Blindsight by Peter Watts Review

One of the things I find interesting about “hard” science fiction — by way of introducing Peter Watts’s Hugo-nominated novel Blindsight, the best example of the type that I have read in years — is that it is probably the most legitimate heir to the original remit of story, a remit that has existed since humans first gained sufficient consciousness and intelligence both to create stories and to need to create stories.

 peter watts

Looking at the earliest stories we have record of, we can always see several purposes at work: stories existed to inform; to entertain; and, from the start, stories have existed at the level of myth to theorize, to suggest and test possibilities about the unknown elements of the world that we see and experience. What are those odd looking animals, where did they come from; where did we come from; what are those flashes of light in the darkness?

I imagine that within any given movement, though, there comes a time when some sufficiently large number of people — a majority in fact or at least in voice — decides that they’ve carried things as far as they want to, that any further change, any further speculating, is as likely to impact them for the worse as for the better. And we can see this in modern Western fiction, as the new game of literature is “the human condition” — showing what we know rather than grappling with what we don’t know. There is the pressure to see literature according to a single aesthetic, to judge it based solely on how well it captures our humanist understanding of a fixed present. It’s no surprise that such a static, unchanging view of the world would be anathema to a writer like Peter Watts, an evolution-minded marine biologist by training. Watts understands that life is not static, that we are part of a world, part of a universe, that is constantly evolving. At a high level, Watts is interested in how this evolution, our evolution, may play out; he is as interested in what we don’t yet know about ourselves as what we do. It’s easy to see why this type of speculative fiction has become gauche in many circles: we like to think we know everything.

That state of human self-satisfaction nicely sums up where Blindsight begins. It is 2082, and Earth is shaken out of its contemplation of the Fermi paradox by the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of alien probes. These “Fireflies” quickly appear in Earth orbit, take a snapshot of our world — our technologies, communications and activities — broadcast that captured data out into space, and then burn up in our atmosphere. Watts’s description of the event is characteristic of the book as a whole: densely filled with detailed jargon, yet sleek and sharp because of that very precision of language; fast-paced and poetic.

[The Fireflies] clenched around the world like a fist, each black as the inside of an event horizon until those last bright moments when they all burned together. They screamed as they died. Every radio up to geostat groaned in unison, every infrared telescope went briefly snowblind. Ashes stained the sky for weeks afterwards; mesospheric clouds, high above the jet stream, turned to glowing rust with every sunrise.

In typical SF fashion, a swiftly-united Earth responds by assembling a small team of specialists to follow the probes’ signal to its destination. There the team encounters the alien, the Other. Described thus, the surface-level plot of Blindsight is self-consciously pedestrian, a first contact/”big dumb object” melange that evokes such novels as Sagan’s Contact, Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Niven’s Ringworld, and Lem’s Solaris — with a mix of the horrors found in films like 2001 and Alien. What becomes clear as the novel progresses, however, is that Watts is attempting a very dextrous piece of narrative sleight of hand, where the conventional SF setup gradually bleeds into the thesis and thought-experiment that is at the heart — or rather, the mind — of Blindsight. At issue is consciousness, viewed from an unsentimental, relentlessly biological perspective.

The composition of the team sent by Earth is one of our first clues as to what Watts is up to (if the book’s title wasn’t enough). Each character represents a different mix of, or perspective on, the interplay between consciousness and intelligence.

Siri Keeton is our narrator, and as presented he seems eminently qualified to be so. Childhood brain surgery to cure his epilepsy took with it Siri’s ability to feel empathy; to compensate, he has developed a refined sense of information topology, the ability to model interior characteristics based solely on exterior appearances, surfaces. Siri’s task is to observe and report back to Earth as the mission progresses, using his skills to translate the complexities of the alien into language and concepts that a general audience can understand.

Susan James is the group’s linguist, four separate people (consciousnesses) residing in a single brain, timesharing a single intelligence to work out linguistic problems from four different angles. Amanda Bates is the military arm of the expedition, a woman whose single consciousness is a gatekeeper to the multiple intelligent battle drones she commands. Isaac Szpindel is the medical officer, a man who has expanded his conscious sensory perception outside of himself, into his medical tools and equipment. The Captain of the ship is a sophisticated artificial intelligence — an intelligence without apparent sentience — who communicates mainly with the mission leader, Jukka Sarasti. And Sarasti is a vampire.

Yes, I did just write “vampire,” in a review of a book I have labeled “hard science fiction.” This may admittedly stretch the definition a bit, and acceptance of this aspect may indeed be a litmus test for how well a reader will appreciate the book. Watts does present a thorough, biologically-grounded explanation for how vampires might have come to exist in 2082, down to a sensory glitch, an inability to parse intersecting horizontal and vertical lines, that explains their legendary aversion to crucifixes. What is most important though is what vampires symbolize within the book. A recurring theme in science fiction has always been — since Frankenstein — the idea of human augmentation, the use of technology to bolster human strength and/or intelligence; SF often investigates what happens when these augmented individuals turn on their normal human “masters.” What Blindsight does so daringly (following in the footsteps of books like Paul McAuley’s Fairyland and Gene Wolfe’s essay “How Science Will Conquer the World for Fantasy” from Castle of Days) is co-opt a symbol of the fantastic, of horror, for these science fictional purposes. Vampires are not just faster, stronger, smarter; they think differently than humans, see the world differently. One of the excellences of Watts’s book is the selection of vampires as the perfect symbol of our fears of the augmented human, the post-human: a human-like species whose superior level of fitness causes them to see normal humans as prey.

“Hate to break it, Jukka, but the Fireflies didn’t exactly slip under the rad–“

Sarasti opened his mouth, closed it again. Filed teeth, briefly visible, clicked audibly behind his face. Tabletop graphics reflected off his visor, a band of writhing polychrome distortions where eyes should be.

Sascha shut up.

Sarasti continued. “They trade stealth for speed. By the time you react, they already have what they want.” He spoke quietly, patiently, a well-fed predator explaining the rules of the game to prey that really should know better….

This is all rather alien, and we haven’t even gotten to the aliens yet. Suffice to say that Watts’s big dumb object turns out to be a big smart object; when communication with it is achieved it names itself Rorschach, a name that in the context of the story has several meanings, not least of which is a sign that humanity will be judged based on what they project onto it. The judgment itself is a foregone conclusion: Siri reveals very early in his narration that he is returning from the encounter alone. “Point of view matters,” muses Siri: “I see that now, blind, talking to myself, trapped in a coffin falling past the edge of the solar system. I see it for the first time since some beaten bloody friend on a childhood battlefield convinced me to throw my own point of view away.” It’s how and why this outcome occurred, how Siri came to his realization, that are the core story, and argument, of the book.

Interspersed with Siri’s story of the encounter with the alien Rorschach are flashback sequences where Siri shares some of his past — which gives Watts a chance to flesh out several other perspectives in his argument. Siri’s own mental state is explained through the story of the “beaten bloody friend on a childhood battlefield”: it’s the first of several echoes of Card’s Ender’s Game, although Watts proceeds to render that book rather, well, juvenile. Siri’s mother, meanwhile, is a self-obsessed aesthete. She has largely forsaken biological life, instead choosing to live in a virtual realm whose chronobiological shapes and sounds trick her brain into thinking that her body’s needs are being met. His father occupies the opposite side of the spectrum, being more other-focused, empathetic. Finally, Siri’s ex-girlfriend, Chelsea, represents a modern psychological point of view, the idea that natural impulses can be overcome through therapy; she is “a woman whose professional machinery edited thought itself.” It is in their relationship especially that we see the conflict within Siri, what his consciousness wants for himself versus what his intelligence has learned about others:

Maybe she honestly didn’t know that we were evolutionary enemies, that all relationships were doomed to failure. If I could slip that insight into her head — if I could charm my way past her defenses — maybe we’d be able to hold things together.

Blindsight is a challenging book in many ways. As a scientific argument it is difficult and unpalatable, a bitter pill to swallow; as a piece of writing it is dense with philosophical allusion and scientific detail, requiring the reader to either be familiar with the associated language, or confident enough to plow forward trusting Watts to explain the important bits of terminology (as he nearly always does). Not least of the challenges, though, is deciphering Siri. His surgery has rendered him rather impersonal and unlikable, and he is not always aware of how conflicted his own perspective is. Indeed, Siri is not always aware, period. As the book progresses we realize more and more that Siri is as unreliable as any of Gene Wolfe’s famous narrators; not intentionally so, but unavoidably so, because he is human and thus necessarily has a narrow focus, a susceptibility to misdirection. Such is the argument that Watts is making and his skill in making it, however, that by the end of the book, when the narrative collapses and we, like Siri, are left experiencing effects without knowing causes, this can only feel right and necessary. It is after all the narrative limitation we all live with. And while aspects of the story are, from the beginning, rather grim and uncertain, balanced with these aspects is the change that we come to see has occurred in Siri, a sense that he has regained at least part of what he had lost as a child.

It is appropriate on several levels that the ship in Blindsight that the crew travels on is named Theseus, that the novel is a clash between Theseus and Rorschach. Out of the fiery collision between the mythic quest to explore and investigate the mysteries of the natural world, and the modern focus on human behavior in our world, Peter Watts has created something troubling but exhilarating: a sense that we’re not yet done, that there is more yet to discover about being human. Hard science fiction at its best, as Watts makes clear, may well have a role in any such discovery. What hard SF does is allow us to ask questions, interrogate and assimilate theories about being human, both via rational examination of data and irrationally, as story, turning the intuitive part of our brain loose on ideas. As Blindsight suggests, that intuitive part may not only be smarter than we think, it may be smarter than we can think.

– originally published 8/7/2007

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