Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: September 2014

A free will review of ECHOPRAXIA

I’ve talked before about my love of Peter Watts’s writing. With the recent release of ECHOPRAXIA, I thought I would give it a little review here, along with some random thoughts about his many not-so-random thoughts.

So what’s Echopraxia about? It is the story of Dan Bruks, a “baseline” human (a mostly unmodified, “normal” person) living in a very modified, post-human world nearly a hundred years in the future. When the story begins, Dan is just conducting field research in the desert of Oregon, mostly trying to keep to himself. But soon he finds himself swept up in conflicts of various post-human forces — Bicameral hive minds, zombie military forces, and the occasional vampire — a cockroach scurrying about before much greater powers, mostly just hoping to stay alive.

It is the kind-of sequel (or “side-quel”, if you will) to the amazing science-fiction novel BLINDSIGHT. Blindsight focused on humanity’s response to a first-contact situation with a very strange alien life form about a hundred years from now, sending a crew of bizarre post-humans out to the edge of the solar system to find out more about the aliens. Echopraxia, on the other hand, is more about the humanity left behind on Earth, and how post-humans continue to transform themselves and clash with each other at home.

Being a Peter Watts novel, it is also about scheming, untrustworthy actors with conflicting and hidden agendas, and our main character trying to navigate the treacherous path between them. It is also about as hard as “hard sci-fi” can get. It’s full of dense talk about biology and physics, and wild extrapolations from that science, with a huge amount of footnotes to back it all up.

So, how good is it? And should you read it?

1) Very good, although not quiet as dizzyingly brilliant as Blindsight. But that still makes it ten times better and smarter than most other science fiction.

2) Yes! Although you really need to read Blindsight first, to keep up with a lot of the strong background stuff on vampires and the aliens.

Blindsight was largely about consciousness, with Watts offering the idea that consciousness is not such a great evolutionary adaptation after all. As a big fan of Julian Jaynes, I loved a book riffing on those sorts of themes.

Echopraxia, on the other hand, is more about free will, and touches more on religious issues — which is fine, although it is not as compelling stuff to me as consciousness is.

The biggest problem with the book is that the main character appears to have no agency for most of the story (not really a surprise in a book critiquing free will). Although as the story going on, that “problem” mostly resolves itself. But it is harder to make a story compelling when it seems like the main character is just along for the ride.

The coolest part of the book is the alien life form Watts comes up with, nicknamed “Portia” (after a fascinating species of spider). Watts really knows his biology and is great at coming up with unusual biological systems. I always enjoy reading about strange aliens that are more interesting than evil-killer-monsters or super-intelligent daddy-figures. Watts is also great at challenging a lot of common assumptions about what makes humans human, and what is special about being human — call it the “anti-Star Trek”.

So, if you are looking for a great read, something challenging and really off-the-wall, a big recommend for Echopraxia (and Blindsight).

UPDATE: I should elaborate on one point about the “free will” thing. Watts has mentioned several times that he does not think that Echopraxia is about free will — in the footnotes to the book and elsewhere. But I fear I have to take issue with him on that point. While Echopraxia leaves no question about Watts’s feeling on whether we have free will (clearly “no”),  it does spend a lot of time talking about how and why we do what we do. I mean, the very title of the novel means “stereotyped imitation of the movements of others.” So it seems pretty clear to me that this is a book about motivations and lack-of-rationality … in other words, free will (or, if you prefer, totally-not-free will).


It’s still rather early to talk about this, but seeing as the page is up, I guess this is a decent time to announce my new book — and my first novel. It’s titled YOUNG-HEE AND THE PULLOCHO and it is coming out in the spring by Tuttle Publishing.

(UPDATE: I just found out the book is coming out in Asia in January, but and the West probably won’t get it until April or May).

THE PULLOCHO is a fantasy novel, in the vein of Alice in Wonderland or the Narnia books (or The Wizard of Oz or Hayao Miyazak’s movies or the like). As you can guess from the title, it is set in Korea and it is about a girl named Young-hee.

So what is it about?

So annoying.

In Young-hee’s life, everything feels wrong. It seemed like only yesterday that her world was just as it should be. But now her dad is gone, her mom is overextended, and Young-hee is forced to move back to Seoul—and not a nice part of Seoul, either. To make matters worse, the girls at her new school are nasty, and her little brother Bum is an insufferable, attention-hogging pain.

Then Young-hee stumbles into a magical world, where the Korean fairy stories of her childhood are real and all the frustrations of her everyday life fade away—until Bum is kidnapped by a goblin, and the only way Young-hee can save him is by finding the magical pullocho plant. Soon, she is plunged into an epic quest, encountering dragons, tigers, ghosts and other fairytale creatures, and facing decisions that affect not only Bum, but the fate of an entire world.

Fyi, a pullocho (불로초) is a kind of magical ginseng root. In addition, I also retell a whole bunch of Korean traditional folktales, weaving them into Young-hee’s story.

After years of writing about other people’s art (movies, music, etc.), it feels good to have created something of my own. YOUNG-HEE AND THE PULLOCHO comes out next April or May, but already you can pre-order it on a lot of online retailers, like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books a MillionIndigo (in Canada),  and Kyobo Books (in Korea).

Much more to come as the publication date gets closer!


The Best Coffee Shops in Hongdae (well, that I know of…)

Okay, for no particular reason, I thought I would give a brief rundown of my favorite coffee shops in Hongdae. By “Hongdae,” I mean the greater region, going from Yeonnam-dong in the north, to Donggyo-dong, Seogyo-dong, and south to Hapjeong and Sangsu. It’s one of the most unusual parts of Seoul and home to a huge number of independent, quirky, cool, and otherwise different coffee shops (and of course the big-name chain brands on the main roads).

This is not a complete list. I don’t claim to know every one of the hundreds of coffee shops in this part of town — some are very nice, a lot are terrible, and others are in-between. But I do know a few places that I think are worth mentioning, places where they roast their own beans or at least are actively involved in shaping the flavor (so they are not just part-time workers hitting a button).

This is also a personal list. For me, the more times I see the word “barista” used in reference to a coffee shop, the less likely I am to enjoy it. So don’t expect many award-winners here.

Coffee Me

Simple, unassuming, but run by a very nice couple. While they have a few snacks, the focus is very much the coffee. They roast their own beans here and put a lot of care into the beverages. It has a big patio out front and a lot of open space inside, so it is quite relaxing.

Located close to Sanullim Theater on the north side of Hongdae, in Changjeon-dong, on Seogangro 9-gil.


Cafe Libre

Widely considered one of the best coffee places in Korea, Cafe Libre certainly is serious about their brews. And its rustic interior is both unusual and memorable. However, its coffee is also one of the prime examples of the “sour” style that is so popular in Korea and that I personally detest. But many people love it, so you probably should check it out. Plus while you are in the neighborhood, you can eat at Tuk Tuk Noodle and enjoy the best Thai food in Korea.

Located in Yeonnam-dong, down Hyanggi 1-gil alley (by Seoul Dongbu Church).

You Are Here

The coffee shop co-run by Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi and the language blog Talk to Me in Korean. The coffee here is excellent, especially the espressos — dark, strong and flavorful. Really my style. (The milkshakes and carrot cake are excellent, too).

It can get crowded at times, but the space is fairly large and there are plenty of spaces to hang out. I find earlier in the day it is usually quieter.

Located at Donggyoro 25-gil and World Cup Bukro 6-gil.


Another place that roasts its own beans and is very serious about coffee.  The menu isn’t huge, but what they have they do well, with the rich, bitter espresso that I like. (Very good macarons, too).

(Grr… cannot find a decent pic or URL … They renovated recently, and the new patio is much nicer than the old layout).

UPDATE: So, I was walking past Belief today, so managed to take a new pic. Not a great photo, but at least it is something.

Also, I remembered another very good cafe, Organic. It’s just down the street from Belief. In addition to very good coffee, it has homemade ginger ale which is excellent.


Note: The number of places in the greater-Hongdae area that are notable for ambiance or interior design is huge. Many of them are open 24-hours, too, including Ethiopia (which is frequently used for filming TV dramas) and Gabia (very stylish interior, good coffee, and probably busier at 3am than at 3pm) — both are located very close to Sanullim Theater. In the Sangsu Station area, Jebi Cafe, Yri Cafe and Mudaeruk  all have excellent coffee and ambiance out the wahzoo.

Note 2: Don’t bother using Google Street view on Yeonnam-dong or Sangsu. It hasn’t been updated since 2009, and back then there was nothing in either neighborhood. Even Naver’s street view, which was made in 2012, is now totally out of date. As always, it is amazing how fast Korea changes. Daum’s street maps seem to be the most recent, having been updated earlier in 2014.

LATE UPDATE (On Oct. 31): I finally went to Anthracite, the very funky building that’s right beside Mudaeruk in the Sangsu area. And, wow, that place is crazy about its coffee.  A bit too pretentious for me, but many people seem to love it.


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