Blindsight by Peter Watts: A Review

Blindsight was published in 2006. So why are we talking about it now? Because the story of Blindsight (and the story of its author, Peter Watts) is ongoing. Because it represents a fresh voice in science fiction and a bold experiment in publishing. But, most importantly, we’re talking about it because it’s the best damn first contact story of the decade.

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Imagine you’re a scrambler. Imagine you have intellect but no insight, agendas but no awareness. Your circuitry hums with strategies for survival and persistence; flexible, intelligent, even technological — but no other circuitry monitors it. You can think of anything, yet are conscious of nothing.
—Blindsight

Blindsight was published in 2006. So why are we talking about it now? Because the story of Blindsight (and the story of its author, Peter Watts) is ongoing. Because it represents a fresh voice in science fiction and a bold experiment in publishing. But, most importantly, we’re talking about it because it’s the best damn first contact story of the decade.

Blindsight is a book about a ship. The Theseus is the most powerful spacecraft ever built by mankind. The pinnacle of engineering, manufactured in a mad scramble and sent blasting off to the Kuiper Belt at a hellfire burn before the paint is even dry on the blast doors. Because something is out there.

Tens of thousands of alien satellites have appeared in orbit above the Earth. They’ve taken our picture and sent the film to a processing lab out at the edge of the solar system where mankind has never visited. And so: Theseus and her crew. On a mission to make contact with visitors we know nothing about.

And what a crew it is. Four dysfunctional transhumans and their captain. There is Isaac Szpindel, the scientist: his neural pathways so rewired for interfacing with machines and computers he can no longer interface with the real world without help. There is Amanda Bates, the military contingent: her body a deadly amalgam of flesh and steel and her job to be the one willing to shoot the new kid on the block in the face, if that’s what needs doing. There is Susan James — or rather, there are Susan James, the ambassador: her brain partitioned surgically to make room for five distinct personalities, each with their own linguistic or anthropological specialty. There is Siri Keeton, the synthesist: survivor of a radical hemispherectomy, the remainder of his skull filled with gadgets for recording and communicating and god knows what else. And there is Jukka Sarasti, the captain: the smartest, deadliest, most capable mind that millennia of evolution could produce. Oh yeah, and he’s a vampire.

The result is a ship so full of tension and distrust that, by the time Theseus rendezvouses with the alien craft, it seems doomed even if greeted by the most benevolent of possible extraterrestrials. Which, of course, they aren’t. Initial contact with Rorschach, as the massive alien craft styles itself, is civil and painless; the aliens seem to have a faultless command of idiomatic English and no greater demands than to be left alone. But Sarasti is suspicious, and he’s not the only one. The technical capabilities of Rorschach are far beyond even Theseus and it is clear that deep within, the aliens are building something grand and frightening. It bears a closer look. And that’s when things go south.

Covert incursions into Rorschach by the crew of Theseus meet with an environment awash in near fatal levels of radiation. An environment where dark things climb unbidden into the mind, twisting thoughts and senses into horrific visions and generally making Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris look like an okay vacation spot. An environment crawling with hateful invisible monsters. The scramblers.

The scramblers are fast and vicious and terrifying. They are the aliens from Alien with a dose of Lovecraftian creeping horror. They are stronger and smarter and tougher than humans, vampires or robots. And they are without number. They can perceive, process and react — with laser precision — before a neural impulse can make its way from a human’s eye to their visual cortex. But worst of all, they don’t seem to be the ones in charge. For all their capabilities they appear to be automata. The crew of Theseus engage in firefights and sabotage within Rorschach; those that aren’t killed are driven to the edge of insanity; two scramblers are captured for research — and still no sign of the alien intelligence behind Rorschach. Then things start to get really bad.

As readers, we ride along on this suicide mission in the head of Siri Keeton, sharing steerage with half a brain’s worth of hardware. Siri is the best translator in the world. But he doesn’t translate languages, he translates paradigms. He is on the Theseus to help the hyperspecialised crew communicate with one another. More importantly, he is also the line of communication back to Earth. But, though he is a master of helping people understand each other, he always fails at understanding anyone himself.

Siri is a mess of the same neuroses, insecurities and autism-spectrum traits (ostensibly due to the surgery, but there is certainly room for doubt) that define both the stereotypical geek and, strangely enough, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man and his countless reflections and variations in contemporary fiction, from Yossarian to Seinfeld. The book reads like a mainstream introspective narrative. Blindsight is, to be quite honest, a philosophical investigation on the nature of consciousness and the fallacy of real human connection set against a backdrop of vampires and aliens. And it works.

If I were to make one criticism of Blindsight it would be that the vampires, though masterfully realized, don’t quite pay the cost of admission. Watts, before he starting forging new paths in hard science fiction, had an established career as a biologist. Nowhere is that made clearer than in the frighteningly plausible vampires of Blindsight. Watts posits that ancient vampire legends are based in truth. Homo sapiens vampiris were an evolutionary divergence from standard humans, smarter, stronger and more perceptive than their forebears, but dependent on humans for a vital nervous system compound. For millennia, they depredated mankind unchecked, limited only by the slow reproduction of their prey. But they had a weakness. Right angles, due to an abnormality in the visual cortex of vampires, induced grand-mal seizures, incapacitating them completely. The discovery by baseline humans of Euclidean geometry and consequently of this “crucifix glitch” spelled extinction for vampiris.

In the future-world of Blindsight, scientists have discovered mankind’s genetic Cain and brought him back to life. Fed a diet of synthetic meat rich in the necessary proteins and kept leashed by anti-Euclidean drugs carefully doled out to ward off the seizures, vampires are found to be tremendously valuable. Their brains work differently from ours, possessing pattern-matching skills beyond those of any man or machine and capable of cognitive leaps that Archimedes would envy. And so they are put to work in the most demanding cutting-edge fields. But no human may lay eyes on them without a primal terror squeezing their heart and insisting that these are killers that may not be tamed.

In other words, these aren’t bodice-ripping, high school dance-attending vampires. Nor are they slavering, stake-em-fore-they-bite-you monsters of the week. They are creepy and remorseless and real. And yet, they don’t quite fit. The simple fact is that they feel as though they belong in a novel of their own. Certainly the vampires are used skillfully to develop the motif of the novel. This is a story at its core about humanity, about consciousness, about the other. The vampires provide an interesting foil to the aliens, a sort of stepping stone to aid in comprehending the incomprehensible. But are they necessary?

Perhaps. Certainly, the environment of the Theseus would be less strained, less nightmarish, without the lurking presence of Jukka Sarasti. All the same — and despite the fact that Blindsight was written before Twilight and True Blood ejaculated their stalker-romance branding all over the bookshelves, cinemas and televisions of the world — the vampires still seem more an indulgent inclusion than an integral part of the story.

Please, though, don’t for a second consider writing Blindsight off on these grounds. It is without a doubt one of the best works of science fiction to be written in the last decade. It feels at times like a throwback to the Golden Age. The scramblers and vampires of Blindsight, for example, are like two complementary takes on Couerl from A.E. van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer” and the vast mysteries of Rorschach are strongly evocative of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. It is amazing that Watts so successfully channels the technological wonder, grand adventure and high concept of this earlier era while retaining the psychological depth and literary bona fides of the best modern genre novels.

Blindsight is a story about a ship. Blindsight is a story about first contact. Blindsight is a story about communication, and relationships and the nature of consciousness. But The Story of Blindsight is something different. It is one of the great underdog stories of contemporary publishing. Blindsight is Peter Watts’s fourth novel as we should be counting them but, if you look on Amazon, you will find it is his fifth. This is because the third book of his Rifters trilogy, Maelstrom, was split insensibly into two by the publisher and marketed incompetently. In the wake of this disaster, Tor Books was reluctant to commit to Blindsight, hamstringing it with an anemic print run and a nonexistent promotional campaign.

This sort of thing happens to many authors and many books. The publishing industry is not a perfect machine. But Peter Watts wasn’t having it. This was his best work yet, and he knew it. This was the one they should be optioning in Hollywood and discussing in Modern Genre Fiction 200 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the university. So he took a tremendous risk. He put the whole damn novel on his website and said to the world: Here.

And an amazing thing happened. People started talking about the book, and then they started buying it. Buying it even though it was free: free to download and, thanks to Creative Commons licensing, free to share. In the midst of all this, Watts proved a point he hadn’t set out to make: that the Creative Commons framework may indeed be a viable new model for the business of literature.

Watts himself remain cautious, however. As he eloquently put it when we had the chance to interview him: “[T]he lesson is not necessarily ‘Give your stuff away.’ It’s ‘Get noticed.’”

Well, we’ve taken notice. And Watts’s career has been saved by giving his work away for free. So maybe there’s a similarity between the story of Blindsight and The Story of Blindsight after all. They are, both of them, stories about the infinite capacity of the universe to surprise us.

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