Blindsight (Watts novel)
|Cover artist||Thomas Pringle|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|3 October 2006|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
|LC Class||PR9199.3.W386 B58 2006|
Blindsight is a hard science fiction novel by Peter Watts, published by Tor Books in 2006. The following year, it was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, as well as a John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Watts has also released the novel online under the by-nc-sa Creative Commons license. The novel is about a crew of astronauts investigating an extraterrestrial vessel, self-identified as Rorschach, and the mysterious entities dwelling within it. The novel explores questions of identity and consciousness. The title refers to blindsight, a neurological condition with implications for philosophy of mind.
In the year 2082, everyone on Earth becomes aware of an alien presence when thousands of micro-satellites, dubbed "Fireflies", survey the Earth in a bright planet-wide flash. Through good luck, an incoming alien vessel is detected, and the ship Theseus, with its artificial intelligence called Captain and crew of five, are sent out to engage in first contact with the huge alien vessel called Rorschach.
As they explore the vessel in multiple excursions and attempt to analyse it and its inhabitants, the narrator, Siri, considers his life and strives to understand himself. He ponders the nature of intelligence and consciousness, their utility, and what an alien mind might be like. Eventually the crew realises that they might be greatly outmatched by the vessel and its non-conscious but extremely capable inhabitants.
When the level of this threat becomes clear, Theseus runs a kamikaze mission using its highly destructive antimatter payload, and Major Bates possibly succeeds in eliminating the aliens. Siri considers these events during his decades-long return to Earth, which he eventually believes is being overrun by an offshoot of humanity.
Crew of the Theseus
- Siri Keeton is the narrator and main protagonist. He is assigned to the Theseus as a "Synthesist," meaning that his role is to interpret what the other, specialized crew are doing and saying and then to report these activities to Mission Control on Earth in ways that non-specialists can understand. He gradually realizes that the other crew members resent him for his role, which they see as nosy surveillance.
- Major Amanda Bates is a combat specialist. She controls an army of robotic "grunts."
- Isaac Szpindel is the ship's primary biologist and physician. He is in love with Michelle (see below).
- Jukka Sarasti is a vampire and the crew's nominal (and frightening) leader, because vampires, as predators, are alleged to be far smarter than baseline humans. The novel's conclusion questions to what extent Sarasti has actually led the crew; apparently, the ship's artificial intelligence was really in command.
- The Gang are four distinct personalities in the mind of one woman, the ship's linguist, who is in charge of communicating with the aliens if possible. At any given time, one of them has "surfaced" to take control of their body, which is visible as a change in tone and posture. They express extreme offence when referred to as "alters".
- The "original" personality is Susan James (the only one with a surname), whom the others refer to as "Mom".
- Michelle is a shy, quiet woman who is romantically interested in Szpindel.
- Sascha is harsher, and more overtly hostile towards Siri.
- Cruncher, a male, rarely surfaces, and seems to serve mainly as an advanced data-processing facility for James.
- Robert Cunningham is another biologist/physician and Szpindel's backup.
People on Earth
- Robert Paglino, Siri's best friend, who has known him since childhood.
- Chelsea sought a personal relationship with Siri, which gradually fell apart.
- Helen Keeton, Siri's mother, whose consciousness has been uploaded to a virtual utopia called Heaven. As a parent, she apparently traumatized Siri with her emotional demands and intrusiveness into his private life.
- Jim Keeton, Siri's father, who has an unexplained but powerful position in government and is an affectionate parent.
Blindsight focuses heavily on the concepts of identity, cognition, and the problems of intelligence. Characters frequently discuss the relationship between intelligence and sentience. The Chinese room scenario features prominently in the book.
First contact - The crucial questions are whether the creatures onboard the Rorschach are hostile to Earthlings and whether they share mental processes, such as consciousness and empathy, with humans.
Redundancy - Siri notes, perhaps with irony, that the crew on the Theseus have been chosen because they are the best at their jobs and are irreplaceable; so irreplaceable, in fact, that four replacements have been sent (except for Sarasti) in case any of them should die. Characters discuss redundancy on the utilitarian and philosophical levels.
Linguistics - Susan James, the ship's linguist, remains convinced that humans can communicate with the creatures aboard Rorschach until Sascha decides to run a test:
"Tell me more about your cousins," Rorschach sent.
"Our cousins lie about the family tree," Sascha replied, "with nieces and nephews and Neanderthals. We do not like annoying cousins."
"We'd like to know about this tree."
Sascha muted the channel and gave us a look that said Could it be any more obvious? "It couldn't have parsed that. There were three linguistic ambiguities in there. It just ignored them."
"Well, it asked for clarification," Bates pointed out.
"It asked a follow-up question. Different thing entirely."
Susan and her other personalities continue to run tests on the aliens, each test suggesting a possibly different interpretation of their cognitive abilities. Late in the book, they realize that two captured aliens are talking to each other, though whether they are conscious remains debatable.
(The three linguistic ambiguities are: (1) "lie": to speak an untruth / to rest horizontally; (2) "lie about" / "lie with" - to speak falsely about / to lie down with; (3) "annoying": gerund / adjective.)
Vampires - Sarasti, the vampire, is (in Watts's mythology) a resurrected being of the race Homo sapiens vampiris, "a short-lived Human subspecies that diverged from the ancestral line about 700,000 years BP" (Before Present). Vampires were essentially cannibals, with variant biochemistry; they also carried the "Crucifix glitch", "a cross-wiring of normally distinct receptor arrays in the visual cortex, resulting in grand-mal-like feedback seizures whenever the arrays processing vertical and horizontal stimuli fired simultaneously across a sufficiently large arc of the visual field." This neural glitch explains why vampires can be driven away by crosses.
Carl Hayes, in his review for Booklist, said, "Watts packs in enough tantalizing ideas for a score of novels while spinning new twists on every cutting-edge motif from virtual reality to extraterrestrial biology." Kirkus Reviews said in their review, "Watts carries several complications too many, but presents nonetheless a searching, disconcerting, challenging, sometimes piercing inquisition." Jackie Cassida in her review for Library Journal said that "Watts continues to challenge readers with his imaginative plots and superb storytelling." Publishers Weekly said, "Watts puts a terrifying and original spin on the familiar alien contact story."
Elizabeth Bear, herself an award-winning author in the science fiction field, wrote, "It's my opinion that Peter Watts's Blindsight is the best hard science fiction novel of the first decade of this millennium — and I say that as someone who remains unconvinced of all the ramifications of its central argument. Watts is one of the crown princes of science fiction's most difficult subgenre: his work is rigorous, unsentimental, and full of the sort of brilliant little moments of synthesis that make a nerd's brain light up like a pinball machine. But he's also a poet — a damned fine writer on a sentence level..."
- Chernoff face
- Thomas Metzinger's Being No One
- Oliver Sacks's The man who mistook his wife for a hat
- "Blindsight: The Lost Covers". Retrieved 1 January 2013.
- "Hugo Nominees (press release)". Archived from the original on 3 October 2008. Retrieved 3 October 2008.
- "Campbell Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 23 December 2011.
- "Locus SF Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 23 December 2011.
- Hays, Carl (1 October 2006). "Blindsight". Booklist 103 (3): 45. ISSN 0006-7385.
- "BLINDSIGHT". Kirkus Reviews 74 (16): 816. 15 August 2006. ISSN 0042-6598.
- Cassada, Jackie (15 October 2006). "Blindsight". Library Journal 131 (17): 55. ISSN 0363-0277.
- Blindsight (28 August 2006). "Blindsight". Publishers Weekly 253 (34): 36. ISSN 0000-0019.
- Bear, Elizabeth (March 3, 2011). "Best SFF Novels of the Decade: An Appreciation of Blindsight". Tor.com. Retrieved July 10, 2014.
- "Many of the syndromes and maladies dropped into Blindsight I first encountered in Metzinger's book. Any uncited claims or statements in this subsection probably hail from that source." http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm
- The full text of Blindsight at Watt's official website
- Audio review and discussion of Blindsight at The Science Fiction Book Review Podcast
- Article in Science Fiction Studies (#123=Volume 41, Part 2, July 2014) by Adam Głaz: "Rorschach, We Have a Problem! The Linguistics of First Contact in Watts’s Blindsight and Lem’s His Master’s Voice"