Fiction Reviews

Firefall (Echopraxia)

(2014) Peter Watts, Head of Zeus, £20, hrdbk, 761pp, ISBN 978-1-784-08046-4


If you like your science fiction with hefty dollop of science then you are in for a mind-sizzling treat, and a very rare treat at that if the life sciences (biology and its allied disciplines) are your bag as nearly all of hard SF has a physics and engineering (computer science, astronomy and rocket science) slant.  But first, do not be panicked by Firefall's hefty page count: Firefall is not just a single novel, it is a diptych, a linked duology that contains the Hugo nominated, and Tähtivaeltaja and Seiun award-winning 2006 novel Blindsight. By all means click on the afore Blindsight link for a separate standalone review of what is the first half of Firefall. Both Blindsight and the second half of Firefall (Echopraxia) start with the same premise… On 13th February 2082 (which is an unlucky-for-some Friday by my calculation) some 62,000 small objects fell from the sky in a grid pattern: someone had taken a snapshot of the Earth. And then an object was detected approaching the Solar system and a spaceship was dispatched to investigate. Blindsight concerns this investigative space mission and is a first contact novel. The second half of Firefall (which is the Echopraxia novel) concerns what happens in the inner Solar system shortly after the events of Blindsight.

One final thing about this diptych, if you are reading this before you have purchased Echopraxia and you already have Blindsight then you need to know that Echopraxia will shortly (end of 2014) be released in the British Isles as a stand-alone novel and also, I presume, in N. America, and so you may wish to wait until that novel comes out. However if you have not already got Blindsight in your collection, and you think you'll like these two novels having read this review, then do get this Firefall duology. Yes, it is £20 (which is equivalent to about a gallon of real ale or scrumpy, or three paperback novels in today's prices), but then this edition is a hardback and considering that it contains two novels that works out at a very reasonable equivalent of £10 per book, hence good value.

OK, onto the review.

They say 'never judge a book by its cover', but as I have never trusted 'them' this is exactly what I will now do. The front cover features an interestingly-designed spaceship set against the backdrop of Jupiter. Meanwhile the back cover features a different, interestingly-designed spacecraft set against the backdrop of… er… Jupiter. Now the space ships portrayed are models designed by the author himself and we can clearly see that, what Airfix has never had, SF has gained. Inside Firefall, as noted, we find that the first half (Blindsight) concerns a first contact, deep space mission for the ship Theseus and the craft depicted on Firefall's back cover. This is fair enough as Theseus had to pass by Jupiter on its way to the outer reaches of the Solar system. However Firefall's front cover depicts The Crown of Thorns which is the craft used in Echopraxia (Firefall's second half) and that went to the inner Solar system, nowhere near Jupiter as it went to the inner system close to the Sun. Why the publishers could not have used a backdrop of Mercury I do not know; if cost was the issue then surely an SF fan with a half decent telescope could have got a picture of the Moon (which both ships would have passed) for free for the publisher to use… Now this may seem trivial but I hate Firefall's internal excellence (a noun I use carefully) being marred by a fallacious back cover: book covers should reflect the book's content. I worry about these things (which probably shows how sad a creature I am, or that I am terribly caring). Having said that, the spacecraft depictions themselves are photos of models created by the author, and the one for the book's second half ('The Crown of Thorns' craft) has its own full-page illustration and component labelling at the start of the Echopraxia section.

Assuming you have read Blindsight (or my separate review via the earlier link so no need for me to duplicate its comments here) then let's turn to the second half of Firefall and the Echopraxia novel.

It has been 14 years since 13th February 2082 when 62,000 objects fell out of the sky screaming across the radio spectrum as they burned, and since subsequently a mission was sent to the outer Solar system to investigate an incoming object. Daniel Bruks is an old-fashioned and an old biologist in the desert undertaking fieldwork trying to find untainted organisms. He has been a professional biologist for so long that he can even remember when species identification was based on morphology. In his tent one night his remote sensors start to record an intruder before they are cut out. Something was coming his way. It soon becomes apparent that whatever it is is human – no, make that humans or post-humans – and hostile and so Bruks jumps on his bike and heads off. Not far away there is sanctuary in a monastery of bicameral monks and they give him refuge. However it soon transpires that it was the monks that were the intended subject of the attack and not Bruks. But the monks have their own escape plan: a spectacular one into space. And so Bruks finds himself on a craft with monks, an ex-military type, as well as a werewolf and vampire post- (or should that be pre-?) humans and a couple of zombies. They were heading into the inner Solar system and Icarus: a giant solar satellite beaming energy to Earth as well as quantum fuel to Theseus (the craft in Blindsight); it also acted as a receiver from Theseus. But they were still being chased…

Echopraxia is a superb follow-up to Blindsight. Both these halves to Firefall complement each other perfectly. True, both novels are first contact stories but, as much if not more than that, they explore the post-human condition and in doing that the real-life way we humans live: I really enjoyed the science-religion discussions. Then there is Peter Watts' writing style which, apart from being hard SF biology, is concentrated. This is not a fast read save for the few actions scenes which are page turners: I'd have liked a few more of (or extensions to) these and perhaps just a little further exposition. I mention this because for the most part Peter Watts' writing is so concentrated that one does have to focus one's attention and the occasional change of pace is a welcome breather. Now, please be clear, this is not because the writing is in anyway substandard, to the contrary, it is actually carefully crafted and packed with meaning so it warrants proper digestion: this is not a book to be rushed but savoured and indeed shortly re-read. If readers put in the effort that the author has brought to bear then, be assured, they will be well rewarded.

Of course this is science fiction, but it is also hard SF and make no mistake there is solid science in the mix. Peter Watts is a biologist and in part reveals himself to be one after my own heart. For example, early on in Echopraxia he uses the term 'protozoan' which (though his use is technically correct as a lower case collective noun for the phyla Rhizopoda, Zoomastigina, Apicomplexa and Ciliophora), 'Protozoa' used to be a phylum in its own right; these days 21st century graduates refer to 'Protoctista'. So Peter is a biologist schooled around the third quarter of the 20th century with some quaint quirks which in turn is a bit like Echopraxia's biologist protagonist Daniel Bruks.

Anyway I digress, Echopraxia is hard SF and make no mistake there is solid science in the mix. If readers doubt this then there is a 25-page appendix of notes supported by over a hundred academic references.  Now, they say you should never start a book by reading its ending but as I have never trusted 'them', I confess that this is what I did. On receiving the book the first thing I turned to was the appendix: you see I had remembered the marvellous appendix to Blindsight and suspected that there was a similar treat at the end of Echopraxia. From it, it seems that Peter Watts' regular science reading overlaps my own but there is a fair bit he covers that I do not and so I wanted to see what I may be missing. And so I found myself, before reading the actual story, downloading a few academic papers. It's all good stuff and Watts appendices are worthy accompanying essays in their own right: I do wish more hard SF authors would do that.

You will not be surprised, after all of the above, that I am going to conclude by firmly recommending Echopraxia as well as this Firefall edition bringing together Blindsight and Echopraxia. This is an accomplished work which may well, if there is any justice at all in this world, end up on the shortlist of a number of this year's (2015) SF awards. Head of Zeus are to be firmly congratulated for bringing these works out in the British Isles. I hope it garners the author with more readers as, make no mistake, this truly is cutting-edge SF. It has been eight years since the original publication of Blindsight in N. America and this novel. As the author himself points out, in between the publication of these two works, Peter has had his tribulations not least with him suffering an attack of a flesh-eating bacteria and his becoming a convicted felon in the US due to an (ahem) over-enthusiastic policeman and 'lost' CCTV evidence. Let's hope the next few years give him an easier ride so that he can give us more stories.

Jonathan Cowie

STOP PRESS (Spring 2015): Echopraxia won Poland's magazine Nowa Fantastyka Awards at the 2015 Polcon.

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