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Blindsight by Peter Watts

Blindsight by Peter WattsReview: Blindsight by Peter Watts (Tor, 2006)

“The signal is a virus.”

I’ve said before that one of my greatest joys is finishing a book only to discover that doing so has massively increased my reading list. When an author has me chomping at the bit to explore every nook and cranny of the arguments they’ve made or the concepts they’ve considered then I truly feel I’ve got my money’s worth. But this is usually something limited to non-fiction titles – science, history, what have you. I’m a bibliography hound, sniffing out every paper trail till I get to the end. But how many sci-fi books contain such a detailed list of references? Well, Blindsight for one…

Blindsight is a hard sci-fi novel by marine biologist Peter Watts, author of the Rifters trilogy. Near-future Earth is a place populated by a very different variety of humans. Augmentations and genetic improvement are the norm, increasing specialisation to the point where it takes a special class of being simply to convey to others what is going on with the rest of their species. Siri Keeton is one such being, a synthesist, called into service for his race following Firefall, our first hint that there might be something out there other than ourselves. The incident, essentially a harmless intergalactic candid snapshot, spurs a mission to the outer reaches of the solar system in order to initiate first contact, understand the threat (if any) and take the necessary steps.

As soon as the crew – Keeton, a vampire (to be explained…), a one-man army, a sense-enhanced biologist and a linguist housing several distinct personalities to allow for parallel problem solving – make contact with the alien entities they realise that there are several insurmountable problems, chiefly involving communication. Their position in the Oort cloud denies them contact with Earth (a seven-month signal delay isn’t ideal). Furthermore the alien craft announcing itself as Rorschach seems to be talking but the linguist seems to be convinced it’s little more than a philosophical zombie at best, something displaying outward signs of consciousness but lacking any true conscious experience. Communicative or not, the crew soon makes exploratory forays into the massive ship/being and things rapidly deteriorate from mysterious to oh-fuck-let’s-get-out-of-here. Except they can’t, and the vampire crew member is acting a little… odd.

So that’s the set-up but it honestly doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s going on in Blindsight. The characters and their situation do their job in moving the story forward – and do it truly beautifully thanks to Watts’ compelling writing. The action is seen through Keeton’s eyes in a rather unique fashion. Chosen for the mission by virtue of his skills at communicating the motivations of others and dispassionately observing events around him, he is the natural choice for the book’s narrator. As the action wears on though his neutrality and reliability come under the scrutiny of the vampire Sarasti, folding the narration in upon itself. However this is just a backdrop for the real content. It’s a book of huge and intellectually taxing ideas, truly deserving of the hard sci-fi tag. There is no aspect of this world left unexamined and it’s certainly not done in a patronising ‘Alien Taxonomy For Dummies‘ kind of way. No, the meat of the book feels more like an in-depth discussion with a specialist in a bewildering variety of fields.

I’m not going to hammer on at length but there were a few real highlights for me. Firstly his conception of Rorschach and the developments which take place through its growth and eventual maturity are staggeringly original and quite unsettling in their implication. The craft’s attempts at communication seemed to echo in my head with the voice of HAL9000 and that was the best of it. This living ship, soon replete with its own hive-minded ‘crew’, for some reason had me thinking of Event Horizon and the unease which that movie stirred. It’s from this thread that I gleaned the line at the top of the review – it’s possible that our very act of broadcasting meaningless conversation through the ether might be misconstrued as a hostile act by an alien creature.

And then there’s the whole vampire thing. Yes, I’m sure that put some people off but bear with it. Blindsight‘s take on the evolutionary origins of vampirism, right down to the scientific explanation behind their aversion to crucifixes, is a masterstroke far above the lower depths of modern bloodsucker fiction. But why include them in the first place? Well, vampire genes implanted into normal humans (remember their longevity?) is a great way to get around the temporal restrictions of long-distance space travel…

The icing on the cake though is the main intellectual thread continuing through the entire book, a debate on the concept of sentience as opposed to intelligence and on the nature of consciousness itself. What is this thing we call consciousness? Is it really there at all, is it just a self-emergent phenomenon arising from particular configurations of matter, and above all what the hell is it for? This is no superficial treatment; as a philosophy graduate I can tell you he gives the topic a hell of a beating and should have you pondering it a long time after the last page. And this is what I mean by the increasing reading list – I’ve tagged three books on the subject of consciousness alone for future consumption on the basis of his very welcome explanatory appendix.

I’m just beginning to realise that I can’t truly do this book justice in a short review. It’s sci-fi for thinking types, that’s for sure – a background in basic biology, physics, computing, psychology and philosophy will serve you well here, although that list is just for starters. It’s clever, dark, funny and still very human despite everything else, plus it’s packed with little references to genre classics for the eagle-eyed reader (They’re made out of meat!). Give this book a try and give your mental musculature a well-deserved workout. I’ll be back in a week or two with a review of the soon-to-be-released sequel…

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Filed under First Contact, Science Fiction