Blindsight, by Peter Watts

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Publication date – October 3, 2006

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.

Thoughts: Normally when books are difficult for me to review, it’s because they’re so amazingly good that it’s hard for me to pin down what I want to say without devolving into raving fangasms. And that isn’t to say that Blindsight isn’t a good novel. It is. It’s very good! But it’s difficult for me to review for a reason that’s entirely new for me here.

It was too smart for me.

That isn’t the full story, of course, but it does describe the feeling that followed me throughout most of the reading, and is why I have, in the past, largely tended to avoid hard sci-fi. I like to think that I’m not a stupid person, but diving deep into the science of space travel and engineering and whatnot is something that I’ve never been interested in nor really been able to understand that well. And since a good deal of Blindsight involves characters talking about their various fields of expertise, commenting on various ship’s functions and locations, and I’m left with this feeling of disconnect and eventually resorted to sort of letting my eyes skim over those little bits since it frustrated me to not understand them more fully, and it was spoiling my enjoyment of the rest of the book.

Which is amazing, and very complex and worth paying attention to! Though the description of half of the characters in the synopsis makes this book sound like it’s going to be a dark comedy, it’s actually quite a serious novel, and one that I really enjoyed because it played with ideas that have been on my mind for years. What if, in our attempts to communicate with extra-terrestrial life, we come across something that is so unlike us and anything we understand that the very act of us trying to communicate is interpreted as an attack because these aliens don’t have communication as we know it? What if our assumptions about extra-terrestrial life and its evolutionary path is utterly wrong? It’s a testament to human egocentricity, and it makes for an excellent base for a sci-fi novel.

The characters, though, are what make it all worthwhile.  The linguist with multiple personalities (not a disorder, since aside from the fact that it’s not disorderly and they all get along just fine, there’s a scene that deals with the stigma of the old diagnosis and treatment and how the idea was elimination of all but the ‘primary’ personality, essentially killing off people to make a body more socially acceptable and how, in this futuristic setting, this is no longer the case), and the vampire (who is explained with some interesting science and behaves very much like the predator he really is) are my favourites of the two, since I’ve long had an interest in vampires and multiple personalities, so it felts, in some ways, like these two may well have been custom written to hold my interest even when other, more technical aspects of the novel, were frustrating me.

First encounter stories are usually pretty interesting, serving not just as a way of demonstrating how different something is from us, but flipping it around to show how different we are from them. It may sound like a meaningless distinction, but there are times when it’s easier to understand ourselves when we’re confronted by what we’re not, allowing us a chance to show what we are. There was plenty of conflict in Blindsight to allow for this, not just with the issue of the aliens but also between the characters themselves, making the entire novel have a very tense feel even when little was occurring but expository dialogue.

The more I try to write a decent review of Blindsight, the more it seems to fall apart. I can touch on areas that were great, that weren’t so great, but short of writing about another 5000 words or so, no review is really going to be able to do this book justice. It’s highly intelligent and has so much background setup that Watts ends up adding appendices at the end to go into more detail that he couldn’t fit into the story itself. Even the fictional part of the science fiction is presented as so wonderfully flawless and real that you come away wondering about all the things you don’t know about the world, how much is happening around you that you don’t notice simply because your eyes haven’t been opened to the ideas. The narration may feel a bit distanced at times but that doesn’t mean Watts has a problem with conveying good characters nor the struggles they experience, both physical and emotional. Blindsight is complex enough to transcend reviews, or at least my ability to give them.

But one thing’s certain. Despite my annoyance at not being intelligent enough to understand more of the science behind the novel, I will be reading the sequel, Echopraxia, and I anticipate enjoying it just as much as I did Blindsight. Watts knows how to write an incredible and nuanced story, and I want to see more of what he can do with the foundation he built here. I won’t say that this book made me a convert to harder sci-fi, but it certainly has made me more curious about what I’ve been missing in the genre, and if this is representative of what’s out there, then I’ve done so many books a disservice. Allow me to start fixing that with Echopraxia.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

3 comments on “Blindsight, by Peter Watts

  1. I remember having an email conversation with Peter, after this first came out, regarding the oddity of the vampire in the novel. I found him a fascinating character, and yes, its all that background detail that makes this novel.

  2. Pingback: October in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

  3. Pingback: The SFF Divide: On the Assumed Validity of Science Fiction Over Fantasy | Bibliotropic

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