Book Review: Blindsight by Peter Watts

From the realm of hard and dark science fiction comes a book about … space vampires?  Well, not exactly, but I had to get it out of the way.  This book does include vampires, but that’s just a small part of this very densely written first-contact adventure between aliens and a crew of psychopaths.  Watts spins a dark story of a depressing future world, incomprehensible and terrible aliens, and the exploration of human consciousness.  Had Blindsight been a little better paced, it would have been an instant classic.

The story, in a nutshell, is rather short.  Strange objects light up the sky and soon self-destruct.  A small crew of very unique characters is sent to investigate the spot where the objects sent communication before their destruction.  They discover a dark planet with giant worm-like creatures and a floating city, which communicates with them.  Upon entering the city they experience an entire slew of hallucinations, encounter the aliens and realize that they are so incomprehensibly different that the only thing they can do is to try to stop them.

What makes the book so compelling is the characters and the dark and gritty atmosphere.  The narrator is Siri Keeton, an autist who misses half of his brain.  He is a synthetist – a person who is trained to absorb all available information on a subject and come up with a human-readable and short explanation.  As part of his training, he is conditioned to identify all non-verbal cues, while keeping total emotional detachment from his surroundings.  Oh, and he doesn’t know how he comes up with the useful output.  He wakes up in a coffin where he spent years, as their spaceship was approaching the mysterious planet.  From that beginning we get the feeling of how dark and gritty the setting is.  Siri describes how the entire crew was spliced with a vampire gene to be able to remain alive in a coffin, how their bodies are slowly filling with liquids, their skin stretches, joins creak and they are gradually regaining mobility.  The writing style is good enough to draw the reader in and leave him utterly horrified.

As the crew approaches the object, we meet the others.  There’s a being (usually described as a woman), with four different identities, one of whom is male, hence the disclaimer before.  She’s the communication specialist.  The soldier on the mission has a record of defeating enemies by empathizing with them, and even here she acts as a bottleneck against semi-autonomous drones eager to attack anything that moves.  Two medical professionals distributed their consciousness among numerous machines and tools.  And then there is the captain: a vampire devoid of any humanity, who is perpetually connected to the ship’s A.I.  I won’t go into details on why a sci-fi has a vampire; Watts did an excellent job building a world where vampires are real, feel natural and don’t sparkle.

The book alternates between the actions of the crew, flashbacks into Siri’s past, and a short interlude explaining the soldier’s mindset (I guess that was necessary because she felt normal, unlike the rest).  The future world in the flashbacks is just as bleak, with completely changed human interactions, people uploading their consciousness into a virtual world, and acts of random terrorism.  In fact, I see this as one of the few failures of this book: the future Earth feels to me too much like that of Stand on Zanzibar, if you disregard the overpopulation element.  By extension, Siri is then an analogue for Donald Hogan, who was a synthetist as well, and was made psychotic by brain reconditioning.  This comparison took away much of my immersion from the book.

Unlike Brunner’s work, Watts doesn’t predict world events.  In a sense, however, he predicts the future.  In his world, people whom we’d consider as having mental diseases, be it autism or schizophrenia, are valued and driven into further extremes of their condition to make them true specialists in their field.  So, the split-personality “Gang of Four” can confer among themselves and delegate a single person to appear on the surface to handle a specific task.  The doctor, while functionally blind, has enhanced his senses via implants, to the point where he can taste sounds.  Despite the dark tone of the novel and the depressing world, this aspect makes me hopeful that we’re heading for a better future for at least some people.

Already in the ship, we can detect the theme of human consciousness.  Does Siri exist at all as a conscious being, or is he just an information processor who is conditioned not to get involved into anything?  Can the Gang of Four be defined as a person?  What part of the doctor is the doctor, and what part may be removed while he still lives?  All these questions become secondary when the crew boards the alien structure.  Here, strange magnetic fields play with their consciousness.  The soldier is convinced that she is dead, yet conscious of the fact.  Another crew member tries to cut off her leg, which is being dragged away by an invisible alien.  And invisible aliens do exist, but even they just hack into people’s brains.  They make people blind.  Speaking of which, blind people in turn react to inputs they aren’t supposed to see.  That’s what blindsight is.

Quite possibly the biggest stroke of brilliance in this book is an event that describes Siri’s ability.  Siri had been seeing glimpses of the aliens on their ship even prior to docking with the alien city, and before the crew unmasked them.  Of course, nobody wanted to believe him.  Once the aliens were rendered visible, Siri could not figure out how they got on board while their ship was still a distance away from the alien artifact.  The explanation was in my opinion the most powerful part of the book: Siri, as a synthetist, absorbed the visual cues, such as the shape of the alien artifact, the entire strange planet, the worms floating in the atmosphere, and subconsciously determined how an alien living on such a world would look like.  He then hallucinated the aliens on the ship.  In my opinion, nothing describes the strangeness of Watts’ world better than that passage.

Unfortunately, the book wasn’t as immersive as I’d like it to be.  The similarity with Stand on Zanzibar is one thing.  Another is the pacing.  The book starts out slowly; the action at the end is way too hectic.  Watts seems to be rushing so fast that it took me a great deal of imagination to just figure out the setting, and the basic layout of the portion of the artifact the characters penetrated.  I still don’t know the details of the action; it sped by me at supersonic speed.  The flashbacks are also thrown in at seemingly random moments, disconnected with the present.  I think Watts tried to add them as an explanation to certain character traits, but he missed the timing a little.

Overall, Blindsight is a compelling book.  The characters are very inventive, and the setting is so well laid out that I felt like I was present on the ship, and that made me very uncomfortable (in a good way).  Unfortunately, the uneven pacing kept my immersion at a lower level than I’d like, and I couldn’t make myself care about most of the characters, including the narrator, or the outcome of the mission.  The exploration of human consciousness and perception is fully worth its price, but had the book been more polished it would have been a strong contender for a modern classic designation.

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