Blindsight by Peter Watts

When I reviewed Embassytown I lamented at the scarcity of well designed, interesting aliens that do not conform to overplayed archetypes such as rubber-forehead people, and rabid, insectoid killing machines. I enjoyed Miéville’s attempt to create a race with a radically different mind topology of our own. It is quite fortunate that I picked up Blindsight by Peter Watts in the same batch of books allowing me to return to this topic while it’s still fresh.

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.

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15 Responses to Blindsight by Peter Watts

  1. Iodine DENMARK Google Chrome Windows says:

    Now again. You keep posting about books that instantly grab my fancy.
    Which I should thank you for (especially Anathem, The city and city and Accellerando).
    So there.

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  2. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    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.

    Um, “vampire” is some kind of future slang for these people right? This is not secretly an Anne Rice novel right? Right? Ok good.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    Well, no. In Watts’ universe there was actually a homo sapiens subspecies that branched off in somewhere in Pleistocene and fed on early humans. They did not achieve full breeding separation, but had quite different morphology. Their brains had loosely connected grey matter and their brain stem, madula and essentially their “reptile brain” enlarged. As a result the were no less intelligent than humans, but had faster reflexes, and very advanced pattern recognition skills but poorer social skills, empathy and high level abstraction.

    They had a lot of evolutionary advantages – such as improved eyesight that operates in infrared spectrum, ability to hibernate like bears (to let humans re-populate between feeding seasons) and etc.

    The reason they fed on humas was because they lost the ability to code for and synthesize certain protein crucial for brain function. This protein is only found in primates. They also had a weird neural glitch – the optical nerves that interpret vertical and horizontal signals were entangled. If they fired together at the same time the interference could cause epileptic ceisure – hence aversion to crosses and right angles. This was not a problem in pleostocene but caused them to go extinct around the dawn of agricultural age.

    Scientists found these genes in junk DNA and cloned themselves full fledged vampires. They proved useful due to their omni-savant like pattern recognition skills.

    Watts really goes to great lengths to describe how exactly they would work – down to discussions of specific gene mutations that could have potentially caused such changes, and how these latent genes survived in our junk DNA to this day. He does it with a tenacity of a career biologist, so my finely tuned bulshit-o-meter that would normally raise alarm at the very mention of a vampire in a SF setting stayed quiet throughout the book.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Iodine:

    Awesome. Glad these posts are of use to someone. Sometimes my book reviews don’t get any comments so I always wonder how relevant are they to my average reader. Thank you for validating me. :)

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  5. Mitlik UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Slow down on the book reviews… “Oryx and Crake” is still in my reading queue, now I also need to add this. :(

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Mitlik:

    LOL! I can’t promise anything!

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  7. Sameer NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Yes!! I loved this book. Great to see it on your list, Luke. The ebook is available under creative commons license here. Recommended for hard sci-fi fans.

    I’ve also read Watts’ Starfish, first of his Rifters-trilogy, which is also very good. Haven’t found time to read the sequel though.

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  8. StDoodle UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Just adding another voice to the “I’ve discovered some good SF here” crowd. Also, my brother got obsessed with Stross / singularity ideas after I loaned him my collection. Will have to give this one a try, too.

    So never fear! You’ve done something helpful for the week, feel free to go back to Skyrim for a while. :p

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  9. Victoria Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    LOL, Luke, you’re my book list supplier too :) I have just finished Geek Love. Will add this one.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Sameer:

    Yep, it is but I still recommend buying it. Books are not expensive, and Mr. Watt’s definitely deserves our money for producing this book. :)

    @ StDoodle:

    Wait.. O can go play Skyrim now? Yaaaaay! See you in a few days. :)

    @ Victoria:

    Awesome. I love when people find these useful. :)

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  11. Sameer NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Luke: Very true indeed! :P

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  12. copperfish Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    The book really fell flat towards the end for me. 3/4 of the way through it just became a struggle to read which is odd given that the rest of it was so interesting. Probably just me though.

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  13. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ copperfish:

    Really? I liked it from beginning to end. Perhaps it’s a matter of personal experience. There was a bit of a tone shift when Watts moved away from “spooky aliens structure is spooky” to “shit just got real, let’s do science to it” but I didn’t mind.

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  14. hdhoang VIET NAM Mozilla Firefox Linux says: here’s Watts introducing his vampire domestication program, including the Crucifix Glitch which I can’t figure out within the novel.

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  15. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ hdhoang:

    Thanks, I saw that before. The presentation is a bit on the cheesy side at times. In the book he mostly plays it straight, but in this thing he jokes around a lot.

    Also, the man really needs a site redesign. I mean seriously his generator meta tag says “Mozilla/4.04 [en] (Win95; I) [Netscape]”. :/

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