Peter Watts,
(Tor, 2006)

Blindsight is a first-contact story whereby the narrative hinges on humankind's first encounter with something truly alien. The first-contact theme is common in science fiction, but it's a riff capable of endless variations, many of which are fascinating. In this variation, author Peter Watts assembles a ship's crew to voyage from Earth to meet (and perhaps do battle with) something that, although completely unknown, has nevertheless been established to be an extraterrestrial intelligence.

But this bare description does a disservice to the novel, its scope and breadth, and the intricacies of its plot. The book's narrator is Siri Keeton, a member of the crew of the space ship Theseus. To aid in understanding of the story, Siri begins with a short prologue describing events that occurred when he was 8 years old that left him with a chronic sense of being an alien among those around him. It was this sense, a result of radical brain surgery, that 30 years later earned him his berth aboard Theseus. It is clear that the perspective of this prologue is that of post voyage-of-discovery, post alien-encounter.

The other members of the crew are equally distinguished -- most share a cognitive feature that sets them apart. The ship itself must be included here as at its heart lies an Artificial Intelligence. Siri's narrative prose is spiced with new ideas and concepts. For example, although Blindsight is devoid of any elements of fantasy, the passage below appears early on describing a time when Siri was on Earth prior to the voyage:

"I looked away to recalibrate my distance vision, to ... I saw a vampire in that moment, a female, walking among us like the archetypal wolf in sheep's clothing. Vampires were uncommon creatures at street level. I'd never seen one in the flesh before."

Later it becomes clear that these creatures termed "vampires" owe their existence to molecular genetics, yet their introductory description contains deliberate, strong Gothic overtones. Such overtones continue throughout the novel. For example, the cold-sleep chambers of long space flight are described as "coffins," and the reawakened travelers as "the resurrected."

Needless to say Theseus's approach to and eventual encounter with the unknown makes for a thrilling discourse. The expedition from Earth encounters what John Clute and Peter Nicholls term in their Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, a "big dumb object" (BDO; they admit the inadequacy of this term). The entry in the encyclopedia for this subgenre reads in part, "the discovery, usually by humans, of vast enigmatic objects in space or on other planets. These have normally been built by a mysterious, now disappeared race of alien intellectual giants, and humans can only guess at their purpose, though the very fact of being confronted by such artifacts regularly modifies or confounds their mental programming and brings them that much closer to a conceptual breakthrough into a more transcendent state of intellectual awareness."

But it is in their encounter with the BDO that Watts breaks the mold of this subgenre (Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama or Greg Bear's Eon would be archetypal) by blending elements of the Gothic into the narrative. Thus, although heavily suited against the strong radiation and magnetic flux within the BDO, the explorers nevertheless experience what they believe to be hallucinations -- Siri gets the impression the place is haunted; one member of the crew comes to believe herself to be dead. Also, back aboard the Theseus Siri relates experiences that could best be described as spooky.

Siri's role on the expedition is as chronicler, a job for which he is well qualified -- he observes but does not interfere, often cannot interfere, because he does not have the emotional capacity to do so. That term "emotional capacity" is in many ways central to the odyssey of the ship and crew. At one point, discussing captured alien lifeforms, Siri asks the ship's biologist if they are alive, and whether they might not be merely bio-mechanical machines. The scientist replies, "What kind of question is that? That's what life is ..., that's what you are."

At another point a member of the crew asks, "What is the difference between being dead, and just not knowing you're alive?"

Siri's brain surgery has left him with a greatly impaired emotional response, but with an objective or "observational" intelligence that is massively over-clocked. Thus at one point he tells us of an episode from his past life when he spoke with an ex-girlfriend who was dying. He fought to find the emotional response necessary to offer comfort or to avail of the last opportunity to heal old emotional hurts. His augmented brain called up thousands of apt phrases, yet he was unable to articulate a response from within himself. Thus his mind could be said to be analogous to a net that can catch vast amount of data (such as those thousands of appropriate phrases), but nevertheless, unlike the normal human mind, is incapable of containing the "ocean" the data is contained in. As the plot develops it becomes clear that for the mission to succeed Kiri must indeed overcome his emotional impairment. Intriguingly, at the same time a new and terrible danger emerges for all, including the population of Earth, who embrace such self-knowledge.

Blindsight is a tremendously entertaining sf novel, encompassing fast, razor-sharp action with thought-provoking characters and situations. At the end the author has included a "notes and references" section in which are arrayed the real science behind the technology, themes and extrapolations employed in the novel (listed are 133 references mostly to scientific periodicals such as Science). Readers may find this useful; however, the story stands on its own merits, successfully persuading the reader to suspend any disbelief.

The need of sf writers for scientific verisimilitude goes back to the very beginnings of the genre, with Jules Verne (18281905) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946) disagreeing on the matter. For example Verne, commenting on Wells' novel "The First Men in the Moon" (1901), wrote:

I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a material which does away with the laws of gravitation. That's all very well ... but show me this metal. Let him produce it.

Regardless of which side of this argument you find yourself on after finishing Blindsight, you are bound to have enjoyed this exemplar of genre fiction.

by Conor O'Connor
10 March 2007

If you like your science fiction hard, deep and philosophically compelling, you're going to like Peter Watts. Self-awareness, consciousness, communication, ethics, intelligence and the nature of life and reality are just some of the high-brow subjects Watts wraps into the plot of Blindsight.

Eschewing the age-old question of what consciousness is, Watts probes deeper to try and get at what consciousness is actually good for. Obviously, this isn't light-weight science fiction, so I suspect the complete science fiction novice might have a little trouble getting into this book. Sure, there is some great action taking place in a deep-space environment, but Watts' philosophical questions are truly at the heart of this novel.

If you want to get Earth's attention, sending 65,000 objects (dubbed "fireflies") careening into the planetary atmosphere is a pretty darn effective way to do it. All of the objects burn up in flight so no physical damage is done, but this shocking event serves as quite a wake-up call for a now-nervous human race. When, two months later, a distant space probe picks up whispers (in English) from the edge of the solar system, no time is wasted on trying to figure out who is out there and, perhaps more importantly, what its intentions are.

An extraordinary crew is assembled to fly out and investigate: a linguist with multiple, surgically-induced personalities allowing her to process information in four different ways, a biologist almost Borg-like with machinery-enhanced senses, a pacifist warrior who may or may not be able to accomplish anything if the aliens prove hostile, a synthesist to serve as a conduit of information back to Earth, and a genetically reborn vampire to call the shots.

We view all of the action through the eyes of Siri Keeton, who, as a child, basically had half of his brain removed to cure him of epilepsy. The operation could be said to have removed the truly human part of his personality, leaving him an analytical being who lives and makes decisions based on algorithms and logic rather than human emotions. In other words, he is the perfect objective observer, and his role as synthesist on this mission is to observe everything and everybody on the mission and update Earth with information on what is really going on out there -- with the aliens as well as the human crew.

The novel quickly becomes a story of first contact with a completely alien race. Initially, the human crew struggles to figure out if the communications they receive from a most alien of vessels identifying itself as Rorschach are coming from actual aliens -- or if the ship is empty and the communications computer-generated.

Surprisingly, that question doesn't get all that easier when they first encounter the creatures they call scramblers inside the alien ship. These creatures are somehow able to affect the human brain, conjuring up unseen shadows and unbidden emotional reactions, as well as hiding things (such as themselves) in plain sight. And even if the creatures are alive, are they intelligent? Are they even self-aware?

The more the crewmen learn, the less they seem to know about these absolutely alien beings. These questions of intelligence and self-awareness eventually come back to attach themselves to Siri and his crewmates, culminating in a pretty shocking series of events and revelations. It goes without saying that this is cutting-edge material.

Blindsight is hard science fiction at its best -- a little daunting to the sci-fi novice but immensely thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating to the reader seeking something far and beyond a good action-packed story. If there's a weakness in the novel, it's the separation the reader feels between himself and the characters. It is difficult to relate to the crew members (let alone the mysterious aliens who may or may not be sentient). It's even difficult to truly understand Siri, despite the fact we see and learn everything that happens from his perspective.

As such, however, the novel is basically about us, human beings, and the way we perceive reality and ourselves. Watts provides us with some remarkable insights in that regard, and that is what makes Blindsight such an extraordinary science fiction novel.

by Daniel Jolley
21 April 2007

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