Fiction Reviews


Blindsight

(2006) Peter Watts, Tor (US), Can$16.95 / Aus$26.95 / US$14.95, pbk, 384pp, ISBN 978-0-765-31964-7

One night (or day depending on where you were) in the last couple of decades of the 21st century, the sky turned into a grid of pinpoint lights that came down to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere. An assessment is made and it appears that someone, or some agent, has taken a snapshot of the Earth. Some months later, a probe in the outer solar system detects a signal, but it is not a signal directed at Earth, but at something even further out.

And so an interplanetary craft with a crew of four is sent on mission to investigate: Isaac to study the 'aliens'; Susan (and her multiple personalities) to talk to them; Amanda (a military major) to fight if necessary; Jukka (a 'vampire') to command; and Siri Keeton (the book's principal protagonist) is a synthesist who gathers information both for analysis and as a living archivist for the mission. It is this mission that forms the bulk of the novel.

Now, a vampire may seem a little odd for a hard Science Fiction novel – and Blindsight is a delightfully hard SF novel and not sci fi – so there is a science rationale for there being a vampire. Apparently, vampires are an evolutionary offshoot of humanity who, lacking an enzyme, need an element of human metabolism in their diet: vampires needing a vitamin, I love it! Anyway, in pre-history vampires were sort of doing OK, though the boom-bust predator-prey relationship with humanity was not too hot so necessitating their having prolonged periods of suspended animation to allow human populations to recover. But then humans went and started building things, and architecture came with straight lines and right-angles that visually trigger seizures in vampires (hence the vampire fear of crucifixes myth). This was a distinct Darwinian disadvantage for the vamps. So vampires went extinct, until PCR, genomics and reproductive biology technology brought them back to life.

Smarter, stronger and in nearly all areas better than humans, who better to lead a mission into a possibly hostile unknown than a vampire? Anyway, this is but one of this book's fascinating facets.

And so the good ship Theseus sets off with this crew in hibernation (together with a back-up crew also in suspended animation) to investigate…

This is a proverbial 'first contact' novel but one that is very different from any I have come across to date (and I have read a few in my time believe me). It is also underpinned by much science albeit occasionally taken to exotic, all be they logical, extremes; and there is nothing wrong with that for this is after all Science Fiction and not fact. However, if you are not yourself a die-hard sciencephile (in which case why are you visiting this website?) then you may find much of Blindsight's narrative too difficult to decipher to enjoy. Conversely, if you love chemistry, physics and biology, then there is bags in Blindsight to get off on. Of course, as said, the author does on occasion stretch the science to breaking point but then that is exactly what SF does.   Yes, it is possible to pick holes in the biology, but you will need to know your biology to do it. Yes, the ship's drive (which, as Watts says in the appendix, is I believe an original hypothetical invention of the author) is a nonsensical interpretation on some recent physics research, but is a rather neat fiction concept.

The question with ultra-hard SF, is how far can an author stretch science in the SF before suspension of disbelief snaps; a good hard Science Fiction author will enable matters to go along way before that happens and Watts, as demonstrated with Blindsight, in this regard is a good (if not great) author with an appropriately-sized Young's modulus to boot.

A reviewer, I feel, should not spoil a novel but suffice to say that we do have our close encounter with the aliens and Peter Watts makes more than a fair fist of their depiction which really is suitably 'alien'. Of course, it helps that the author is a biologist (man after my own heart) as well as being scientifically widely read.   Indeed, for anyone who thinks on reading Blindsight that there is no substance behind the techno-jargon, there is a several-page appendix explaining the science that inspires elements of the story together with 130 citations. (I simply love it when hard SF authors do that.)

In addition to being a first contact novel, Blindsight is also an exploration of identity both biological and individual: not just what makes us human (as thrown into stark relief by the sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) at the alien) but, through the synthesist protagonist's introspection and analysis, also personal identity; the individuals of the 'human' crew are in more than one sense alien to each other.

One conclusion, (out of a few) that a reader may come to, is that the dividing line between human and extraterrestrial alien is as blurred as that between individual humans. (Not least that our cultural collective is imbued with myth – in part hence the vampires – to which we each have our own response.) To really get this, it is suggested that you try to imagine what it is like being the synthesist Siri Keeton.

Now, by now some of you reading this having clicked on this page from Concatenation's current edition (and other subsequent visitors can check the posting date at the bottom of this page) may be wondering why I am reviewing this nearly half a decade since the novel's publication?

A good question!

First, Blindsight has not to my knowledge been published in Great Britain (the author is Canadian) but it really does deserve to be read by European hard SF aficionados. Do not panic, I have checked and you can currently (2011) get Blindsight from Amazon UK and so I am sure your local specialist SF bookshop (which you should be supporting) will be able to obtain it for you.   Second, Peter Watts has been in the SF news last year and though he has had this unsavoury blip in his life, because of it I picked up on kind words said of him, both as a character and an ideas person, by many including some whose views I respect.   Third, but not least, Blindsight was nominated a Hugo for 'best novel' (2007).   It did not win, but then history shows that more often than not the best SF of those Hugo nominated do not actually end up winning, so this arguably makes it even more of a plus point.

Blindsight is a minor SF classic but a remarkably great 'first contact' classic that, specifically in this regard, comfortably lets the author rub shoulders with 'first contact' giants such as Arthur Clarke and Stanislaw Lem. It is therefore a landmark work and genuinely an absolute must for the hard SF buff's collection.

Jonathan Cowie

Note: In addition to its Hugo nomination, Blindsight was voted 'Best Foreign SF' for the MIR Fantastika prize in 2009. MIR F. being Russia's leading high street SF magazine.  In 2014 Blindsight won Finland's Tähtivaeltaja Award for best science fiction book published in Finnish and Japan's Seiun for 'best translated novel'.


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