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. It garnered nominations for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, a John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and a Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. The novel follows a crew of astronauts investigating an extraterrestrial vessel, self-identified as Rorschach, and the alien creatures dwelling within. The novel explores questions of identity and consciousness. Blindsight is available online under the Creative Commons license. Its sequel, Echopraxia, is available since 2014.
In the year 2082, thousands of micro-satellites, dubbed "Fireflies", alert humanity to an alien presence. The ship Theseus, crewed by an artificial intelligence and five transhumans commanded by a vampire (an extinct apex predator offshoot of humanity), is sent to explore a trans-Neptunian object. It is rerouted to the Oort-cloud when the object self destructs. As the Theseus closes on an immense gas giant, the crew detects a stealthed vessel. Radio contact is established, and the other vessel identifies itself as Rorschach.
The vampire sends the crew to explore the vessel and its inhabitants. The narrator, Siri, explores questions of identity. He considers the nature of intelligence and consciousness, their utility, and the implications of these concepts for an alien mind. The crew comes to realize that they might be greatly outmatched by the vessel and its non-conscious, but extremely capable, inhabitants.
When the other vessel poses a threat, Theseus decides to use its antimatter payload to eliminate the aliens. During his decades-long return home, Siri receives signals that Earth is being overrun by the vampires.
Crew of the Theseus
- Siri Keeton is the narrator and main protagonist. He is assigned to Theseus as a "Synthesist," as his role is to interpret the actions of the specialized crew and report these activities to Mission Control on Earth. He comes to realize that the other crew members resent him for his role, seeing him as nosy surveillance.
- Major Amanda Bates is a combat specialist, controlling an army of robotic "grunts."
- Isaac Szpindel is the ship's primary biologist and physician. He is in love with Michelle, one of the Gang's personalities.
- Jukka Sarasti is a vampire and the crew's nominal (and frightening) leader. As a vampire predator, he is alleged to be far smarter than baseline humans. The novel's conclusion questions to what extent Sarasti has actually led the crew, as the ship's artificial intelligence is implied to have been in command.
- The Gang are four distinct personalities in the mind of one woman, the ship's linguist. They are tasked with communicating with the aliens, if possible. A single personality "surfaces" to take control of their body at any given time. The active personality reveals itself through a change in tone and posture. These personalities express offence when referred to as "alters". The personalities are:
- Susan James, who the others refer to as "Mom," is the "original" personality.
- Michelle is a shy, quiet, synaesthetic woman who is romantically involved with Szpindel.
- Sascha is harsher and more overtly hostile towards Siri.
- Cruncher, a male, rarely surfaces and serves as an advanced data-processing facility for James.
- Robert Cunningham, Szpindel's backup, is a secondary biologist/physician.
People on Earth
- Robert Paglino, Siri's childhood best friend.
- Chelsea, Siri's ex-girlfriend.
- Helen Keeton, Siri's mother, whose consciousness has been connected, Brain in a vat style, to a virtual utopia called "Heaven." As a parent, she traumatized Siri with emotional demands and intrusiveness into his private life.
- Jim Moore is Siri's father and a Colonel involved with planetary defense.
The exploration of consciousness is the central thematic element of Blindsight. The title of the novel refers to the condition blindsight, in which vision is non-functional in the conscious brain but remains useful to non-conscious action. Other conditions, such as Cotard delusion and Anton–Babinski syndrome, are used to illustrate differences from the usual assumptions about conscious experience. The novel raises questions about the essential character of consciousness. Is the interior experience of consciousness necessary, or is externally observed behavior the sole determining characteristic of conscious experience? Is an interior emotional experience necessary for empathy, or is empathic behavior sufficient to possess empathy? Relevant to these questions is a plot element near the climax of the story, in which the vampire captain is revealed to have been controlled by the ship's artificial intelligence for the entirety of the novel.
Philosopher John Searle's Chinese room thought experiment is used as a metaphor to illustrate the tension between the notions of consciousness as an interior experience of understanding, as contrasted with consciousness as the emergent result of merely functional non-introspective components. Blindsight contributes to this debate by implying that some aspects of consciousness are empirically detectable. Specifically, the novel supposes that consciousness is necessary for both aesthetic appreciation and for effective communication. However, the possibility is raised that consciousness is, for humanity, an evolutionary dead end. That is, consciousness may have been naturally selected as a solution for the challenges of a specific place in space and time, but will become a limitation as conditions change or competing intelligences are encountered.
The alien creatures encountered by the crew of the Theseus themselves lack consciousness. The necessity of consciousness for effective communication is illustrated by a passage from the novel in which the linguist realizes that the alien creatures can't be, in fact, conscious because of their lack of semantic understanding:
"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."
The notion that these aliens could lack consciousness and possess intelligence is linked to the idea that some humans could also have diminished consciousness and remain outwardly functional. This idea is similar to the concept of philosophical zombie, as it is understood in philosophy of mind. Blindsight supposes that sociopaths might be a manifestation of this same phenomenon, and the demands of corporate environments might be environmental factors causing some part of humanity to evolve toward becoming philosophical zombies.
Blindsight also explores the implications of a transhuman future. Within the novel, humans no longer engage in sex with other humans for pleasure, instead choosing to use virtual reality to find idealized and submissive partners, and many choose to withdraw from reality entirely by living in constructed virtual worlds, referred to as "Heaven". Vampires are predators from humanity's distant past, resurrected through recovered DNA, and live among the humans of the late 21st century. These vampires operate with diminished sentience presented as comparable to high-function autism with comparable dysfunction in affect and speech, but have the advantage of multiple simultaneous thoughts occurring in parallel within their minds. Enhanced pattern-matching skills comparable to some forms of autism combine with this "hyperthreading" to make them invaluable in developing unusual and often very-effective approaches to solving complex problems.
Carl Hayes, in his review for Booklist, wrote, "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 wrote, "Watts carries several complications too many, but presents nonetheless a searching, disconcerting, challenging, sometimes piercing inquisition." Jackie Cassida in her review for Library Journal wrote, "Watts continues to challenge readers with his imaginative plots and superb storytelling." Publishers Weekly wrote, "Watts puts a terrifying and original spin on the familiar alien contact story."
Elizabeth Bear, 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..."
- "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.
- McGrath, Martin (10 March 2011). "Blindsight... Or "In a Chinese Room, not far from the loo"". Archived from the original on 8 October 2014. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
- Shaviro, Steven (27 October 2006). "Blindsight". Archived from the original on 8 October 2014. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
- Shaviro, Steven. "Consequences of Panpsychism". p. 14. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
- "Transcript Podcast 2: "Blindsight" by Peter Watts". Science Fiction First. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
- Shaviro, Steven (25 August 2014). "Ferociously Intellectual Pulp Writing". Archived from the original on 8 October 2014. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
- Elber-Aviram, Hadas. "Visions of Humanity between the Posthuman and the Non-Human". Imachine: There is No I in Meme: 4–5. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
- Nirshberg, Greg (7 December 2010). "Book Review – Blindsight by Peter Watts". Archived from the original on 8 October 2014. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
- Watts, Peter (October 3, 2006). Blindsight. Tor Books. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-7653-1218-1.
- 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 (3 March 2011). "Best SFF Novels of the Decade: An Appreciation of Blindsight". Tor.com. Retrieved 10 July 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
- "And of course, Oliver Saks [sic] was sending us memos from the edge of consciousness long before consciousness even had a bandwagon to jump on." http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm