Monday, November 26, 2012


by Peter Watts
Published in 2006
Published by Tor Books
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1218-1

It's the late 21st Century, and the aliens have arrived. They made their presence clear by deploying thousands of satellites to conduct a full survey of Earth and its inhabitants. Humankind is thoroughly spooked and sends out a ship full of Earth's best and brightest to intercept the alien mothership, just discovered in the outer reaches of the solar system.

But because this is the late 21st Century, humanity's best and brightest are now weirder than the aliens in most science fiction novels not written by Peter Watts. There's a linguist who, to do her job more effectively, has split her mind into four fully independent selves. There's a biologist who has enhanced his sense perception to such a ludicrous extent that there's no brain left over to feel the tips of his own fingers. If you have a hard time feeling empathy for this bunch, that's okay; the feeling is most likely mutual.

Our narrator and chief protagonist has had such vast areas of brain removed and replaced with machinery that it's debatable whether he is still a fully sentient being or his life is one long extended Turing Test that he's done a pretty decent job passing so far.

And as for the crowning achievement in this novel's worldbuilding: Tens of thousands of years ago, there was a subspecies of humanity that was adapted to prey upon humans like us. Sort of like Neanderthals, but meaner. Because they lacked the ability to synthesize a crucial neural chemical, they were required to hunt and eat humans to survive. Their brains worked very differently from standard Homo sapiens, and they had remarkable pattern-matching abilities and animal cunning so that they could easily outwit their prey. So as not to exhaust their supply of food, they had the ability to hibernate for years, even decades at a time. They died out when we regular humans realized that the visual centers of these predators' brains couldn't handle Euclidian geometry, and if forced to look at right angles, they would have epileptic seizures. But we never forgot about them. In the 21st Century, we decided to clone these guys, Jurassic Park-style, in order to put their intelligence to work in fields that could use their unique cunning.

Anyway, long story short, they've put a vampire in charge of the ship. An actual, literal vampire. Think Nosferatu rather than Edward Cullen. I hope you all are okay with that and don't mind taking orders from him and sharing extremely limited living space with him. Vampires have been put in charge of most of the important stuff back on Earth, after all, so we know they're trustworthy.

Blindsight is an audacious novel that works remarkably well. The main theme of the book is consciousness, and intelligence, and what it means to have a high degree of the latter without the former being present. Is it possible for creatures who are not wired to think recursively about themselves to build an interstellar civilization? Watts has presented 'incomprehensible mindset' aliens about as well as anyone I've ever seen.

The book reminded me of Housuke Nojiri's Usurper of the Sun, which I read last year. Both delved into speculation on how truly alien aliens might operate. I was a little disappointed with the ending of Nojiri's novel, where the incomprehensible becomes comprehensible, articulate, even a bit cute, far too easily for my liking. Nothing of the sort happens in Watts' novel.

Blindsight has a 'love and cuddliness' quotient of zero.

There is no happiness to be found in these pages. No hope, and no optimism, and the only positive emotion is a purely intellectual spirit of discovery, unless you also count the sizable portion of black humor. Depending on your own mindset and background, you might find there are no sympathetic characters at all. You may or may not find that turns you off. Me, I found the book intellectually stimulating, and I look forward to finding more of Watts' work in the future.

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