The main problem with most trans-humanist fiction – see SOMA – is how little trans there is in it. Scratch the chrome a bit, and you find most supposedly beyond-human characters are just people whose voices have been put through a modulator to sound like an 80s digitizer.
Not so with Peter Watts. With him, even characters who are mostly human in appearance can be incomprehensible, never mind his aliens.
And still there's something in his writing that connects with me. Some thematic mental resonance, a neural backdoor through which he sneaks in.
Not always in a good way, mind you. I appreciate the world building and writing in Starfish, for example, and I can see where he's going, but he's making the trip damned unpleasant. It's like watching someone expertly and systematically break every bone in someone's body, giving the victim only enough time to stop screaming before moving on to the next one: you can appreciate the skill, but that doesn't make it enjoyable.
If writing is therapy, I don't want to know the issues he's dealing with.
The first one that I can say I straight up enjoyed – as opposed to using it to entertain one of the voices in my head as it watched the others squirm – was Blindsight. It's a first-contact story where a League of Extraordinarily Maladjusted Gentlemonsters are sent to the Kuiper belt to examine an alien signal. Strongly recommended for any hard science fiction fan: you won't find any light sabers or space magic here. His time is instead spent on neurology, linguistics, and the nature (and trade-offs) of consciousness. His characters can still barely pass for normal, mind you – the most human one has several voices in her head. Unlike in Starfish, Watts was now focused more on the themes at hand, instead of exploring his cast's fundamentally unpleasant nature and rapidly vanishing humanity.
From that point of view, the Blindsight follow-up Echopraxia feels sanitized. I wouldn't call it a crowd-pleaser but, at least in its narrator, readers might be able to find some remnant of normalcy that they can relate to.
It's not a direct sequel – the events from the first book are referenced, and propel some of what happens, but it won't be required reading. The story follows Daniel Brüks, stubbornly aging biologist, as he gets plucked from his Oregon desert retreat and shanghaied into a trip to the sun by a crew that's vintage Watts.
To say more would be spoilers.
It was a good read, and I was happy to get that Watts narrative scent from Blindsight lingering around again. He's still the man when it comes to hard science fiction topics. What he isn't as good at are the weak and confusing action sequences, a prose equivalent of the Bourne series' Blair-With-O-Vision fights, where the camera is so close to the flailing arms you have no idea who's punching who. Those could have used some serious editing – or being excised altogether – since there are key events that happen in the middle of the chaos, and might confuse readers.
One confused me, actually, and I was uncertain of why things had played exactly how they did. This drove me to do a quick search for Echopraxia, which lead to a IamA that Watts did on reddit around the time the book came out.
How Watts obliquely answers some questions cleared things up, but more importantly, provided a crystalline reminder of one of the problems with creative work: it's very easy to sink too much of your self-worth into your results.
There's an undercurrent of frustration on his replies coming from the book not doing better, just wandering through the mid-list, that is not hard to relate to. Watts has poured his heart and mind into making something out of nothing, into creating a baroque, layered trans-human Earth that would not have existed without his effort, and then it gets by and large ignored because more accessible books came out at about the same time.
It's not hard to see why that would make you want to throw your hands up in despair and sign whatever sell-out contract with a topical devil ends up giving you a wider audience. Craft be damned, you just want enough sales to not have to worry about how long the next one's going to take.
We're all together in this online soup, and as he says, it can be hard to draw the line between organism and environment. Now that you have direct access to your audience, you can no longer blame distribution or marketing or lack of reach and be satisfied it's not your fault. You are submerged in the same signal sea as everyone else, and you pick the bits you echo.
Imagine you are Peter Watts.
You can just swim out there, grab them by whatever lapels you can get a hand off, and ask them Why? Why isn't this doing better? I thought I did a good job. Fuck, a great one! Is there anyone out there that handled this theme better? Look at the reviews, for Christ's sake! What could I have done differently?
And then you realize it's not that the book isn't impeccable. Most of them don't give two fucks, and have not heard of you, and it doesn't matter if you had polished and perfected the confusing sequences, because they're too busy laughing at PewDiePie's antics and making his book of silly inspirational sayings a best-seller.
You'd despair of humanity if you had the snobbishness in you.
But if you cut deeper, bringing some of that clinical detachment with you, what you actually encounter is a deep sadness at the way your own brain is wired. You find easy to do things others find hard or impossible – just not massively profitable things. There are many out there who you know for a fact don't even care about their craft, merely bang out dreck or hang around a desk job, and they do better than you, because they can spot what people are willing to pay for. You rage at the mental proclivities that pushed you towards hard science fiction, when they could instead have made you want to spend the time jockeying for a chance to write the script for the next space-magic lightsaber movie.
What do you do?
Do you just stand there, all clenching fists and grinding teeth?
Or do you just collapse on the chair, shake your head, and hunker down for the next one?