Weaponised tornadoes, posthuman monks, sentient mould and the subtle conditioning of the human brain are only some of the concepts you’ll find in Echopraxia, the second novel in Peter Watt’s “Firefall” series. (The first book, Blindsight, garnered multiple award nominations including a Hugo). This is hard science fiction that’s having a grand old-time exploring difficult, nebulous concepts such as free will and faith. So much so that the novel’s plot regularly stops, almost abruptly, so these concepts can be discussed and teased out. It makes for a slightly frustrating but often times exciting reading experience.

Now, I haven’t read Blindsight so I can’t be sure how many of the concepts and notions introduced are original to Echopraxia. The impression I got, though, was that Watts was continuing a conversation. As he says in the detailed “Notes and References” at the end of the novel (with 140 footnotes no less), if Blindsight was about consciousness, then Echopraxia is about autonomy and free will. And while I’m sure Echopraxia works better as a book if you read it side by side with Blindsight, in my view it also functions adequately as a standalone novel.

This standalone aspect is facilitated by the introduction of Daniel Bruk, a biologist on a sabbatical out in Oregon who gets caught up in a conflict between Valerie the Vampire and the Church of the Bicameral. Before Daniel knows it, he’s been whisked away on a spaceship called the Crown of Thorns which is on a mission to Icarus, a space station that’s started receiving data from Theseus – a spaceship lost a decade ago that was the subject of Blindsight.

Daniel Bruks is our everyman. Unlike the bicameral monks or military officer Jim Moore, or Doctor Lianna Lutterodt, Bruks has never been augmented. In a world that’s speeding toward the singularity (Bruks’ wife left him and her physical body to join other virtual minds in a reality dubbed Heaven) Bruks is a fossil, a man who needs to wear peripherals, such as the cutely named gimp mask, to access information. For the first half of the novel, Bruks is as confused as the reader as he tries to figure out why he’s been brought along on this mission (or pilgrimage) to Icarus and why the people around him are so beholden to the inscrutable Bicameral monks and their hive mind.

And it’s here, as Bruks talks to the other crew members – specifically Moore, Lutterodt and the pilot of the Crown of Thrones, the spiky Rakshi Sengupta – that Watts first explores notions of faith and then digs deeper into the concept of human autonomy and free will. In terms of faith, I appreciated the discussions Bruks had with Lutterodt as to why she, a woman of science, is willing to follow and obey the Bicameral monks. There’s a whiff of theology 101 about their early discussions, but these conversations develop nicely into a debate about what God truly is in relation to the base code of the Universe. What I enjoyed is how even-handed these conversations are. Bruk’s is an atheist, Lutterodt is a believer and I never felt that either was ‘winning’ the debate. As a result, these discussions are some of the strongest and intellectually satisfying moments in the novel.

Watts exploration of human autonomy is less of a discussion between characters and more a pivotal part of the plot. As the book progresses we discover that everyone – ranging from the enigmatic monks, the high functioning Valerie the Vampire and the crew on-board the Crown of Thorns – have been manipulated in some way. In most cases the manipulation is covert, abstruse glyphs scrawled on a wall that trigger a certain reaction or emotion. What becomes clear though is that the human mind is malleable, that no choice is ever truly free. I found this to be bloody depressing because I have the naïve belief in free will and that people are responsible for their actions. The notion of culpability isn’t a nice to have, but a necessary function of a “civilised” society. Watts most definitely thinks otherwise, and the conclusion of the novel only reinforces his notion that genuine autonomy is a myth. It’s great stuff because it took me well out of my comfort zone.

For all the ideas and intellectual shenanigans, the actual plot is the weakest part of Echopraxia. Partly that’s because of the stop / start nature of the narrative as I note above. While the discussions and digressions are genuinely fascinating and the highlight of the novel, you do sometimes wonder whether Watts didn’t just collect a bunch of essays on the topics he’s interested in. Consequently, the stuff involving a sentient mould found on the Icarus and the motivations of both the monks and Valerie get a little lost in the noise of ideas.

Having said all that, this is a still a fantastic example of why hard science fiction is not a dying art. When it’s written this well, hard SF can challenge our notions of who we are and the future direction of humankind.