I recently read Peter Watts’s book, ‘Blindsight‘, a hard(ish) science fiction novel about first contact with extraterrestrials. This is a book that’s been out for several years, and was a Hugo Award nominee in 2006, so I’m a bit late to the party. Indeed, since I started this blog in November, a number of people have recommended this book to me as an interesting commentary on the human mind and consciousness.
On balance, I enjoyed the book, but I found it required a lot of work to read. The problem was that I find Watts’s style of writing, at least in this book, to be confusing. He seems to delight in finding unusual ways to describe things, often obliquely referring to scientific concepts to give insights into a situation. This was fine for those scientific concepts that I already understood, but it often left me out in the cold if I wasn’t familiar with them. (I’m pretty scientifically literate, so if I struggled, I think a typical lay reader would also.)
Watts also has a frustrating habit of referring to the same character with several different names or labels, often leaving me confused about who exactly was saying or doing things. This was particularly confusing early in the book since one of the characters has multiple personalities, and I wasn’t always sure whether a name or description applied to one of those personalities, or was just another label for one of the other characters.
And Watts often likes to describe things indirectly, giving you sensory impressions of the narrator without coming out and just saying what’s going on, counting on the reader to put the picture together. Often though, I didn’t find that enough information had been given for me to do that, that he often depended a little too much on my ability to read between the lines.
Of course, lots of authors do these things, but I found having all of them together left me in an ongoing cloud of confusion as to exactly what was going on. Because of these difficulties, I almost stopped reading the book at around the hundred page mark. I ultimately soldiered on because of the many recommendations, and because, in spite of the confusing writing style, I still found the story and characters interesting.
As the story begins, tens of thousands of alien probes fall into Earth’s atmosphere, scanning and transmitting information to an extraterrestrial location before they burn up. Naturally this causes great alarm. A quick analysis shows that the transmissions went to an object in the Kuiper belt. A team is quickly thrown together to go out and investigate. The Kuiper belt object turns out to be a decoy, leading the team to a rogue planet, a gas giant, about half a light year from the solar system, with alien machines in orbit, including what appears to be a controlling structure that quickly becomes the focus of the team’s efforts.
The story is told in the first person. The narrator, due to severe epilepsy, had half his brain removed as a child. This has left him a very strange person, supposedly missing huge amounts of the cognitive attributes of humanity. He has learned to cope, essentially faking his humanity to get along with everyone else. The result is that he is often described as, and thinks of himself as, a human Chinese Room. Ironically, his name is Siri, the same as Apple’s iOS digital assistant service. (Although this was written years before Apple developed it.)
The crew also includes a scientist who is apparently heavily cyborged, a linguist who has divided her brain into several personalities, a soldier who controls an army of battle robots, and a vampire, who is in charge. Yes, a vampire.
Initially, the idea of vampires existing in what was otherwise a straight science fiction tale threw me out of the story. But Watts does a good job of naturalizing them. In this story, they aren’t supernatural, just an extinct offshoot of humanity, through technology recently brought back from extinction, with a mutation that turned them into predator cannibals. One traditional aspect of vampires is retained: their fear of crosses. (Caused by an aspect of their mutation that causes them to go into convulsions when they see perpendicular shapes.)
The title of the book, “blindsight,” refers to a condition where someone’s eyes are functional, in the sense that they receive light and transmit it on to the brain, but some problem in the brain prevents the person from actually being conscious of what they’re seeing. They can see, but they’re still blind. It’s a type of blindness sometimes seen in patients with certain types of brain damage. The phenomenon becomes a plot point in the story.
The narrator, and all of the other characters, serve as vessels to explore the nature of the human mind, and of consciousness. Each of the characters ends up serving as a contrast to normal humans. A contrast that sheds light on how the minds of regular humans work. And at a certain point in the story, the central AI of the team’s ship, ominously called “Captain,” itself becomes an important player, providing an additional contrast.
And when we’ve explored those human variations to some extent, the aliens are introduced and we’re treated to a comparison between how they and humans think. In the end, there turns out to be an astonishing difference, a difference that, in the story, has profound, disturbing implications for the future of humanity.
It’s difficult to say much more without getting into spoilers. The book was a hard slog, but I found the payoff to be worth it. If you like science fiction, and are interested in the human mind, in consciousness, its evolutionary purposes, and how an alien mind might be different than ours, then I recommend it.
One thing that spurred me to read this book was that Watts has just come out with a sequel, ‘Echopraxia‘, which I may get around to reading at some point, and possibly reviewing here.