Blindsight is a first contact novel, in which Watt’s sets out to expose his protagonists to space faring a life forms so peculiar that they are almost incomprehensible. Understanding these aliens – what they are, how they think, what might be their intentions, is the central mystery of the novel. And the revelations about the nature of the aliens force the characters to re-examine the nature of sentience and the way they define intelligent beings.
The story starts when the Earth is at the cusp of singularity. Automated systems run all major corporations, and institutions with a frightening efficiency. Unable to compete with expert-systems baseline humans turn inward, seeking refuge in virtual worlds. Masses patiently await mind-digitization technologies as the birth rates plummet. Then something happens – alien probes descend upon our home planet and light up our skies. Some non-human civilization swooped in while we were not looking, and took pictures while we were sitting there dumbfounded with our pants down.
Quickly enough we figure out where the probes transmitted their signals, we send an expedition (preceded by waves of probes of our own) to investigate, asses and possibly initiate contact with the visitors. The ship is bleeding edge technology, driven by an anti-matter engine, and piloted by a quantum based AI. The crew consist of a rag-tag bunch of misfits and freaks. They are the best specialists in their respective fields – or rather the remaining few baselines who stayed in the game, and decided to compete with heartless machines in a post-scarcity economy. But their mastery came at the cost of their humanity. Isaac Szpindel, the scientist sent to study the aliens is more a machine than a man. So much of his brain was re-wired for other purposes he has no feeling in most of his body. But he can see x-rays, hear ultrasounds and the on-board lab is tan extension of his body allowing him to “taste” chemical samples to analyze them. Susan James, the linguist sent to attempt communication has partitioned her mind into four separate cores, each with an unique personality, for high yield parallel processing. Siri Keeton, an information analyst had half of his brain removed and replaced with prosthetic augments which caused him to lose the ability to experience emotion, but allowed him to develop unparalleled analytical skills and focus. The mission captain, Jukka Sarasti is a vampire – member of an extinct homo sapiens subspecies brought back from Pleistocene via the magic of reconstructive genetic engineering.
When the expedition arrives at their destination, it turns out they are completely unprepared for what they find there. They have neither the tools nor the frame of reference to fully grasp what they found.
Now, keep in mind that Watts does not cop out and pull the “too alien to comprehend” gambit. When I started reading the book, I was concerned that this is where it was heading. Fortunately, I was wrong. Watts actually happens to be a marine biologist by trade, and he seems to have done a lot of research for this book. He has a lot to say about the biology and the morphology of it’s creations. But he doesn’t just dump the info in some expository monologue. He really makes his protagonists work for it. Every little insight into the nature of the aliens is paid for in blood, sweat and tears.
While researching something utterly alien and inhuman, Siri Keeton, the unreliable narrator, struggles with his own humanity and the demons of his past. His condition made him a perfect analyst – an impartial observer who would never put himself into the picture. Now that the crew needs all hands on deck, and he is forced to participate he struggles to find his place. It doesn’t help that the rest of the crew resents him, because his job essentially makes him a spy – he is to record analyze, catalog everything – including the behavioral changes of his crew mates.
While describing cool aliens, and playing around with a crew of interesting misfits Watts manages to make some very poignant and thought provoking points about the nature of sentience, and the link between self awareness and the intellect. The draws on examples from nature, quotes real research papers and makes interesting observations about what really constitutes intelligent life, and how it could have evolved differently from what we know.
It is a profoundly interesting, and highly entertaining novel. Hard SF at it’s best.