Blindsight: Mind-blowing hard SF about first contact, consciousness

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Blindsight by Peter Watts science fiction book reviewsBlindsight by Peter Watts

This is ‘hard science fiction’ in the truest sense of the term — hard science concepts, hard-to-understand writing at times, and hard-edged philosophy of mind and consciousness. Peter Watts aggressively tackles weighty subjects like artificial intelligence, evolutionary biology, genetic modification, sentience vs intelligence, first contact with aliens utterly different from humanity, and a dystopian future where humans are almost superfluous and would rather retreat into VR. Blindsight (2006) is also a tightly-told story of an exploration vessel manned by five heavily-modified post-humans commanded by a super-intelligent vampire, and a very tense and claustrophobic narrative that demands a lot from readers. If that sounds like your kind of book, you’ll find this is one of the best hard science fiction books in the last 10 years.

I try to avoid using the term ‘mind-blowing’ when it comes to hard science fiction. After all, the phrase is over-used by readers and publishers alike, but once in a while a book comes along and just knocks you off your feet, leaving you struggling to get your head around it. There are plenty of hard science fiction books that throw dozens of complex scientific and philosophic ideas at you, trying to show how smart the author is, but I haven’t encountered many science fiction books in which the characters, backstory, and first contact are all different iterations of the same central argument: human sentience is a fluke of evolution that is not indispensable for survival, and could be a hindrance in the grand scheme of things. I.e., humanity could be a lone aberration in a cold and unsympathetic universe.

The First Contact plot is familiar — a shower of mysterious probes (later dubbed “fireflies”) enter Earth’s atmosphere, send out a flood of electro-magnetic info, and burn up. Clearly an alien intelligence has scanned the planet, but why? Several years pass without any further developments. However, when an alien signal is detected from a distant comet, humanity scrambles to put together an exploratory team that will be able to investigate and perhaps initiate First Contact, one of the most fundamental science fiction tropes in the genre.
The twist is that ‘baseline’ humanity has lost its taste for adventure, and would rather send highly-specialized transhumans instead.

The new Millennium changed all that. We’ve surpassed ourselves now, we’re exploring terrain beyond the limits of merely human understanding. Sometimes its contours, even in conventional space, are just too intricate for our brains to track; other times its very axes extend into dimensions inconceivable to minds built to fuck and fight on some prehistoric grassland. So many things constrain us, from so many directions. The most altruistic and sustainable philosophies fail before the brute brain-stem imperative of self-interest. Subtle and elegant equations predict the behavior of the quantum world, but none can explain it. After four thousand years we can’t even prove that reality exists beyond the mind of the first-person dreamer. We have such need of intellects greater than our own.

The crew of the Theseus consists of five transhumans, an AI ship captain, and a cold-blooded genetically-engineered vampire leader (and it doesn’t sparkle in sunlight or brood in the high school cafeteria, either). They are Siri Keaton, a ‘Synthesist’ assigned to observe the mission and report to ‘baseline’ humanity back home; Amanda Bates, a combat expert hardwired to control robot grunts; Isaac Szpindel, a biologist and doctor keen to examine xenobiology if the opportunity arises; his backup Robert Cunningham; Susan James, a linguist with 3 other distinct personalities known collectively as The Gang; and Jukka Sarasti, a hyper-intelligent vampire cloned from DNA of a long-extinct offshoot of humanity from the Pliocene era.

Our narrator, Siri, is very unusual, as is the rest of the crew: he’s had half his brain removed in favor of implanted technology that allows him to read the minute physical movements (‘topology’) of people and analyze behavioral patterns based on this. He describes himself thus:

In formal settings you’d call me Synthesist. On the street you call me jargonaut or poppy. If you’re one of those savants whose hard-won truths are being bastardized and lobotomized for powerful know-nothings interested only in market share, you might call me a mole or a chaperone.

Sequel

We won’t admit that our creations are beyond us; they may speak in tongues, but our priests can read those signs. Gods leave their algorithms carved into the mountainside but it’s just li’l ol’ me bringing the tablets down to the masses, and I don’t threaten anyone.

Maybe the Singularity happened years ago. We just don’t want to admit we were left behind.

Watts excels at describing things from the perspective of being so far advanced and modified by technology and gene-therapy that old-fashioned ‘baseline’ humans cannot understand them. It’s always a challenge to write hard science fiction that purports to describe a complex future that is, by definition, impossible for current readers to understand. Sometimes this comes off as pure scientific ‘hand-wavery’ that is merely fantasy hidden behind layers of technical-sounding jargon. And unless you actually are an evolutionary biologist with a PhD in particle physics and quantum theory, it’s basically impossible for the vast majority of science fiction readers to know whether a ‘hard science fiction’ book is plausible or complete nonsense. Therefore, if it makes you feel like you are in an incredibly advanced and complex future, I think it’s done its job well, and Blindsight certainly achieved this for me.

Speaking of which, the title refers to the real phenomenon of blindsight, defined online as: “The ability to respond to visual stimuli without consciously perceiving them, a condition which can occur after certain types of brain damage.” As the story progresses, Watts introduces more examples of this in the natural world and neurobiology — what it comes down to is that we rely on the chemical messages sent by our nervous system to create our picture of the physical world around us. We are not actually ‘seeing’ it directly at all. So if an external force can manipulate the signals our brains receive, we would be at their mercy. It’s a fascinating and scary concept, and it gets plenty of book time.

Going back to the central plot, things get interesting when the Theseus crew actually encounters a giant alien spacecraft near the comet in question and investigates it. I’m sure we’ve all read so many similar setups that it may sound completely familiar territory, but when Watts throws his super-intelligent transhumans at the problem, their responses and actions are very different indeed.

Any further details would spoil your enjoyment as things get fast and furious and things go wrong very quickly. Yet there is a heavy interweaving of discussions on the nature of perception, humanity, consciousness, sentience, and how humanity’s understanding of these things gets turned upside down by the aliens it encounters. Dare I say that the discussions and action are equally mind-blowing? The audiobook is narrated by T. Ryder Smith, and he does a solid job with difficult material.

It’s interesting to read the wide range of responses to a book you enjoyed so much. In the case of Blindsight, readers have said it was brilliant, unreadable, incomprehensible, incredibly pessimistic about humanity, mind-expanding, or a mix of all those things. Your response will depend largely on what type of science fiction you enjoy most, but if you are hungry for a hard science fiction story that tackles a classic science fiction theme with a host of cutting-edge scientific concepts in a fiercely-intelligent way, and expects the reader to work hard to keep up, you will not be disappointed.

Many have strongly disagreed with the central argument of the book, but I don’t think that should detract from appreciating it. I expect science fiction to challenge me with new and mind-expanding ideas — I don’t have to agree or be convinced, as long as the argument is worth debating. No truly important issues are resolved in the span of any single book or discussion, but I guarantee this book will make you question the value of intelligence and sentience, in which case it has accomplished its goal.

Published October 2006. Two months since the stars fell… Two months since sixty-five thousand alien objects clenched around the Earth like a luminous fist, screaming to the heavens as the atmosphere burned them to ash. Two months since that moment of brief, bright surveillance by agents unknown. Two months of silence, while a world holds its breath. Now some half-derelict space probe, sparking fitfully past Neptune’s orbit, hears a whisper from the edge of the solar system: a faint signal sweeping the cosmos like a lighthouse beam. Whatever’s out there isn’t talking to us. It’s talking to some distant star, perhaps. Or perhaps to something closer, something en route. So who do you send to force introductions on an intelligence with motives unknown, maybe unknowable? Who do you send to meet the alien when the alien doesn’t want to meet? You send a linguist with multiple personalities, her brain surgically partitioned into separate, sentient processing cores. You send a biologist so radically interfaced with machinery that he sees x-rays and tastes ultrasound, so compromised by grafts and splices he no longer feels his own flesh. You send a pacifist warrior in the faint hope she won’t be needed, and the fainter one she’ll do any good if she is. You send a monster to command them all, an extinct hominid predator once called vampire, recalled from the grave with the voodoo of recombinant genetics and the blood of sociopaths. And you send asynthesist—an informational topologist with half his mind gone—as an interface between here andthere, a conduit through which the Dead Center might hope to understand the Bleeding Edge. You send them all to the edge of interstellar space, praying you can trust such freaks and retrofits with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find. But you’d give anything for that to be true, if you only knew what was waiting for them…

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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3 comments

  1. This has been on my list for so long. I have the audio version.

  2. I’ve had this on my To Read list for about a year. I think it’s about time I jumped in!

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