Review of Blindsight by Peter Watts
by Peter Watts
I’ve had this book on my to-read list for several years now, and I feel like the me who added this book would have liked it more than the me who ended up reading it. One of the nice things about having Goodreads to help me track my reading, what I’ve read and what I want to read, is that sometimes I can remember why I’ve put something on my list. In this case I can’t, specifically, except maybe that I heard about Peter Watts or Blindsight somewhere, maybe io9, and it seemed like something I could read. Plus, you know, he’s Canadian and a science-fiction author, so that’s something to celebrate.
Three or four years ago was my personal zenith for posthuman SF. As I noted in my review of Postsingular, I’ve become rather fatigued with posthuman SF that is fantasy masquerading as SF so hard that the technology verges upon magic. Greg Egan’s Incandescence and Diaspora contributed to this somewhat as well.
Blindsight, to be fair, is harder SF than the aforementioned novels. Watts restricts himself to the near-future (2088 or so?) and to the confines of our solar system. Some of the technology, such as the telematter-driven Theseus or the cyborgs Szpindel and Cunningham or the vampire (I’ll spend some time on him later) seem more out there and fantastical. Nevertheless, Watts seems intent on honestly interrogating how humans might investigate an alien object lurking at the edges of the solar system.
In many ways this book reminds me of an SF horror movie in the same vein as Alien or perhaps Cube. Watts introduces the scramblers, denizens of the alien object Rorschach that might be parts of a whole or individual entities—it’s hard to tell. I like, however, how he tries to take a fairly original approach to alien biology: no DNA, distributed neural networks, etc. The crew’s initial encounters with the scramblers inside Rorschach feel like a horror movie. Everything is so disjointed; it becomes difficult to follow what’s going on. It feels like a scene from one of those movies where the protagonists are walking down a dark corridor, and you just know something is going to jump out at them. Now picture the dark corridor as the vacuum-interior of a large alien object, and the something involves direct manipulation of the human visual cortex. Yeah.
Bottom line, without spoilers: the theme behind everything (seriously, everything) in Blindsight is one that any transhumanist would acknowledge (and probably celebrate) while the rest of us often deny or conveniently forget—the human brain is easily hacked. We aren’t all that good at hacking it to do specific things at the moment—at least not with any degree of finesse; technically, programming our brains to read and write is a monumental feat of hacking, albeit one that is done much more slowly. But it seems like we are developing technology, and a better understanding of the brain, that would let us manipulate the brain more easily. With this ability would come more questions and issues surrounding what makes us conscious, and whether our consciousness makes us who we are.
Everything in this book is another facet of how Watts explores these issues. Each of the four protagonists manifests consciousness and brain-hacking differently. Siri, the narrator, underwent a hemispherectomy as a child to cure his epilepsy; he now considers himself a Chinese Room more than a functional individual, and we get treated to flashbacks of an awkward relationship as evidence. Contrastedly, Jukka Sarasti is a vampire. It turns out that vampires were a subspecies of humanity from hundreds of thousands of years ago. Never very populous because of their nature as predators, vampires probably would have become the dominant species, except for a weird brain glitch that causes seizures when they see intersecting right angles (“crosses”). But for some reason, a vampire is necessary as the leader of this first contact mission, so scientists used some DNA to recreate one. Cool, huh? I kind of feel like that whole idea could be a plot of a novel by itself.
It would be easy to dismiss Blindsight as a collection of interlinked concepts that don’t quite work together—a precarious house of cards on an unstable foundation. Yet for all the work reading this turned out to be, it’s clear Watts is pursuing a single and comprehensible idea. He has no qualms about forcing the reader to consider how truly alien life outside our solar system could be. He makes us confront the terrifying idea that we could be the anomalies—not in the sense that we are alone, but that other advanced forms of life might not be sentient or might be so different from us, sentient or not, that we could never hope to communicate with them.
Watts is far from the only one who advances such propositions, of course! The antagonist of Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandor’s Star is similarly so alien that it isn’t evil, just different. Yet Watts succeeds in confronting these ideas, in interrogating them, in a compact way that remains fast-paced and, at times, fiendishly difficult to follow. He throws so many curveballs and twists at the reader that keeping up requires careful attention and a willingness to have a little faith. Siri is a somewhat unreliable narrator, as he should be, and even by the end it remains difficult (at least for me) to understand clearly what happened aboard Theseus. Siri is one step up from found-footage when it comes to being informative on such things. I’m not going to pretend I fully grok what happened, and I’m not all that interested in going back and re-reading to clarify things. Fortunately, one of the perks of being human is that we can form snap judgements based on the bigger picture.
The big picture, when it comes to this book at least, is that it is incredibly ambitious, quite clever, but also somewhat boring and unpalatable. I’m probably going to lose my literary snob street cred for saying this, but I’m a big fan of the straightforward narrative, especially in hard SF where the technobabble can make it difficult enough to follow the plot. Blindsight asks a lot of its readers. This is not per se bad. But the return on investment wasn’t there for me. I’m intrigued by the ideas that Watts puts forward, and for that reason I still liked the book despite finding it difficult to get through. Alas, if you don’t already share my fascination with philosophy of mind, then you may find it difficult to perceive the positives of Blindsight.