Book Review: ‘Blindsight’ by Peter Watts

'Blindsight' by Peter Watts

‘Blindsight’ by Peter Watts (US HBK 978-0765312181, Tor Books, October 2006)

[Readers should note that this review may be considered to contain spoilers – although the reviewer would maintain that this book (or indeed any book worth reading) will not be ‘spoiled’ by partial revelations of story arc or characterisation.]

Blindsight is set seven decades or so from the present day. The human race has continued to improve upon (and transcend the limitations of) the human form by way of prosthetics, genetic tweaks and neural engineering, and has begun to colonise and exploit the inner solar system.

The ongoing order of things is derailed by the sudden appearance of ‘the Fireflies’ – an array of one-shot self-immolating probes that burn out in the Earth’s atmosphere after taking a metaphorical snapshot of the planet. The Fireflies represent the first concrete evidence of intelligent life beyond humanity itself, and the datasphere is full of confusion and consternation as to the motivations of the creators of the probes.

The origins of the Fireflies are traced, and investigatory missions are launched. The third wave of these exploratory efforts consists of Theseus (a highly advanced nanotech spacecraft) and its small crew of ‘bleeding edge’ posthumans (each an expert in a different field, from linguistics to military technology) under the command of a sinister and aloof vampire captain.

The crew awaken from suspended animation to find themselves and Theseus deep in the Oort cloud, approaching a vast ‘brown dwarf’ body around which is orbiting a huge and sinister something that calls itself Rorschach. Rorschach may be an entity, an organism, a city or a spacecraft, or a combination of all four. The crew of Theseus set to work to unravel the puzzle that Rorschach represents and determine whether or not it is a threat to their civilisation – while in its own inscrutable and alien way, Rorschach does exactly the same to them.

Blindsight is an astonishingly dense and philosophical novel; unflinchingly dark, unashamedly literary, and unapologetically couched in scientific language and thought. It is probably fair to say that these aesthetics will ensure that it doesn’t appeal to all readers – indeed, not even to all readers of the increasingly diverse and contested field of science fiction – but the corollary of that is its direct route to the hearts and minds of committed fans of ‘hard’ sf.

Much has been made by other reviewers and critics of the manifestation of this aesthetic in the characters of the story, and justifiably so. The narrative revolves around (and hinges upon) posthumans who have completely integrated scientific language and logic into their everyday discourse, much as the novel that portrays them has done. These characters are barely human at all, at least in the sense of ‘human’ that applies in the world of the reader. They have been engineered, voluntarily hacked and reconstructed to be something more than human – and perhaps in some ways, something less.

Some have been fitted with interfaces that allow them to absorb data from mechanical sensors as if they were their own organs – to see in microwave spectra, or to feel the textures beneath a microscopic waldo arm. Others have chosen to house multiple conflicting personalities in a single body, as if medical science had gone through psychiatry and right out the other side.

Point in case and exemplar thereof is the novel’s narrator, Siri Keeton. His official job description defines him as a Synthesist – though many people would refer to him as a ‘jargonaut’. What he actually does is a form of translation – he ‘rotates the topography of complex information’, passing discoveries from the ‘bleeding edge’ of augmented intelligence down to the ‘dead centre’ of baseline humanity in a form that they can actually understand. This makes him inherently an outsider, a conduit, a go-between – a character defined by his passivity and non-involvement, at least at first.

His work is facilitated by a operation he had as a child. As a severe epileptic, he was given a hemispherectomy, a surgical procedure that essentially removes half of the subject’s brain. As a result of this, he has no instinctive human empathy – all his responses and reactions to other human beings are learned from observation alone – he is a ‘Chinese room’ in human form. This practised ability to read the body language of other people enables Siri to understand what people really mean beneath what they may say out loud (or so he believes) and emphasises his outsider status.

His position as the passive observer and ‘commissar’ of the Theseus’ mission is eventually compromised and manipulated; the crew’s ‘voyage of discovery’ is mirrored by Siri’s internal revelations, as he discovers that he and his crewmates are both more and less human than he originally believed.

Such conflicts and questions of identity are one of the running narrative themes of the story. Siri acts as a microcosm of the broader narrative as it examines humanity’s ability to understand and empathise with ‘the other’ – the classic ‘first contact’ sf trope amplified to the n-th degree and examined in nanoscopic detail, and speaking about the culture that the reader exists within just as much as about that of the characters. Posthumanity is portrayed as being, in many respects, as alien to us as Rorschach is to them.

The tone of posthuman civilisation is reminiscent of William Gibson’s earlier books; a certain irrelevance of the merely ordinary, a sense that the rush of human progress is quite cheerfully leaving humanity behind. As Siri says of his presence (and that of the other crew) on the Theseus:

“The only reason we were here was because nobody had yet optimised software for First Contact.” [pp 53]

Watts also uses these facets of the story to take a somewhat more sober look at another concept that is a recurrent feature of modern hard sf; speaking of his job as a conduit of information between augmented intelligences and baseline humans, Siri says:

“Maybe the Singularity happened years ago. We just don’t want to admit we were left behind.” [pp 50]

Another manifestation of ‘the other’ is Jukka Sarasti, Theseus‘ vampire captain. In a bold reworking of an ancient trope, Watts presents vampires as an extinct subspecies of humans that died off when civilisation as we know it took root, and that has been resurrected through the magic of genetic engineering so that posthumanity might make use of their exceptional mental powers and abilities – coldly calculating, hyperlogical and able to hold multiple viewpoints on a situation at a time, they are unhampered by certain aspects of conscious self-awareness that make normal humans what they are. For these reasons, as well as for deeply buried racial instincts, baseline humans are terrified of them – hence there are tensions not just between the crew and the alien presence of Rorschach, but between the crew and the alien within their midst.

Despite the overtly scientific aesthetics of the novel, Watts has not stinted on traditional literary symbolism. One obvious example is the naming of the spacecraft Theseus after one of the great heroes of Greek mythology – a storytelling tradition that has provided centuries of metaphor to draw upon. The simple connection in the case of the spacecraft is the journey of the hero Theseus into the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Furthermore, the ‘Ship of Theseus’ is a sub-legend that is often used to illustrate a philosophical question of identity and change, much as science fiction has previously debated whether, if a being is teleported by matter recombination, its identity is contiguous despite its corporeal body being completely remade from different atoms.

The nanotech nature of the Theseus spacecraft echoes this legend subtly – capable of rebuilding and reconfiguring itself using matter harvested from its surroundings, it is never exactly the same ship that it was before. Its only contiguous identity, with the exception of its crew, is the secretive artificial intelligence with which only Sarasti the vampire can communicate directly.

But perhaps the more telling symbol is the name that Rorschach gives itself when the crew of the Theseus first open a dialogue with it. The Rorschach blot test allegedly allows the subject of the test to project their own personality and imagination into essentially formless but suggestive images, and Rorschach functions in the same way for the crew, who continually attempt to understand an alien entity in terms that are inherent to their own perceptions. In some ways, this symbolism encompasses the entire novel, which in and of itself acts as a literary Rorschach blot for the reader to project their own preconceptions and ideologies onto.

These repeating motifs of identity, both of the self and the other, feed off of the central scientific premise of the novel, namely that consciousness and self-awareness might be not only unique to humans in the universe, but also an evolutionary ox-bow lake, a developmental mutation that actually decreases Darwinian ‘fitness’ over the greater scale of time – despite appearing to be of great benefit when observed from the anthropocentric viewpoint and time-scale of human civilisation itself.

The inexplicably inhuman behaviour of Rorschach is the extreme apogee of this concept, but the vampires bring it closer to home, making the suggestion that humans are not necessarily the inevitable pinnacle of evolution that they may see themselves to be. It is rare, though not unheard of, to discover a work of science fiction that relegates the human race to such irrelevancy in the universal scheme of things. Certainly there have been many novels that have shown our species to be one small dot in a vast pointillist universe, but the naked suggestion that we are a mere smudge on the radar screen of evolution lends a rare dark cynicism to Blindsight – a draught that is strangely refreshing, despite its bitter aftertaste.

Both the philosophical pessimism of the novel, and its unabashed adoption of the hardest of science for the skeleton of its ideology, ensure that Watts is not going to enamour the vast majority of readers. Blindsight demonstrates (and revels in) the impenetrability and jargon that is often blamed for the perceived marginalisation of hard sf. But as such it represents a side-branching evolution of its own, tailor-made to colonise a niche habitat of readers who hunger for no-holds-barred sensawunda and exactly these types of vast brain-stretching ideas. When viewed in this way, as a highly specialised organism, Blindsight is a triumph that raises the bar for serious science fiction literature as a genre. The mainstream of literature may never embrace Peter Watts, but their voluntary loss should be considered the incalculable gain of the sf canon.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Blindsight’ by Peter Watts”

  1. Nice work, though I’m not sure about your interpretation of Rorschach.

    I took the name to be ironic as the Rorschach entity has an underlying structure and nature but the humans who study it struggle to see past their own assumptions about intelligence. The point of a real Rorschach test is that the images are created entirely in the mind of the observer.

    I really don’t think that’s the case with Watts… I don’t think he buys into the postmodernism that a too literal interpretation of Rorschach entails. Watts is entirely modernist… his book was written with a point and an argument to make and the plot and characters exist solely to help him make it. While he’s clearly included a number of jokes and references (like the name of the ship and the stuff with Chelsea and Siri’s mother) I really don’t think there’s much of the ink blot about this novel.

  2. I take your point, Jonathan. I wasn’t really calling Watts out for that interpretation as such, more suggesting that the nature of the novel, all the hanging questions and uncertainties that create the sense of mystery about Rorschach, will end up producing pre-emptive conclusions in an inquisitive reader … in hindsight, I realise I may not have explained that point particularly well!

  3. Fair enough 🙂

    That said, I DO think he has interesting things to say about subjectivity and interpretation such as the way the narrative kind of falls apart at the climax. It’s there to a) demonstrate Watts’ awareness of how limiting a first person narrative can be and b) the fact that Siri really doesn’t understand what’s going on when the Scramblers attack.

    So you might well be right about his having a wider message than the one the book directly confronts. Hmmm.

  4. Does feasibility make any difference. Firflies seem to me to be very inefficient. Better by far to incorporate AI on the Internet.

    If ET has got any interest in us he will have done so already! One standard reply of mine to flying saucer buffs is “Puerde lectar en espagnol”. ET will surely be generating any valid information – in a variety of languages.

    I am not an avid reader of SF, one of the reasons being that most of the plots are so transparently impossible.

  5. Does feasibility make any difference. Firflies seem to me to be very inefficient. Better by far to incorporate AI on the Internet.

    Not sure what you mean here; that the Scramblers should have released AI onto Earth’s internet?

    I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you haven’t read the book.

  6. I found myself wondering if Rorschach wasn’t calling itself that as a warning that it would act as a Rorschach blot does: not so much that all you see in it is reflections of yourself, but that *it would act towards you as you acted towards it*.

    And, indeed, the crew of the Theseus manage perhaps the least diplomatic first contact I’ve seen described in SF, from force-docking and knocking holes in Rorschach’s hull through to accidentally killing a scrambler and in effect abducting two more. Rorschach doesn’t actually take any actions against Theseus before that happens. It’s reflected Theseus’s crew back onto themselves.

    (And, indeed, the last time we see Theseus and Rorschach, they are almost literally mirror images of each other in intent, purpose, and tactics.)

  7. Failed to take note of that last bit, but I see it now 🙂

    It also neatly mirrors the events on Earth and the potential elimination of the entire basis for the Human/Scrambler conflict.

    Ain’t thematic consistency grand?

  8. Has anyone noticed the similarities between this book and the the book ‘The Sphere’ written by Michael Chrichton?

  9. One major difference that leaps to mind, Vimil, is that Michael Crichton isn’t a science fiction writer – he’s a technophobic political shill. In my opinion. I’ll admit to never having read ‘The Sphere’, but also to my lack of interest in ever doing so.

  10. Vimil,
    I had the same thought. The concept, the passive nature of the first-person narrator, the grim style (well, Watts’ is much darker). Watts would not be pleased to hear about this, imho.

Leave a Reply