Prepare for a different kind of singularity in Peter Watts' Echopraxia, the follow-up to the Hugo-nominated novel Blindsight
It's the eve of the twenty-second century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it's all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.
Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat's-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he's turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out.
Now he's trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a pilot who hasn't yet found the man she's sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call "The Angels of the Asteroids."
Their pilgrimage brings Dan Bruks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.
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PETER WATTS is the Hugo nominated author of Blindsight and has been called "a hard science fiction writer through and through and one of the very best alive" by The Globe and Mail and whose work the New York Times called "seriously paranoid."Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Ultimately, all science is correlation. No matter how effectively it may use one variable to describe another, its equations will always ultimately rest upon the surface of a black box. (Saint Herbert might have put it most succinctly when he observed that all proofs inevitably reduce to propositions that have no proof.) The difference between Science and Faith, therefore, is no more and no less than predictive power. Scientific insights have proven to be better predictors than Spiritual ones, at least in worldly matters; they prevail not because they are true, but simply because they work.
The Bicameral Order represents a stark anomaly in this otherwise consistent landscape. Their explicitly faith-based methodologies venture unapologetically into metaphysical realms that defy empirical analysis—yet they yield results with consistently more predictive power than conventional science. (How they do this is not known; our best evidence suggests some kind of rewiring of the temporal lobe in a way that amplifies their connection to the Divine.)
It would be dangerously naïve to regard this as a victory for traditional religion. It is not. It is a victory for a radical sect barely half a century old, and the cost of that victory has been to demolish the wall between Science and Faith. The Church’s concession of the physical realm informed the historic armistice that has allowed faith and reason to coexist to this day. One may find it heartening to see faith ascendant once again across the Human spectrum; but it is not our faith. Its hand still guides lost sheep away from the soulless empiricism of secular science, but the days in which it guided them into the loving arms of Our Savior are waning.
—An Enemy Within: The Bicameral Threat to Institutional Religion in the Twenty-First Century (An Internal Report to the Holy See by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 2093)
ALL ANIMALS ARE UNDER STRINGENT SELECTION PRESSURE TO BE AS STUPID AS THEY CAN GET AWAY WITH.
—PETE RICHERSON AND ROBERT BOYD
DEEP IN THE Oregon desert, crazy as a prophet, Daniel Brüks opened his eyes to the usual litany of death warrants.
It had been a slow night. A half-dozen traps on the east side were offline—damn booster station must have gone down again—and most of the others were empty. But number eighteen had caught a garter snake. A sage grouse pecked nervously at the lens in number thirteen. The video feed from number four wasn’t working, but judging by mass and thermal there was probably a juvenile Scleroperus scrambling around in there. Twenty-three had caught a hare.
Brüks hated doing the hares. They smelled awful when you cut them open—and these days, you almost always had to cut them open.
He sighed and described a semicircle with his index finger; the feeds vanished from the skin of his tent. Headlines resolved in their wake, defaulting to past interests: Pakistan’s ongoing zombie problem; first anniversary of the Redeemer blowout; a sad brief obituary for the last wild coral reef.
Nothing from Rho.
Another gesture and the fabric lit with soft tactical overlays, skewed to thermal: public-domain real-time satellite imagery of the Prineville Reserve. His tent squatted in the center of the display, a diffuse yellow smudge: cold crunchy outer shell, warm chewy center. No comparable hot spots anywhere else in range. Brüks nodded to himself, satisfied. The world continued to leave him alone.
Outside, invisible in the colorless predawn, some small creature skittered away across loose rattling rock as he emerged. His breath condensed in front of him; frost crunched beneath his boots, bestowed a faint transient sparkle to the dusty desert floor. His ATB leaned against one of the scraggly larches guarding the camp, marshmallow tires soft and flaccid.
He grabbed mug and filter from their makeshift hook and stepped into the open, down a loose jumble of scree. The vestiges of some half-assed desert stream quenched his thirst at the foot of the slope, slimy and sluggish and doomed to extinction within the month. Enough to keep one large mammal watered in the meantime. Out across the valley the Bicamerals’ pet tornado squirmed feebly against a gray eastern sky but stars were still visible overhead, icy, unwinking, and utterly meaningless. Nothing up there tonight but entropy, and the same imaginary shapes that people had been imposing on nature since they’d first thought to wonder at the heavens.
It had been a different desert fourteen years ago. A different night. But it had felt the same, until the moment he’d glanced up—and for a few shattering moments it had even been a different sky, robbed of all randomness. A sky where every star blazed in brilliant precise formation, where every constellation was a perfect square no matter how desperately human imaginations might strain. February 13, 2082. The night of First Contact: sixty-two thousand objects of unknown origin, clenching around the world in a great grid, screaming across the radio spectrum as they burned. Brüks remembered the feeling: as though he were witnessing some heavenly coup, a capricious god deposed and order restored.
The revolution had lasted only a few seconds. The upstaged constellations had reasserted themselves as soon as those precise friction trails had faded from the upper atmosphere. But the damage had been done, Brüks knew. The sky would never look the same again.
That’s what he’d thought at the time, anyway. That’s what everyone had thought. The whole damn species had come together in the wake of that common threat, even if they didn’t know what it was exactly, even if it hadn’t actually threatened anything but Humanity’s own self-importance. The world had put its petty differences aside, spared no expense, thrown together the best damn ship the twenty-first century could muster. They’d crewed it with expendable bleeding-edgers and sent them off along some best-guess bearing, carrying a phrase book that spelled take me to your leader in a thousand languages.
The world had been holding its breath for over a decade now, waiting for the Second Coming. There’d been no encore, no second act. Fourteen years is a long time for a species raised on instant gratification. Brüks had never considered himself a great believer in the nobility of the Human spirit but even he had been surprised at how little time it took for the sky to start looking the same as it always had, at the speed with which the world’s petty differences returned to the front page. People, he reflected, were like frogs: take something out of their visual field, and they’d just—forget it.
The Theseus mission would be well past Pluto by now. If it had found anything, Brüks hadn’t heard about it. For his part, he was sick of waiting. He was sick of life on hold, waiting for monsters or saviors to make an appearance. He was sick of killing things, sick of dying inside.
He wished the world would just hurry up and end.
* * *
He spent the morning as he’d spent every other for the past two months: running his traplines and poking the things inside, in the faint hope of finding some piece of nature left untwisted.
The clouds were already closing in by sunrise, before his bike had soaked up a decent charge; he left it behind and ran the transects on foot. It was almost noon by the time he got to the hare, only to find that something had beaten him to the punch. The trap had been torn open and its contents emptied by some other predator who’d lacked even the good grace to leave a blood spatter behind for analysis.
The garter snake was still slithering around in number eighteen, though: a male, one of those brown-on-brown morphs that vanished against the dirt. It writhed in Brüks’s grasp, clenched around his forearm like a scaly tentacle; its scent glands smeared stink across his skin. Brüks drew a few microliters of blood without much hope, plugged them into the barcoder on his belt. He swigged from his canteen while the device worked its magic.
Far across the desert the monastery’s tornado had swollen to three times its predawn size, pumped by the midday heat. Distance reduced it to a brown thread, an insignificant smoky smudge; but get too close to that funnel and you’d end up scattered over half the valley. Just the year before, some Ugandan vendetta theocracy had hacked a transAt shuttle out of Dartmouth, sent it through a vortex engine on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Not much but rivets and teeth had come out the other side.
The barcoder meeped in plaintive surrender: too many genetic artifacts for a clean read. Brüks sighed, unsurprised. The little machine could tag any gut parasite from the merest speck of shit, ID any host species from the smallest shred of pure tissue—but pure tissue was so hard to come by, these days. There was always something that didn’t belong. Viral DNA, engineered for the greater good but too indiscriminate to stay on target. Special marker genes, designed to make animals glow in the dark when exposed to some toxin the EPA had lost interest in fifty years before. Even DNA computers, custom-built for a specific task and then tramped carelessly into wild genotypes like muddy footprints on a pristine floor. Nowadays it seemed like half the technical data on the planet were being stored genetically. Try sequencing a lung fluke and it was even money whether the base pairs you read would code for protein or the technical specs on the Denver sewer system.
It was okay, though. Brüks was an old man, a field man from a day when people could tell what they were looking at by—well, by looking at it. Check the chin shields. Count the fin rays, the hooks on the scolex. Use your eyes, dammit. At least if you screw up you’ve only got yourself to blame, not some dumb-ass machine that can’t tell the difference between cytochrome oxidase and a Shakespearean sonnet. And if the things you’re trying to ID happen to live inside other things, you kill the host. You cut it open.
Brüks was good at that, too. He’d never got around to liking it much, though.
Now he whispered to his latest victim—“Shhh … sorry … it won’t hurt, I promise…”—and dropped it into the kill sack. He’d found himself doing that a lot lately, murmuring meaningless comforting lies to victims who couldn’t possibly understand what he was saying. He kept telling himself to grow up. In all the billions of years that life had been iterating on this planet, had any predator ever tried to comfort its prey? Had “natural” death ever been so quick and painless as the killings Dan Brüks inflicted for the greater good? And yet it still bothered him to see those small diffuse shadows flopping and squirming behind the translucent white plastic, to hear the soft thumps and hisses as simple minds tried to drive bodies, suddenly and terrifyingly unresponsive, toward some kind of imaginary escape.
At least these deaths served a purpose, some constructive end transcending the disease or predation that nature would have inflicted. Life was a struggle to exist at the expense of other life. Biology was a struggle to understand life. And this particular bit of biology, this study of which he was author, principal, and sole investigator—this was a struggle to use biology to help the very populations he was sampling. These deaths were the closest that Darwin’s universe would ever come to altruism.
And that, said the little voice that always seemed to boot up at times like this, is so much shit. The only thing you’re struggling to do is wring a few more publications out of your grant before the funding dries up. Even if you nailed down every change inflicted on every clade over the past hundred years, even if you quantified species loss down to the molecules, it wouldn’t matter.
Nobody cares. The only thing you’re struggling against is reality.
That voice had become his constant companion over the years. He let it rant. Either way, he told it after it had run down, we’re a shitty biologist. And while his own guilty plea came easily enough, he could not bring himself to feel shame on that account.
* * *
It had stopped being a snake by the time he got back to camp. He stretched the limp and lifeless remains along the dissecting tray. Four seconds with the scasers and it was gutted, throat to cloaca; twenty more and the GI and respiratory tracts floated in separate watch glasses. The intestine would have the heaviest parasite load; Brüks loaded the GI tract into the ’scope and got to work.
Twenty minutes later, a retinue of flukes and cestodes only half-cataloged, something exploded in the distance.
That’s what it sounded like, anyway: the soft muffled whoompf of far-off ordinance. Brüks rose from his work, panned the desert between spindly gnarled trunks.
Nothing. Nothing. Noth—
Oh, wait …
He grabbed his goggles off the ATB and zoomed in. The tornado was the first thing to draw his eye—
—That thing’s going pretty strong for so late in the day—
—but off to the right, directly over the monastery itself, a puff of dark brown smoke roiled and drifted and dissipated in the lowering light.
The building didn’t seem to be damaged, though. At least, none of the façades he could see.
What are they doing over there?
Physics, officially. Cosmology. High-energy stuff. But it was all supposed to be theoretical; as far as Brüks knew the Bicameral Order didn’t perform actual experiments. Of course, hardly anyone did, these days. It was machines that scanned the heavens, machines that probed the space between atoms, machines that asked the questions and designed the experiments to answer them. All that was left for mere meat, apparently, was navel-gazing: to sit in the desert and contemplate whatever answers those machines served up. Although most still preferred to call it analysis.
A hive mind that spoke in tongues: that was how the Bicamerals did it, supposedly. Some kind of bioradio in their heads, a communal corpus callosum: electrons jiggling around in microtubules, some kind of quantum-entanglement thing. Completely organic to get around the ban on B2B interfaces. A spigot that poured many minds into one on command. They flowed together and called down the Rapture, rolled around the floor and drooled and ululated while their acolytes took notes, and somehow they ended up rewriting the Amplituhedron.
There was supposed to be some rational explanation to justify the mumbo jumbo. Left-hemisphere pattern-matching subroutines amped beyond recognition; the buggy wetware that made you see faces in clouds or God’s wrath in thunderstorms, tweaked to walk some fine line between insight and pareidolia. Apparently there were fundamental insights to be harvested along that razor’s edge, patterns that only the Bicamerals could distinguish from hallucination. That was the story, anyway. It sounded like utter bullshit to Brüks.
Still, you couldn’t argue with the Nobels.
Maybe they had some kind of particle accelerator over there after all. They had to be doing something that sucked a lot of energy; nobody used an industrial vortex engine to run kitchen appliances.
From behind, the metallic tinkle of displaced instruments. Brüks turned.
His scasers lay in the dirt. On the bench above them the...
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