Blindsight by Peter Watts
Genre: Science Fiction, Hard Science Fiction
Published by: Tor Books
Release Date: Oct. 3, 2006
Okay, there’s so much going on in this novel I have no idea where to begin.
Blindsight is a novel that follows Siri Keeton, a man with literally half a brain, one of the crew members of the interstellar research ship Theseus. Theseus is manned by a group of technologically/biological modified humans, and a resurrected vampire. Yes, you read that right. In this world, vampires were the apex predators (against humans) for centuries until a mutation in their gene started to kill them off. By mere accident, they come across an alien race inhabiting a gargantuan vessel they call Rorschach. And they are alien in every sense of the word, but they’re not malevolent…because they have no capacity to understand that. Malevolence lends itself as a conscious intention to harm another lifeform whether it be physical or otherwise. The entities embodied in Watts work are inherently indifferent. They aren’t handicapped by consciousness, and that is terrifying.
“Supposing it’s just — instinct,” I suggested. “Flounders hide against their background pretty well, but they don’t think about it.”
“Where are they going to get that instinct from, Keeton? How is it going to evolve? Saccades are an accidental glitch in mammalian vision. Where would scramblers have encountered them before now?” Cunningham shook his head. “That thing, that thing Amanda’s robot fried— it developed that strategy on its own, on the spot. It improvised.”
The word intelligent barely encompassed that kind of improvisation….
“…I think we’re dealing with a species so far beyond us that even their retarded children can rewire our brains on the fly, and I can’t tell you how fucking scared that should make you.”
The book is front loaded with a lot of science, which honestly, went over my head but I didn’t really care either way. One of the novels main ideas the novel thrusts upon the reader is — Is consciousness self destructive? Is sentience even needed? In the grand scale of the cosmos, are we advantageous because of our consciousness, or are we hindered by it? Is control an illusion: think about moving your finger, and it will already be in motion. These are the heady questions that run throughout Blindsight, and others have tried to ask the question (and in some cases answer), sure, but never so frigidly, so mechanically. Horrible things happen daily for no reason whatsoever, but the universe is like that. Watts doesn’t give himself an out with the meanderings of a higher power, etc.
“Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains — cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes evermore computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that secretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.”
As you can see, Watts is far and away, a writers writer. His prose is poetic and warm, and on the sentence level there’s not many that match up to him, but he’s also cold, indifferent, calculated. It’s a thrill to read a writer on this level. His characters have depth, have full fleshed out personalities and quirks, and almost all of them are not nice people.
There’s so much to unpack with this novel I’m not even sure I’m prepared to say much more. I’ll just leave you with this: if you like hard science-fiction, this is absolutely a must read. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and that’s not hyperbolic in any sense of the word. Honestly, this is a masterpiece.