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Really impressive, cutting-edge science fiction
on 5 April 2007
If you like your science fiction hard, deep, and philosophically compelling, you're going to like Peter Watts. Self-awareness, consciousness, communication, ethics, intelligence, and the nature of life and reality are just some of the high-brow subjects Watts wraps into the plot of Blindsight. Eschewing the age-old question of what consciousness is, Watts probes deeper to try and get at what consciousness is actually good for. Obviously, this isn't light-weight science fiction, so I suspect the complete science fiction novice might have a little trouble getting into this book. Sure, there is some great action taking place in a deep-space environment, but Watts' philosophical questions are truly at the heart of this novel.
If you want to get Earth's attention, sending sixty-five thousand objects (dubbed "fireflies") careening into the planetary atmosphere is a pretty darn effective way to do it. All of the objects burn up in flight so no physical damage is done, but this shocking event serves as quite a wake-up call for a now-nervous human race. When, two months later, a distant space probe picks up whispers (in English) from the edge of the solar system, no time is wasted on trying to figure out who is out there and, perhaps more importantly, what its intentions are. An extraordinary crew is assembled to fly out there and investigate: a linguist with multiple, surgically-induced personalities allowing her to process information in four different ways, a biologist almost Borg-like with his machinery-enhanced senses, a pacifist warrior who may or may not be able to accomplish anything if the aliens prove hostile, a synthesist to serve as a conduit of information back to Earth, and a genetically reborn vampire to call the shots. We view all of the action through the eyes of Siri Keeton, who, as a child, basically had half of his brain removed in order to cure him of epilepsy. The operation could be said to have removed the truly human part of his personality, leaving him an analytical being who lives and makes decisions based on algorithms and logic rather than human emotions. In other words, he is the perfect objective observer, and his role as synthesist on this space mission is to observe everything and everybody on the mission and update Earth with information on what is really going on out there - with the aliens as well as the human crew.
The novel quickly becomes a story of first contact with a completely alien race. Initially, the human crew struggles to figure out if the communications they receive from a most alien of vessels identifying itself as Rorschach are coming from actual aliens - or if the ship is empty and the communications computer-generated. Surprisingly, that question doesn't get all that easier when they first encounter the creatures they call scramblers inside the alien ship. These creatures are somehow able to affect the human brain, conjuring up unseen shadows and unbidden emotional reactions, as well as hiding things (such as themselves) in plain sight. And even if the creatures are alive, are they intelligent? Are they even self-aware? The more the crewmen learn, the less they seem to know about these absolutely alien beings. These questions of intelligence and self-awareness eventually come back to attach themselves to Siri and his crewmates, culminating in a pretty shocking series of events and revelations. It goes without saying that this is cutting-edge material.
Basically, Peter Watts' Blindsight is hard science fiction at its best - a little daunting to the sci-fi novice but immensely thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating to the reader seeking something far and beyond a good action-packed story. If there's a weakness in the novel, it's the separation the reader feels between himself and the characters. It is difficult to relate to the crew members (let alone the mysterious aliens who may or may not be sentient). It's even difficult to truly understand Siri, despite the fact we see and learn everything that happens from his perspective. As such, however, the novel is basically about us, human beings, and the way we perceive reality and ourselves. Watts provides us with some remarkable insights in that regard, and that is what makes Blindsight such an extraordinary science fiction novel.