Feb 192015

Technicolor_Alien_Brain_by_ClaireJonesFrom Echopraxia (note that “Bicamerals” are humans that have self-modified to network their brains and thus reach post-human levels of intelligence) –

“You could look into the eyes of any cat or dog and see a connection there, a legacy of common subroutines and shared emotions. The Bicamerals had cut away all that kinship in the name of something their stunted progenitors called Truth

Those lines hit me right in the awe-sense. Yes. YES! I admire the HELL out of those people! That is true dedication to overcoming biases and gaining a correct model of reality. That is what a true love of Truth looks like. It is inspiring. It is amazing.

It is also scary, because it means cutting out parts of what makes us human. It is Peter Watts’ contention (if I read his book right) that it is even worse, akin to killing oneself, as you’d no longer be recognizable afterwards. If our species were to go down this path, it would be genocide, replacement by alien beings.

But it also seems to be his argument that such creatures would make humans obsolete. Never again would we be players on the stage of reality. We would become no better than pets, or chess pieces. The real players would be incomprehensible and unopposable. And that’s the true horror, for anyone who thinks such self-modification is inevitable. If you want to matter, you must leave behind your humanity. If you believe the change is radical enough to destroy your very self for all significant purposes, it means your choices are literally either meaninglessness or suicide.

On the one hand, I want to say “bring it on.” I’m very different from who I was ten years ago, and unrecognizably different from who I was twenty-five years ago. Evolution already killed (almost) all of us once, at puberty. It can do it again. I might as well beat it to the punch, and reincarnate in a form of my choosing.

On the other hand, I value myself a lot. The thought of killing myself, replacing myself with something not-me in order to affect the future, is fucking terrifying. Every practical concern in my body says “No. No. NO. NO!”

But… then that lure of the Truth comes out. Human brains can only know so much. These brains are better. All the hard-edged fiction I’ve ever read asks me “How much are you willing to sacrifice for your [loved one/planet/goal]?” I was raised to value the truth above all else, and to some extent I do. So when the heavens open up and the Lord asks me “How much does the Truth matter to you? How much are you willing to sacrifice for the Truth?” my lips reply “ALL OF IT.” and my soul cries “Yes, Yes, Yes!”

I don’t know if I’d make that decision IRL. And Peter Watts certainly is against it. But the emotions it stirs are awesome, and I hope the Noosphere deems  this work to be worthy of remembrance.

  9 Responses to “More on Echopraxia”

  1. Put a little thing on your page. I have nothing cogent to say but I want to click a little like button next to your post. One of those little rituals I guess.

    • Thanks. :) I get the same impulse often. There must be a WordPress plug-in for that, I’ll look around this weekend.

  2. Oh yes! Echopraxia was one of the most intellectually terrifying books I’ve ever had the pleasure of gobbling up. Not only the metaphysical aspects you mentioned but his shockingly plausible biological doomsday scenarios are hellish as well. I had nightmares and still LOVED that book. And just when I thought that I was done, Watts continues with a boatload of scientific citations and explanations for his reasoning. (Note: a small percentage of those is (identifiably) “made up” but the rest is genuine.)

    Have you read Blindsight? It’s in a sense a prequel to Echopraxia and freely available online under creative commons. It contains more of similar mind-fsck-ery from an entirely different perspective. And also for Blindsight I was tempted to call the author out multiple times on his shenanigans, only to find that he does not invent words (or even obscure neurological effects), they are all real and actual scientific jargon. (The Kindle “look up this word” feature is a blessing.)

    This guy reads a boatload of actual scientific papers before sitting down to write a book and the world is better for it.

    Ahem. Sorry for the fanboy rant.

    • re: Blindsight – of course! :) It’s amazing. I’ve also read his bridging short story, “The Colonel”, available at Tor.com

      And no worries about the fanboying, I’m right there with you!

      • Then allow me to recommend his other (older) works as well. The Rifters series contains much more world building, is slightly less horrifying (but still terrifying) and as always very much informed by his scientific background. There are a few scenes with very high tension but overall, the pacing is measured, as befits the momentum of what the protagonists are slowly unraveling.

        And while I’m at it, let me also recommend Stephenson’s Anathem. Again, slow pacing at first but the book is much more stronger for it.

        • Anathem is great! :) Long book though, I’m not sure I’d have time to read it if it came out today.

          I have the first of Watts’s Rifters on my bookshelf. It’s been there for a long time. I have so many things to read, and so little time for it nowadays, that I fear it may be quite some time before I get to it. :(

          • Definitely, huge backlog of books. I’ve been halfway through my third Rifters book for a few months now. I’ve noticed how certain kinds of works keep jumping the queue. One of those is “The Martian”, by Andy Weir. I binge-read that cover to cover one night. Deservedly best-selling rationalistic hard SciFi. Another recommendation. Are you on goodreads.com? I’d love to friend you.

  3. There was also the religious angle to the bicamerals actions. I remember reading that one of the reasons Watts wanted to write Echopraxia was that, as an atheist and a man of science, he felt the need to challenge himself writing a book in which religion was a better alternative than science for extracting knowledge, and went about that through the notion that after a certain threshold of knowledge, the science of which the human brain is capable was simply not enough. The bicamerals then have eliminated the scientific man and enhanced portions of their brains that in baselines are related to religious experience, in order to achieve illumination, what seems like divine inspiration (but is hinted at being the non-conscious mind doing all the work without having to delude the conscious mind with pretensions of being the one in charge). Reading about the notion of the bicameral brain and its role in early religion (although I think that notion has largely been refuted), makes the bicams actions more interesting. As far as I understand, the bicamerals have actually gone back to the bicameral brain stage, and then chosen the other path. While our ancestors would have taken the path to a brain unification in which the conscious mind seems to come on top and the ‘voices’ of the other chamber were silenced, the bicams from Echopraxia would have silenced the singular conscious mind and allowed the divine voices of the other chamber to be clearly in charge.

    • Yes!! I love the religious angle, as I was raised very religious and it informs a lot of my aesthetic taste.

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