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Blindsight by Peter Watts - Science Fiction

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The hardest of "hard" sci-fi

  • Feb 28, 2010
  • by
Peter Watts is brilliant, and he's not too humble to tackle a theme that deserves his insights.  "Blindsight" takes the classic "first contact with aliens" story onto a whole new course  - an exploration of humanity and the biological basis of consciousness through a cast of characters who are post-human.

It's a challenging read in the sense that Watts gives no ground to the merely human consciousness of his readers.  We don't have his characters' instant access to information at the brush of a thought, so there's a continual struggle to make sense of the jargon of neurobiology and high-energy physics that peppers the story.

A little background - the main characters each manifest Watts' conception of a different neurobiological model of cognition and/or consciousness:

Siri Keeton, the narrative viewpoint character:

Through surgery to relieve epileptic seizures, Siri has had one hemisphere of his brain removed and replaced with a prosthetic.  He has apparently re-learned human consciousness and empathy, not as a reflexive process mediated by brain chemistry and synapses, but as a mechanical iteration of rules of interaction - the neurobiologist 's concept of a "zombie".  It's debatable that Siri Keeton has a "self", though he successfully interacts as a person and has the savant skill of "synthesis", the ability to perceive patterns of behavior at a level that approaches telepathy.

Jukka Sarasti, the "vampire":

Watts posits a moderately plausible model of vampires as a predatory offshoot of the Homo Sapiens tree, with the added caveat that their version of consciousness is not like ours - they parallel-process information at lightning speed and have little use for "selfness" when it gets in the way of their razor-precise non-conscious intelligence.  As a predator, Sarasti's an obligate sociopath.  Someone, not specified, made him the commander of the mission.

Susan James, a.k.a Cruncher, a.k.a Sascha, a.k.a Michelle:

An intentionally created multiple personality serving the role of mission linguist - each stream of consciousness is independent yet fully aware of its cohorts' thoughts and the experience of the host body, though only one is in control at a time.

Issac Szpindel, the cyborg and mission biologist:

Szpindel has a consciousness with its sensory apparatus enhanced and distributed throughout a diverse range of mechanical devices and sensors - he can invoke intentional synaesthesia by "hearing" magnetic fields, or experience the sensation of touching a molecule.

There are other characters, such as the ship's AI which is the nominal Captain of the mission, and Keeton's parents, girlfriend, etc., but most serve as mirrors for his emptiness.

The foil for all these characters is Amanda Bates, the military specialist, who only has the ordinary augmentation of the late 21st century - telepresence command of a fabricated on-demand army of robot drones, instant access to the combined information overhead of the entire team, ship, etc.

Watts' aliens are still another model of cognition, but describing it would be a spoiler.  Much of the book is devoted to the crew's attempts to communicate with a vast and powerful alien artifact that seems to be beyond even post-human comprehension.

With this set of themes, it's tough enough going, but Watts attention to detail apparently demanded that he attempt realistic dialogue among these disparate beings.  The result is terse, opaque and oblique.  I often found myself going back a couple of pages to see if I could decrypt the meaning of the conversation.  The author admits that he struggled to create something readable given that he has to use long expository breaks, much of the communication takes place off stage through the ship's ConSensus information space, everyone is a specialist with a different jargon, and the characters all suffer from various forms of psychosis or neuropathology by human standards. The problem is further exaggerated by their proximity to an alien environment with magnetic fields and radiation so potent that they distort normal brain activity.  No one is sure whether anyone else is functional or hallucinating, including the reader.

There are other throwaway nuggets of crunchy hard-SF goodness, like a teleportation-based nearly-as-fast-as-light stardrive, the ability to fabricate any material object on demand, personalized virtual "Heaven" which is supplanting reality for much of the population, etc. 

Kudos to the editor, David Hartwell, for his efforts to make this high science rollercoaster-ride into something my poor brain could struggle through.  The effort is hugely rewarding, but it's definitely not a good-triumphs-over-evil space opera beach novel.  Watts' footnotes are a couple of years of reading in themselves.

And a final bow of deep gratitude to Peter Watts, for making "Blindsight" and his other works available under a Creative Commons license, at http://www.rifters.com/ - eBook users, get your game on!

If you like this, send him money, please.

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More Blindsight by Peter Watts reviews
review by . October 31, 2008
'Blindsight' is a hard sci-fi novel well written enough for everyone to enjoy. Unique characters keep the mood while detailed descriptions set the atmosphere.     First let me introduce you to the eclectic cast:     Theseus - a ship with AI whose "body parts" (such as hatches) have reflexes. She's the Captain of the expedition.     Siri Keeton - Half of Siri's brain was removed when he was young, a dramatic cure for epilepsy that left him …
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About this book


A science fiction novel by Peter Watts, published in 2006.
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ISBN-10: 0765319640
ISBN-13: 978-0765319647
Author: Peter Watts
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor Books; 1st edition (March 4, 2008)
Date Published: (March 4, 2008)
Format: Paperback: 384 pages, Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.4 x 1.1 inches
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