Blindsight, by Peter Watts
Posted May 4, 2010on:
My original review for Blindsight was written a few years ago and posted here. I recently re read the book, and made some updates to the review. Suffice to say, the book knocked my socks off even more the second time around.
Remember the movie Alien? Now add some H. Beam Piper, some Event Horizon, some of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Populate with freaky characters, voluntary (and involuntary) lobotomies, and one very shy vampire. Welcome to Blindsight, Peter Watts’ scarier side of first contact, where aliens are truly alien, and do not want to talk to us, no matter how nice we are.
I remember Peter Watts from a number of years ago, I read his novel, Starfish, the first novel in the Rifters Trilogy. It was a harsh read for me, I wasn’t sure how to react to the sociopathic characters, but I appreciated Watts’ background in marine biology. Blindsight gets away from the marine biology, and introduces us to a warmer, fuzzier breed of sociopaths, and their vampire captain. Thanks to an ingenius explaination of the evolution, extinction, and genetic recreation of vampires on earth, Sarasti and by extention Watts, have quite the cult following.
Blindsight is told through the eyes of Siri Keeton, whose childhood operation to cure his epilepsy took half his brain with it. Siri’s single hemisphere of grey matter adapted enough to allow him to live a semi-normal life. A savant of interpreting body language, Siri is the perfect objective observer, the perfect recorder. He’ll read your “surfaces”, and while you’re talking about computer programming, he’s reading your favorite color, if you liked what you had for dinner last night, and what your sexual preferences are. He might not be able to tell you what you said, but he can tell you exactly what you meant.
Even more startling than getting our picture taken by aliens is finding out they aren’t too far away. The first contact mission takes the crew of the Theseus out past the edge of the solar system to a brown dwarf with something orbiting it, and things quickly go all Event Horizon freaky. The something that’s orbitting the brown dwarf screams out with meteorites and hides behind a wall of electromagnetism. The crew attempts to communicate with the aliens, and has a lovely conversation with the alien vessel, but how to know if it’s intelligent? How to know if it has any idea what it’s saying, or perhaps just telling us what it thinks we want to hear? How do you communicate with an alien “intelligence” that may not be intelligent or sentient, yet is obviously space faring?
How do you communicate with someone whose first exposure to earth were television infomercials about exersize equipment and debt consolidation? What if the damage was done before you got there? Now add in a scientific crew who doesn’t really get along, and have them argue about who has the coolest brain enhancements. These are not the most likeable characters you will ever come across, but it just goes to show Watt’s talent – the first time I read Blindsight the characters didn’t do much for me, and I couldn’t put the book down. The second time I read it, I knew what I was getting myself into with the characters, and couldn’t put the book down even more (or is that less?).
Badass aliens and badder ass vampires aside, this book isn’t about that. It’s about our defition of intelligence and setience, and if those are the only definitions floating around the universe. What’s the evolutionary point of being intelligent or sentience? What if it’s not needed, what if it’s a waste of energy and evolutionary efficiency? If you’re not all that interested in those kinds of questions, don’t worry, the action scenes and nearly insane characters will knock your socks off all on their own. A few minor annoyances aside (infodumps, technobabble), Blindsight is as cool and crazy as it is smart. Cool, crazy and smart – isn’t that what every SF worth their weight in melange is looking for?
The action is interrupted with perfect timing with Siri’s flashbacks to his youth – his attempt at a love life, his messy relationship with his parents. It’s pretty hard to have a girlfriend when tact and compromise aren’t something you know how to do. It’s pretty hard to have a healthy relationship with your parents when they miss who you were before your life saving operation. Siri so wants to have a normal relationship with his girlfriend and his family, but even he knows that is impossible. All the more heartbreaking if you can relate in some way, with something in your life that you wish could just be society’s definition of “normal”, but you know won’t be, because it’s just the way you are.
Siri’s job is to observe, but even he knows you can not observe a system without changing it. Somehow, even the aliens know this. The more I think about it, the more I think Siri and the aliens are mirror images of each other. The aliens have no written or spoken language, but communicate through sign language and color changing skin (there’s Watts career as a Marine Biologist showing through). Siri is the perfect translator – he can’t tell you what they said, but he can tell you what they meant.
When the success or failure of the mission lands on Siri’s shoulders, how will he be able to tell earth what really happened? He has no idea what anyone said or did, just what they meant to say or do. When I turned that philosophy of communication over and over in my head, my reward was a big fat gordian knot.
On the one hand, Blindsight has got to be the smartest First Contact story I have come across, and Watts gets instant brownie points for most original aliens. On the other hand, Blindsight taught me my limits for infodump and human augments. Anymore infodump and it would have been too much infodump. Anymore discussion and dissertation on human augments and computer connections, and it would have been too much for me. This seems to be my Hard SF limit.
Minor annoyances aside, this truly is excellent science fiction. As a scifi thriller/horror/first contact peice, I’m sure there are critics out there saying this isn’t original, that Watts simply borrowed ideas from other people. But that’s how genres are developed to exist in the first place – lots of authors writing about a similar theme, and getting inspired by the ideas of others. If you are looking for something with unusual and odd characters, and the freakiest aliens you ever met, yet in an environment that is comfortable and familiar, Blindsight is for you. I’m thinking I might even give Starfish another shot.
On a personal note, I’m shocked at how different of a person I am now, as when I read this book for the first time about four years ago. Like Siri Keeton, I can’t observe a system (myself) without changing it. My first experience with Watts was a bit of a turn off. What’s with all the sociopathic characters? Unlikeable, inflexible, unfriendly, who would want to write a book about people like that, let alone read a book about people like that? Four years later, and I’m not so naive. I certainly have my moments of unlikeability, inflexibility and unfriendlyness, and it’s been proven that most CEO’s and leaders in America spend most of their lives like that, it’s how they’ve clawed their way to the top. I really think I should go back and read all the books I read four or five or six years ago, to see how my reactions have changed over the years. You can never step in the same river twice, and perhaps you can’t ever read the same book twice either.