Friday, January 25, 2019

Birthday Review: Blindsight, by Peter Watts

Blindsight, by Peter Watts

a review by Rich Horton

Today is Peter Watts' birthday. He's one of the most interesting and challenging SF writers of our time. I thought this novel Blindsight truly remarkable. I'm reposting what I wrote about that novel for my blog back when it came out.

Now to Blindsight, by Peter Watts. This new novel is told by Siri Keeton, member of an expedition to investigate an anomaly in the far Oort cloud. It seems that Earth was -- attacked? surveilled? -- by what people call "Fireflies", a rain of probes that appeared one night. Several waves of probes are sent from Earth to investigate, and Siri's ship, the Theseus, is the first manned investigator. Five members awake when nearing a brown dwarf that is apparently orbited by possibly alien devices.

The team members are a linguist, Susan James, who has (on purpose) multiple personalities; Isaac Szpindel, a cybernetically enhanced instrumentation specialist; Amanda Bates, a military specialist; and the leader, Jukka Sarasti, a vampire; as well as Keeton, who is an observer or intermediary -- there to translate the findings of the variously enhanced team members to terms "normal" humans can understand, and transmit them to Earth.

(Back a bit -- vampire? And this is hard SF? Yes -- Sarasti is a genetically reconstructed member of an offshoot species of predators from the dawn of humanity. Watts even works in the usefulness of crosses against vampires.)

Their mission is to figure out what the alien "invaders" are up to. And they do so by investigating a "big dumb object" they encounter orbiting a brown subdwarf in the Oort. But this investigation is not easy. On the one hand the "aliens", whoever or whatever they are, seem to communicate readily. But on the other hand they don't say much of real substance, and what they say isn't very welcoming. And direct investigation of the object is difficult: the environment is radiation drenched and otherwise terribly inhospitable, even when they aren't getting attacked. But they persist -- and what they eventually learn is very scary indeed.

The story also is concerned with the various natures of the main characters. A lot of time is devoted to Siri Keeton's backstory: he was an epileptic cured by having half his brain removed; his beloved father was often absent on important spook business, while his less-beloved mother was messing up his life and eventually retreating to "Heaven", a virtual space for uploaded consciousnesses. Siri himself, essentially sort of autistic, also has a difficult relationship with a childhood friend and with his only ever girlfriend. The point of all this, as with the shorter expositions of what makes the other expedition members tick, leads eventually to the real heart of the novel: examination of the nature and utility of consciousness. And that is what makes the novel ultimately fascinating -- the speculation, the ideas. In other words, it's "real SF", if "real SF" is supposed to be about ideas. The characters, indeed, are all fairly unpleasant. The action is interesting but not really rousing. The prose is fine but not by itself any reason to read the book. It's certainly not uplifting. But it is fascinating and full of sense of wonder.

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