November 29, 2014

Review: Blindsight

Blindsight by Peter Watts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best, and also one of the most difficult, science fiction books I have ever read. I love science fiction, but I'm not so much into the really hard stuff, mostly because I have a layperson's understanding (at best) of physics and biology. (That is, I didn't know Han Solo's stating "This is the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs" was completely wrong until years after the fact.) I prefer "softer" science fiction, which is best illustrated by the book I read prior to this one, John Scalzi's Lock In.

Having said that, it was really interesting to read Blindsight after Scalzi's book. Lock In is near-future SF, taking place on an Earth very similar to our own, except for that one incident--the illness that resulted in Haden's syndrome--that shook up global society and basically turned it upside down. John Scalzi is exploring the fallout from this premise, and the fascinating disability/racial/gender issues it inspires, and doing it very well. But basically this book is more sociological science fiction, with an tight, inward-turned focus.

Blindsight is far bigger and more sprawling, with more issues and ideas packed into its first section than Scalzi discusses throughout his entire book. There's first contact, interstellar travel, ramscoops, antimatter, artificial intelligence, eye/brain evolution, surgically induced multiple personalities (one of the main characters, the Gang of Four, is four distinct people in one body), radical hemispherectomy to cure epilepsy and the results thereof (the protagonist, Siri Keeton, who loses a great deal of his humanity and empathy, but this also makes him the perfect person to record this whole first-contact flustercluck), a truly alien species that's a horrifying combination of the Alien Queen/an intelligent (but not sentient) living starship, budding off "kids" with no self-awareness or genes/a Lovecraftian nightmare come to life in deep space; and finally, the underlying theme of all this, a deep philosophical discussion of consciousness and self-awareness, and proposing the idea that just maybe, the Human species is an aberration from the rest of the intelligent universe for having developed it.

Good heavens. Isn't that exhausting? But that's not all, folks! There's also a future Earth, circa 2082, where genetic manipulation is common, and there's a virtual-reality Heaven where people can upload and leave their families behind (this is what Siri's mother does), and the moon and Mars are colonized. (I kept expecting Watts to throw in something about climate change--this does seem to be a rather huge omission, but I suppose his editor had to draw the line somewhere.) And last but not least, there's vampires, explained in a thoroughly scientific manner as a human subspecies and that went extinct a few thousand years ago. They go into seizures upon viewing right angles (hence the old canard about the cross, suddenly proven true), and they were resurrected following experiments using genetic manipulation to cure autism, which unfortunately woke up some "junk DNA." (This last is actually not so much in the book itself, but explained on Watts' website, in a very entertaining, darkly funny "slideshow." It's well worth your time if you want to find out more about them.)

So: needless to say, this is a very big and extremely ambitious hard SF novel. It's not light reading by any means. The prose is dense and packed, and if you don't pay attention you will miss something important. The characters are not likable, and at the very end of the book you suddenly realize the protagonist is an unreliable narrator. I suppose this would make some people curse and throw the book against the wall; it made me want to start the book over, so I could see just where Siri went off the rails. It's also not an uplifting book; it's bleak and pessimistic, and none of the characters (or humanity as a whole, for that matter) gets anything resembling a happy ending.

Nevertheless, it's absolutely fascinating. I had to return my library copy, but Watts has made the book available as a free Creative Commons download on his website. Naturally I trotted right over there and snagged it, and now I can peruse the Sad Travails of Siri Keeton at my leisure. It's also made me want to hunt down everything else Peter Watts has ever written. You should too.

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