[Book Review] Blindsight

Blindsight / Peter Watts

Available to read online or download here: http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm
"Two months have past since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since—until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who should we send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn’t want to meet?

Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can’t feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find—but you’d give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them. . . . "
This was my first foray into the works of Peter Watts, but he had been brought to my attention through reviews of Blightsight's sequal, Echopraxia.  Morgan Crooks describes reading Peter Watts as:
"a simultaneously bracing and discouraging experience. Bracing because his depiction of the future and the oddities who inhabit it continue to get better and better, his plots more complicated and more involving, his characters less like sock-puppets for his ideas and more like actual human beings (or whatevers).

Discouraging because Watts uses his considerable gifts, artistic and academic, in the service of a singularly depressing set of ideas gaining percolating up from fields as diverse as physics, neurology, and nihilistic philosophy."
Having now read Blindsight, I have to agree with this assessment of reading Watts.  His writing is ambitious and delivers on its promise.  This isn't a story of plucky heroes prevaling against an overwhelming threat.  Siri and the crew of the Theseus are in way over their head, and success may mean little more than limping home in time to warn humanity of what is out there... unless it gets there first.

Before this point, all my picks for Virtual Speculation were books and authors I was familiar with.  After all, half the reason I started the book club was as a way to share books I love.  Blindsight was our April pick, and it is an intelligent and solid, if perhaps depressing, hard science fiction read.  I strongly recommend reading the "Notes and References" at the end of the book as well, some very interesting information there, both expository and source.

Discussion Fodder:
  • Siri Keeton underwent a partial lobotomy as a child to treat severe epilepsy, afterwards he needs to relearn how to be, and his best friend believes that person who Siri was is dead, and that the Siri of now is a different person.  Even Siri refers to the reason his mother chose to leave as "she couldn't stand to look at the thing who'd replaced her son."  Do you think that physical and chemical transformations of one's brain can change who someone is?
  • In Blindsight, vampires are a triumph of technology, a resurrected race "stitched together from junk genes and fossil marrow steeped in the blood of sociopaths and high-functioning autistics."  What do you think of Watts' interpretation of vampires/vampirism?  What do you think of the application in the context of this novel?
  • Siri's ex had a "fetish" for "first-person sex."  In Blindsight, as well as in other futuristic novels, there is a trend towards the isolation away from physical intercourse, be it backlash from anti-biotic resistant disease or a result of shifts in technology use and integration, or something else altogether.  What do you think of this prediction of fetishization of traditional intercourse?  Did Siri cheat on Chelsea by using a skin based on her?
  • Do you think that "technology implies belligerence"?  That technology tramples over ways of life and competition?
  • If something like the virtual reality Heaven existed, how do you think society would respond?  Do you think it would become, as Siri describes them, "the Tribe That Just Didn't Give a Shit"?  Do you think that "tribe" already exists?
  • Watts has created a distinctly non-human biology for the aliens, borrowing from some of the more 'alien' multi-celled lifeforms on our own planet.  Does he convince you of his alien systems?  What do you think of the alien biochemistry, their communication, their attacks?  Do you think the aliens have any concept of individuality?
  • What is the role of language in humanity and personality in Blindsight?
  • Siri and Susan identify the intelligence speaking to them from the Rorchach as a "Chinese Room" - a cipher tool mimicking language comprehension.  Do you think the aliens truly understand the language they use to communicate with the crew of the Theseus?
  • What do you think of Siri's parents?  Jim, a half-absent father, called away on assignment, and Helen, uploaded into her own private reality and resentful of her husband?  Was Jim a neglectful, abusive father as Helen claims?  Do you think that Siri read's his mother correctly?  What about the fight Siri remembers where Jim assaults Helen?  Was Helen abusive of Siri by giving him that medication?
  • Susan James is a single body, single brain, that contains four distinct partitioned identities.  How truly separate are her identities, her memories?  What about the fifth identity that arises?  How is Susan similar or different from persons with Multiple Personality Disorder?
  • On the Rorschach, are the crew hallucinating or seeing things that are actually there?  Was the Rorschach manipulating the crew all along?  For what end?
  • What do you think Siri will find when he returns home?  Will there be a home left?

Comments

  1. I'm glad you liked this book, Tegan. Very interesting review! I agree with you about Watts afterwords, btw, they are almost as interesting as the books themselves.

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