REVIEW: Blindsight by Peter Watts
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A first contact novel with Watts’ unique view of humans.
PROS: Very hard SF, a new take on first contact, lots of cool SF ideas.
CONS: Lots of talking and info dumps, a dark and grim future, difficult to accept rationale for vampires.
BOTTOM LINE: Definitely worthwhile if you like really hard SF with lots of speculation on future technology. Blindsight is also an interesting take on first contact, but the novel is weighed down by its dark and grim setting.
Sixty-five thousand alien probes surround the Earth, transmitting to an unknown entity, before burning up in the atmosphere. In deep space, it is discovered that something undetected is headed toward Earth. Humanity responds by sending a team of scientists, aboard the Theseus, to make contact and find out what the ‘aliens’ want. But these are ordinary humans. In typical Watts manner, they are all very different from baseline humans. There is the linguist, whose mind has been segmented into multiple personalities. The soldier, who can interface directly with the machines under her command, but who doesn’t want to fight. The surgeon, who is only really comfortable when interfacing with his machines. The observer, whose radical hemispherectomy to alleviate epilepsy has made him the perfect recorder. And last, the Vampire, whose mental workings are beyond the understand of normals and who must control himself while in the presence of the crew lest he succumb to his hunger. These are the people humanity has invested with the task of contacting the aliens. What follows is an interesting take on the first contact novel, especially in regards to the aliens, who are truly alien. Blindsight is chock full of hard SF ideas, enough for several novels, but used here to add to the mystery of the aliens.
First, I’ll detail the good things about Blindsight. Watts has certainly done his homework for Blindsight and has come up with a ton of cool SF-nal ideas to include in the novel. Several examples: reconstructing a long extinct predator to humanity called Vampires, because they prey on humans; teleportation as a means of fueling a spaceship via antimatter; wandering brown dwarf stars used as a base for potential Von Neumann probes, aliens that are truly alien and are explained, convincingly, via modern biological research; and a of thought-provoking ideas about the nature of consciousness vs. intelligence. As you can see, a lot of the harder aspects of this novel cover the biological sciences, and it is here that Watts has created some truly unique aliens. They way they are constructed is truly alien, but believable. They also employ a camouflage ability that relies on the way the human eye/mind work. This ability gives rise to the term blindsight, but that is only part of the reason Blindsight was chosen as the title. The other, more important reason, has to do with the discussions of intelligence vs. consciousness, and how and intelligent, but not conscious entity would perceive the universe, and how those perceptions would cause the entity to act. This is one of the more interesting aspects of the book, and Watts does good job of describing the ramifications and putting them into play in the story. In fact, the whole book can be seen as an introduction to a whole host of scientific concepts, some of which are detailed above. There are several additional, interesting ideas that are embodied in the characters themselves, not the least of which being the idea that the Observer is nothing more than a human-powered Chinese Room. This Chinese Room idea also plays out with regards to the aliens. Blindsight really shines in this area
Unfortunately, all that science and research means a lot of talking and infodumps. The characters have to discuss much of the ramifications of the aliens’ biology as they discover it. This leads to a talk-heavy book where the action is basically just a means to gain more information for later discussion. That’s not to say that the action that exists isn’t interesting, it is. Watts’ aliens exist in an incredibly unique environment that the crew members must explore. Its just that they have to talk about what they’ve discovered so that the readers can get an understanding of the aliens. All the talk is a drag on the book. I’m not sure Watts could have done anything different though, as the talk is necessary for our understanding. All of this takes place in a very dark and grim future setting. Maybe that feeling was generated more by the characters themselves, as I didn’t really find any one to be all that sympathetic, as opposed to the actual future Earth setting. I think that all the dysfunctional people, who are the focus of the book, combined with a dark ending (its not what you might think off right off), left me with a depressed feeling. Again, I can see why the book is the way it is, and why the characters were chosen (to re-enforce the whole ‘blindsight’ angle, and I’m using blindsight not in its strict meaning, but rather referring to abilities that might be similar in nature to blindsight). I also found the ‘Vampires’ to be far-fetched. Again, I understand why Watts used them, as they are integral to the story, I just found the concept, including their reason for existence and extinction, to be a stretch. All of these things got in the way of me truly enjoying the story.
Blindsight is definitely a worthwhile entry in the hard SF/first contact genres, marred by its talk-heavy narrative and dark setting.
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