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Blindsight by Peter Watts
Cover Artist: Thomas Pringle
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765319647
Date: 04 March 2008 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

[Editor's Note: This review originally ran in our October 2006 issue.]

Blindsight is a terrific piece of new hard SF. It's full of deep theory that winds through the plot like a cancer gone wild, and the result is that best of all possible worlds, a hard SF novel that won't let you go, and a bombardment of ideas that you won't be able to let go of once they've wormed their viral way into your meaty little brain.

In Blindsight, the Earth is visited by UFOs, sort of, when we're probed by a sudden rain of falling objects that burn up in the atmosphere and squeal in electromagnetic concert as they roast, calling home, as it were. In the classic manner Earth sends a ship off along the line of the transmission, though it's preceded by a few high speed probes and soon we've got our crew face to face with a massive alien object that they have to figure out what to do with. And of course, they're all very expendable.

The author apologizes for making his characters less lovable than most, but I'm not sure he's got that quite right. True, it's a story about a crew of generally annoying post-humans off to make first contact, or not, depending on what they find. But does it really bother us that the mission is being run by a super-intelligent vampire, created via Jurassic Park technology, that the linguist has four fully formed, if not functional, personalities in her head, that the science officer has been so Borgified that he's no longer comfortable living in his own skin, or that the the point of view character is an overgrown reporter without any empathy…since it was removed in childhood along with half his brain...and the cause of his epileptic seizures? No, not really.

It's not like anyone who's been to a literary SF convention doesn't know folks just as disconnected from the main stream. Actually, as we try to resolve the dilemma set up for us (and the main character) of whether or not Siri Keeton is human, or just a biological machine faking it to get by, we get pretty attached to him. Maybe it's because, like the girlfriend he once had, we like fixer uppers, but more likely because we're introspective types ourselves, and even if we haven't had radical brain surgery, we have no trouble agreeing that wondering if there's really anybody home is a legitimate thing to ask the person in the mirror.

Though there's a lot of fairly enjoyable interpersonal tension between the members of the crew, Siri is so much an observer and outsider that it all happens a bit remotely. There is a love affair among the disparate members of this deep space "Breakfast Club", but mostly the crew members go along in their own orbits, aware that they are most likely terminal ones for each. The relationship that Siri is concerned with is to his own humanity, which turns out to be something we come to care about. "Imagine that you are Siri Keeton." the book commands with the opening of the first chapter. For Siri, this is a challenge to be met every time he interacts with the outside world, and for the reader, it caries the somewhat unnerving possibility that we're not doing anything different. Siri is a modern Tin Man looking for his heart, and woe be unto him if he finds it.

Siri, the main character, is an interesting take on the source of exposition. He's a professional observer, capable of reading the nuance of body language and repackaging the musings of genius (and beyond) types into something that mere mortals can make use of. As a result, he gets to ask questions along the way, which we're the beneficiary of, and since he knows what other folks are thinking just by looking at their body language, we benefit from multiple first person perspectives, neatly woven together.

Other books that touch on the themes in Blindsight:

Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson for discussions on conciousness
Speed of Dark by Nancy Kress for an excellent autism story
The Martian Child by David Gerrold for a look at dealing with autism in realty
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke for exploration of an alien vessel manned by biological robots...but we can't recommend the sequels.
And in film,
The Breakfast Club by John Hughes (dir) , for a collection of trapped in a small space freaks every bit as odd as the crew of the Theseus.

Though Blindsight brings a number of other books to mind, that's not to say it's mindlessly recycling other folks ideas. Watts has taken a number of standard SF situations and added enough new ideas to come up with his best work yet. Chief among them is the notion that when we meet aliens they won't be like us, and figuring out what they are like will be tough sledding. If you like the exposition in Neal Stephenson's work, especially like the discussions of the origins of consciousness in Snowcrash, you'll love the way Watts presents his takes on sentience, game theory, and sociobiology through the story.

Blindsight is a terrific piece of new hard SF. It's full of deep theory that winds through the plot like a cancer gone wild, and the result is that best of all possible worlds, a hard SF novel that won't let you go, with a bombardment of ideas that you won't be able to let go of once they've wormed their viral way into your meaty little brain. The storytelling itself is a bit fragmented (the author explains why towards the end) but the storyline stays on course along the way, bouncing the reader back and forth between the desire to solve the mystery the massive alien spaceship presents and mild despair that the answers are too strange for a human brain to grasp. The surprising revelation by the author that the aliens may have more in common with us than we do...that as conscious creatures we're unnatural hitchhikers in our brains and he suggests that while intelligence may be here to stay, this sense of self phenomenon may be a passing fad. Too bad, as I was kind of fond of it.

By the end of the story I found myself torn about wishing for a sequel. In some ways the initial/terminal setup, with the main character drifting towards Earth in a stripped down shuttle, begs for what happens next. In other ways it warns you not to ask. Either way I'm looking forward to Peter's next book.

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