much care for his protagonist. And when the author doesn’t care, why should I?
2) Pacing & prose: Echopraxia starts with what’s supposed to be an action-scene. We get a vampire commanding a zombie army, people spectacularly dying left and right, a hasty flight into space, explosions and whatnot. Unfortunately, this is written in such an obfuscating way that I often couldn’t tell what was actually going on. The author gets completely lost in his similes; but instead of making things clearer, the similes just muddy things further. It’s a textbook case of writing getting in the way of the story. If I can’t picture what’s going on, all action and suspense is lost.
The pacing’s off, too. The story starts with a bang and then just hangs there, with nothing happening. The characters‘ motivations and agencies are kept from the reader till very late in the book. Such mystery can work in favour of a story, upping the suspense. Here, the opposite happened: Instead of thrilled I felt bored to the point of losing all interest to even know the how and why of it. About halfway through, I spoilered myself to see if I should read on. I did and slogging through paid of in the end. Once Portia shows up, things get increasingly more interesting – at fucking last.
3) Themes: Blindsight dealt with the relation between intelligence and consciousness. Echopraxia focuses on the questions of free will versus determinism, and, more importantly, on the nature of God as a virus in a simulated universe (digital physics). I’m not the biggest fan of mixing religion and faith with science, but it can be interesting if done right. But Watts idea of religion is limited to monotheistic believe-systems in the Judeo-Christian tradition, ignoring much older faiths which used to be much more widespread. Western-centrism in action.
He’s also a bit too sure on the topic of free will versus determinism. Not everything is as settled as he might think it is. (Just a day after finishing the book, I read a meta-analysis by the North Carolina State University, showing methodological inconsistencies in neuroscientific studies trying to prove or disprove free will. In short, researchers are biased, and frequently find the results they are expecting to find. Not entirely surprising. Like the NCSU points out, this analysis does in no way mean that something like free will exists. But it puts a question mark behind some of Watts‘ pet studies – Libet, for example).
Despite all its problems, I don’t regret reading Echopraxia. It has a lot of things going for it. Portia, for one. The military zombies seem entirely plausible. And then there’s Colonel Jim Moore. Moore, not Brüks, is the human core of the story: a character showing actual emotion, following a relatable agency. I guess you could easily read his story arc as blatant misery porn; for me, the old Colonel was the emotional anchor, who kept me reading on when I had lost all interest in everything else. I was quite surprised by it, but I genuinely liked him.
So, I struggled with it, but the effort paid of in the end. I found the conclusion quite satisfying, and it leaves a lot of room for a third instalment. It was definitely an experience to read this book side by side with Spinoza’s Ethica(which I „read“ – or, more correctly, tried to read – as background for Samuel R. Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic). Spinoza seems regrettably neglected by today’s henchmen of determinism (although I just saw someone quoting him in the comments to the NCSU study) – maybe he’s too optimistic? Or simply forgotten? Be it as it may, the books complemented each other surprisingly well (or maybe not so surprisingly, if you’re already familiar with Spinoza).
ETA: I forgot the most important thing! The Soundtrack.
Editors - Belong. Not really a theme-song, as the two texts don't have much connection, but it complements the mood. And is it me, or are they channeling this song from "28 Days Later" there at the end? That would explain why my mind immediately caught onto it and found it so fitting for a book featuring zombies.
In his charming beast of a novel, Twardoch combines lit fic pretension and American noir conventions, telling about a city divided by religion, tradition and prejudice, spanning time and space from 1937's Warsaw to 1987's Tel Aviv.
The official German synopsis provides a somewhat misleading image of this story. It doesn't tell you about the insufferable – and highly unreliable – narrator, nor about the story's concern with the Mideast conflict. It took me almost half the book to realize that I didn't get exactly what I bargained for, but what I got I liked a lot. Not least because Twardoch's prose is a joy to read; obsessed with detail, clothing, weapons, street-names, but a joy nonetheless. The genre conventions are firmly in place, maybe to some lit fic-reader's chagrin. Twardoch also shows his ability at playing lit fic tricks; I don't know if all of those were necessary, some could be seen as excess baggage, an assessment I wouldn't disagree with. But everything came together nicely, so I didn't mind.
Afaik, none of Twardoch's novels has been translated into English yet, which seems like a serious oversight.
Im Warschau des Jahres 1937 sitzt der 17-jährige Mojzesz Bernstein bei einem Boxkampf, es geht Juden gegen Polen, in der jüdischen Ecke Jakub Shapiro, der gerade Mojsesz Vater getötet hat. Im Tel Aviv des Jahres 1987 sitzt der 67-jährige Mojzesz Bernstein, nun unter dem Namen Mosche Inbar, General der israelischen Armee, vor seiner Schreibmaschine und schreibt auf, wie er Jakub Shapiro traf, den Mörder seines Vaters.
Jakub nimmt Mojzesz unter seine Fittiche. Für den Jungen bedeutet das eine Eintrittskarte in ein besseres Leben, denn Jakub Shapiro ist nicht nur Boxer, sondern auch die rechte Hand von Jan Kaplica, seines Zeichens Pate von Warschau und glühender Sozialist. Die politischen Irrungen der Zeit machen aber auch vor Kaplicas Imperium nicht halt: Sozialisten und Nationaldemokraten stehen sich in blutiger Feindschaft gegenüber, die Nationalisten führen Grabenkämpfe, rechte Kräfte planen einen (historisch nicht verbürgten) Putsch. Juden wie Jakub und Mojzesz sehen sich außerdem zunehmendem Antisemitismus ausgesetzt. Warschau ist eine geteilte Stadt, ein Teil wohlhabend, westlich orientiert und christlich, der andere ärmlich, dem Osten zugewandt und jüdisch. Die Spaltung wird nur noch tiefer. Vor diesem Hintergrund steigt Jakub Shapiro zum König der Unterwelt auf; Król, also König, heißt auch das polnische Original. Ein etwas treffenderer Titel, denn geboxt wird im Buch nur wenig.
Mojzesz Bernstein ist ein anstrengender Erzähler. Er greift vor, er greift zurück, betont immer wieder, was er zum Zeitpunkt der Handlung noch nicht wusste und erst später erfahren hat. In längeren Einschüben erinnert er sich an seine Zeit in der Armee, an seinen Beitrag zum Nahost-Konflikt, oder meint sich zumindest zu erinnern. Die Zeitebenen vermischen sich, die Grenzen zwischen Mojzesz und Shapiros Geschichte verwischen und über allem schwebt ein irreales Element, das der Erzählung eine expressionistische Qualität verleiht.
Der Genre-Mix wird vermutlich nicht jedem gefallen. Für die Liebhaber des American Noir ist Der Boxer vielleicht zu prätentiös, vielleicht kommt die Handlung auch zu langsam in Gang. Für Fans historischer Romane bleiben die geschichtlichen Ereignisse vielleicht zu vage. Die Erzählung deutet den historischen Hintergrund nur an, erst Übersetzer Olaf Kühl gibt am Ende des Buches einen kurzen Abriss über den geschichtlichen Zusammenhang. Für jemanden, der wie ich mit der Geschichte Polens nur wenig vertraut ist, taugt dieser aber eher als Stichwortgeber für die eigene Recherche. (Für polnische Leser wiederum handelt es sich wahrscheinlich um Allgemeinwissen, das keiner näheren Erklärung bedarf.) Für Belletristik-Leser schließlich ist das Buch vielleicht doch zu sehr in den Konventionen der klassischen Gangsterballade verhaftet. Das wird vor allem anhand der Charaktere deutlich. Twardoch fährt durchaus interessantes Personal auf, Pantaleon zum Beispiel mit seinem ganz persönlichen Teufel oder Tjutschew, den stillen Russen (ein gutes Namensgedächtnis ist hier übrigens von Vorteil). Aber die Figuren sind recht eindimensional, entweder überlebensgroß wie der unbesiegbare Boxer Shapiro oder erbärmlich, wie einige feindliche Gestalten. Insbesondere die Frauenfiguren bleiben blass, ihre Rollen sind klar aufgeteilt: Hure, Heilige, Femme Fatale. Es ist kein Männerbuch (was immer das ist), aber doch ein sehr männliches Buch, in einer Männerwelt, in der Frauen nur Randfiguren sind.
Sprachlich ist das Buch eine reine Freude. Twardoch schreibt detailversessen, ist verliebt in Kleidung, Waffen, Straßennamen; das kann nerven, aber ihm gelingen doch immer wieder immens schöne Sätze. Die genretypische Brutalität fehlt ebenfalls nicht und kommt dabei so lakonisch und in unerwarteten Momenten daher, dass sie selbst mich hartgesottene Leserin getroffen hat. Aber die Gewalt ist nie schockierender Selbstzweck; Twardoch glorifiziert nichts, seine Welt hat wenig Glorreiches. Noir eben, mit Literatur-Beimischung.
Ich weiß nicht, ob jeder von Twardochs literarischen Tricks notwendig ist oder ob sie die Geschichte am Ende nicht doch überfrachten. Während des Lesens haben mich diese Tricks jedenfalls wenig gestört. Ich habe ein wenig was anders bekommen als ich erwartet habe, aber was ich bekam, hat mir sehr gut gefallen. Jetzt möchte ich möglichst bald auch Morphin lesen. Das klingt nach etwas, das ich noch mehr mögen könnte.
Here is a city, and the city is burning.
There are two dragons, the yellow and the green. One would be an aberration, a hundred would be a proliferation, but two: two is a species, either dying off or just getting started.
The city is burning, and yet people stay. Stubborn, persistent, stupid: people stay. The penniless poor and the filthy rich, the ones with nowhere left to go, the ones who haven't learned to live anywhere else: people stay. Someone always stays behind.
Here is what scientists have learned:
1. The dragons lever land.
2. The dragons never eat.
3. The dragons never sleep.
4. Ballistics, rockets, stun guns, paratroopers, lassos toxic sprays, nets, high-pitched sounds, mass hysteria, and prayer do nothing to deter the dragons.
5. The dragons will not let us be.
This is a story about a city, a story about what it means to be young, and it has been compared to many things. Let me have my try: it's like The Princess Bride and Infinite Jest had a baby and had her raised by Jeff VanderMeer, reading her bedtime stories by Mervyn Peake. What this girl dreams then might be this story. (The author claims she was inspired by Jane Austen.)
It's sprawling, and funny, and harrowing; it's a satire, and some don't like its bite. It's ambitious, and totally crazy, and far from perfect. The first act is gold, the second act drags; when our young heroes should be questing, they sit around talking all the time (it's really a very dialogue-heavy work; the ghost of Austen, I suspect.) The third act closes the circle. All questions answered? No way, no how, but that's life, ain't it?
While technically well written and exhibiting a certain elegance in structure, Chiang's stories suffer from a lack of passion. With the sole exception of Understand, which serves at least a bit of juicy pulp towards the end, Chiang's offering are as dry as a decade old elephant's bone found in the Kalahari. Why should I care about a story, about characters, about relationships, if the author apparently doesn't give a fuck?
The other obstacle was the frequent blend of science and religious concepts. That's something I simply don't want to read. (Exceptions always proof the rule.)
Chiang might be what all the geek kids are raving about. I didn't find anything thought-proving or poignant or deep in his stories. For the most part I was just mildly bored. Oh well, I'll just go back into my New Wave corner – ludicrous science, but with passion! (and sex, and drugs, and acid jazz)
Ratings for the individual stories:
The Tower of Babylon: ***
Well executed, but not very exciting. Nor very original.
By far my most favourite story in this collection. Reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, but with a different ending and much more pulpy. I especially liked the confrontation in the end.
Division by Zero: **
Too much math. The relationship is underdeveloped. Did Chiang have one single human emotion in his whole life? Because he sure doesn't know how to write about them.
Story of Your Life: ***
Blasphemy! Blasphemy! I liked the film better. The linguistics are more sound here, but this story suffers the most from Chiang's inability to present believable emotions.
Seventy-Two Letters: **
The weakest offering in the collection. Interesting premise, but too long, too wordy, and boring.
The Evolution of Human Science: ?
A blink and you'll miss it-piece on what human scientist will do when science as surpassed human understanding, too short to rate meaningfully. I have read better examples of exploring this particular problem.
Hell is the Absence of God: ****
[at first] I read about three pages before I decided to skip this, for reasons mentioned above: Please keep faith and gods out of my science fiction (except they're Greek gods and have a lot of queer sex. Then you can keep them.)
A few weeks later I got stuck in waiting-room limbo, read the story out of boredom - and yeah, I'm eating crow. It's one of the strongest offerings in this collection, unflinchingly following its premise.
Liking What You See: A Documentary: ***
Very timely, and it will probably stay timely for quite some, erm, time. But ultimately too simplistic and too superficial (kinda ironic, really); that's starts with reducing beauty to commercial beauty, ignoring the difference between beauty and sexual attractiveness (or desirability), and ends with mostly ignoring biological arguments for the sake of social justice. Oh well... The presentation of arguments made me suspect that Chiang's in favour of calligniosa, which – spoilers! - he admits to in his afterword. A bit more balance would have been nice.
What is this elusive thing we call „self“ anyway? What is consciousness, what is self-awareness, how does sentience relate to intelligence – and can there be one without the other? Peter Watts explores this questions in Blindsight and goes some disturbing ways. The human mind is a flimsy thing after all, easily manipulated, easily hacked. Our perceptions betray us, our perceived truth is a fabrication.
That's not exactly news, but Blindsight goes one step further, asking if our whole existence as sentient beings might not be a fluke. It turned out to be exactly the first contact-story I've always wanted to read. The kind of SF dealing with post-humanity I used to love and still like a great deal. It's grim and utterly bleak, nihilist and hopeless, too ambiguous for its own good, more than a little bit pretentious, not exactly sci-fi horror, but with a constant sense of dread. And although the darned aliens seem to speak English, it was also oddly satisfying in a linguistic and, even more so, semiotic sense. With some interesting tech to boot: subtitles for face-to-face communication – I WANT THAT! In short: My idea of fun.
It also turned out to be the perfect book to bridge 2017 and 2018, the last bit of Ariadne's thread combining the years, with yet another Theseus visiting yet another labyrinth. (And Gödel, of course. If I never read about this guy's fucking theorem ever again in my life, it would be too soon.)
Watts didn't make this an easy book to love – for most readers, at least. The language, the jargon, can be an obstacle. It's deliberately abstruse at points. Not everyone has fun parsing sentences like The new macrostructure hovered in the magnetosphere like the nested gimbals of some great phantom gyroscope. I still have no idea what that's even supposed to mean, even after looking up all the words. Watts keeps stringing words together with absolutely no regard for clarity. I don't know if this is his MO or owning to the story's narrator. I found my way into SF reading William Gibson, so I don't really mind.
The characters could be another obstacle. A ship full of mice, commandeered by a cat: four augmented humans and one sociopathic vampire. But although „less cuddlesome than usual“, like Watts described them, I didn't find them unlikeable. Szpindel, sliced with machinery as he might be, was basically a good man; Bates had guts and brains; from the Gang of Four I liked Sascha, she had drive. Sarasti, the vampire, was just as predatory as well-written vampires are supposed to be.
And then there's our narrator, Siri Keeton, half his brain cut out in childhood and replaced by machinery, a man with almost no sense of empathy and connection, the uncaring observer, a “Chinese Room”. At first I thought Watts just wanted to create a character who's hard to relate to; reading other reviews, that trick seems to work for more neurotypical readers. It worked differently for me. I could relate to Siri, because his half-brain and my brain think a lot alike. That birthday/ Game Theory thingy? I do the exact same thing in RL, for the exact same reason. And that's just one minor similarity. Siri and I share the difficulty to connect, to empathize; we stand outside, looking in, making others feel uncomfortable. (And why do people so unwilling to communicate end up working in communication?) This perceived similarities led to a stronger than usual response on my part; the very same thing that made me love the book also made me violently hate it sometimes. Especially when faced with questionable authorial decisions like the careless, ill informed, unnecessary, incredibly lazy use of rape and trauma as a plot-devices.
So, you can consider us lacking, if it makes you feel better and more wholesome. Watts does (or does he? I think he does) and in extension made Siri see himself as not fully human. He had to; more than anything, Siri is a plot-device, and the story wouldn't work any other way. That doesn't stop me from being somewhat angry (okay, very angry). You - general you - talk about empathy? You consider it a virtue? And yet your ability to empathize starts and stops with people similar to yourself, maybe extents to cats and dogs, but not, let's say, cows or chicken; includes next-of-kin, but not strangers, not aliens. No, considering what „normal“ people are capable of doing to each other, and to everything/everyone that's perceived as „other“ - I don't see myself as lacking.
Anywaaaaay - we're still talking about a book I rated 5 stars. And all that above is just to say: What's a mere plot-device and was probably also supposed to be a distancing method turned the book into an unexpectedly emotional and intense read for me. I just was unsettled for different reasons. I never expected the universe to be anything but vast and cold.