Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review: Blindsight by Peter Watts

Blindsight by Peter Watts
Published : Tor, 2006
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award, Hugo Award, Locus SF Award

The Book :

“It’s been two months 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 to 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 to machinery 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 is the first book I’ve read by Peter Watts, and I read it mostly while on transatlantic flights.  One thing I enjoy about those flights is the opportunity to get something like 8 to 9 hours of uninterrupted reading time! 

My Thoughts :

Blindsight was an interesting take on first contact with an alien species.  I appreciated that the aliens were deeply inhuman, but managed to still somehow not be completely incomprehensible.  There were plenty of surprising things to learn about the aliens, but the logic behind their behavior was consistent. In other words, while I failed to anticipate a number of revelations about their form of life and intelligence, the events of the story made sense in retrospect. Their dissimilarity to humanity did preclude the possibility of much interaction, but I suppose that is what one would expect when encountering a fundamentally different kind of life form.

However, without much meaningful interaction between the alien or human characters, I felt that there was not much forward momentum in the plot. The crew mostly spent their time studying the alien structure and creatures, speculating about them, and wondering if the captain and their leader knew more about everything than they did.  I enjoyed the speculation, as well as the creepy atmosphere of the spaceship and the alien structure, but I sometimes wished the story could be more active or character-driven.

Watts commented in the acknowledgements that his characters were not “less cuddlesome than usual”, which was a challenge in generating reader investment.  From my point of view, the characters were much more intriguing as ideas than they were as people. The main character and narrator, Siri Keeton, is a synthesist, who manipulates information without understanding it (coincidence, Apple?).  He basically sees himself as an empty, emotionless conduit through which information passes without the interference of interpretation and comprehension.  While this is very thematically relevant, is does not make it easy to become invested in his character. His character is explored through flashbacks with his childhood friend, quirky girlfriend, and parents, who all seem much more human and approachable than Siri himself.

I think the other members of the crew were intended to show different kinds of intelligence—there was the man with most of his mind in his machine extensions, the woman with many “selfs” that were constantly thinking in parallel, and the soldier who clung to the edge of relevance through her machine interfaces.  While they were very interesting in theory, the different characters tended to blend together a bit for me in the story. The scientific explanation for the predator race of vampires seemed far-fetched to me, and I could see where this would be a sticking point for some readers. However, I felt that the vampire was one of the most unique and enigmatic characters in the story, despite the fact that he rarely interacted with others (or perhaps because of it).

Besides the aliens themselves, one of the most entertaining aspects of the novel was its exploration of ideas about sentience, intelligence, and communication. The main characters themselves were a commentary on these topics, through their physical and mental makeup, as were the aliens and their structure.  Siri’s growth throughout the story did not seem wholly convincing to me, but I appreciated the significance of his character growth in terms of these ideas.  The ending may seem to say some quite depressing things about human ideas of intelligence, but the conclusion is not completely one-sided, and it is ambiguous enough (to me, at least) to afford our species a little hope.

My Rating : 3.5/5

Blindsight is an interesting first contact novel, featuring truly inhuman aliens and some relatively alien human characters. I enjoyed learning about the aliens, and reading about the ideas that arose from the humans’ study of them.  I did not find any of the characters very engaging, though, and this sometimes made it difficult to be invested in the story. I would recommend Blindsight for readers looking for an interesting first contact story, but with the caveat that the story is more driven by ideas than by characters.

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