Mike’s Prattle

Miscellaneous

Peter Watts – Blindsight

Posted by Mike on December 20, 2006

A few days ago, I linked to the on-line Creative Commons version of this very new book. I’d like to add this link, Watt’s blog, where the story of how this book came out and what happened to it during the promotional phase is laid out.

It’s a bit hard to start talking about it without hurling hyperbole all over the place. It’s not flawless, but it’s about as close as one gets these days. The prose is snapping, the characters unique, bizarre and well-drawn, the science cutting edge and the takes on the well known “first contact” novel incredibly different from what I’ve read before.

The premise is that aliens show up in a display above the world’s atmosphere, apparently surveying the planet and then burning out. While you (fortunately) don’t get a lot of the development from this event to the part of the main story where 5 “posthumans” are sent to discover a related alien artifact, what you do get is the development of the first-person narrator, and through him you discover the world of the future, where many people have downloaded themselves into a virtual “Heaven.” It’s an interesting device, as Siri Keeton, our narrator has had an unusual surgery that makes him quite a bit different from the normal human, a difference not only fascinating in itself but integral to the plot.

Keeton is part of a crew made up of four different personalities (one of which has four different personalities crammed into one), all of which are described in the blurb on the side flap of the book. All of them bring different perspectives to the table, but the most fascinating character is the mission’s leader, a vampire named Jukka Sarasti. This is not your typical vampire by any means, there’s a nice explanation in the back of the book that explains the science behind the idea, but it’s made clear the rest of the crew is afraid of the predator, and that he’s also far more evolved than the rest of the crew, understanding what is going on often in advance of everyone else.

The set up is less interesting than how the plot unfolds and it’s really the science that makes it breathe (I found myself susprised that during the well-written final action scenes that I was actually missing the science speak). As the crew encounters the alien artifact way outside the solar system, it begins to realize that everyone is way over their heads. The aliens are actually very alien and it’s through this device that you actually learn way more about the crew than the aliens itself, through their inability to really understand what is going on around them (all apart from Sarasti who is always ahead of the game). The crew’s encounters start to change their understanding of the nature of consciousness, realizing that their brains, unfamiliar with most of the input, aren’t actually relating what is going on.

What I found fascinating is how much of this dovetails with a lot of hermetic ideas, particularly the ideas brought up that talk about we don’t really have a free will, that we’re basically automatons in a way. While hermetic science goes on to describe a program that seeks to bump the human being out of its comfort zone and to learn about the various brain sections/souls/spheres/what have you, Watts uses the idea to set up a fascinating what if that deals with potential evolutionary paths, and shock, that human sentience may not necessarily be to its advantage.

I’m not sure too much about the ending, it seemed like a LOT happened on the last page that was a bit confusing, but little of it relates to the smaller story and thus didn’t distract me too much from what was a brilliantly gripping denouement. It all came together nicely: ideas, plot, characters and climax and most importantly lived up to the considerable hype being tossed around.

Given that the first printing was, what, 3500 copies?, I’d suggest that, especially if Tor doesn’t do a second printing, that the resulting hype and small printing size will likely make this something of a collector’s item. But fortunately you can make your mind up on your own on this one and check out the book on line. It’s a pretty important novel, I think, if not a classic, certainly what I’d call a “12” over at Gnosis. Definitely the best SF book I’ve read in a few years, and the best novel I’ve read since Whittemore’s Quin’s Shanghai Circus.

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