Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Blindsight by Peter Watts

I don't know what to think about this book. There is a lot I like about it, but at least as much that I don't like. I suppose that's a good thing. I mean, if a book was exactly what I expect it to be, I wouldn't have to read it now would I?


Mysterious objects blaze through earth's atmosphere. A strange construct is detected out in the black, headed this way.

This is a novel about first contact.

Siri 'Cygnus' Keeton, a man with only half a brain, and his artificially augmented crewmates led by a Vampire are sent out to investigate. What they find will bring insight into the nature of the universe as well as the nature of humanity.

This a novel about the futility of our existence.

What I Like

Okay, now that I've got that out of the way lets get into Potential Spoiler Territory.

This is ostensibly a tale of adventure and discovery, an odyssey if you like. I like adventure stories. But in this novel, it is just one the many frames around the novel's core philosophical message. Unfortunately there isn't much action until well into the book, and even that is relatively scarce. The discovery part is slightly more interesting.

Speaking of frames, the most obvious one is the running narration by the protagonist, Siri. I think the decision to go with an unreliable narrator is the true genius of this book because the story is, at least in part, about identity, self discovery, and human ability to perceive reality.

I rather enjoyed the philosophical discussion presented in this book, even if I cannot agree with the conclusions. Although the concepts bandied around are often hard to follow for all the jargon, they are compelling enough to make the effort. The main course of the discussion is solid existentialism with a heavy dose of nihilism wrapped around the philosophy of mind. The tone of it all, if not the content, reminded me very much of the writings of another Canadian author, Karl Schroeder (my current favourite), so I wasn't very surprised that Watts credited him in the afterward with much of the input in this regard.

There is also plenty of speculation about future technologies, the highlight for me being the human hibernation process. I loved the description of the process being as if they were dessicated corpses coming back to life like zombies or something. Of course, as described in the book it only really works if you've had Vampire DNA grafted on to your own.

Which brings me to my next point, the fantastically weird crew. Siri is a man with half a brain, the other half of his skull filled with bits of computer, who acts more like Data, the Android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, always trying to be human. There is also Susan James aka. The Gang of Four who has had her conscience artificially split into four individuals. Then there is their Vampire leader, Serasti, a creature recreated from ancient DNA whose ancestors once stalked ours across the savannah. Even the ship, Theseus, is intelligent. Delightfully quirky!

What I Dislike

The biggest drawback for me is that this book doesn't really get interesting until about page 300. Partly this is because the author spent a lot of time on Siri's backstory; a backstory that is perhaps necessary for the message of the novel, but which I found to be mundane. I also didn't find it to be entirely successful at explaining Siri's affliction. Now I admit to not spending much time researching any potential links between hemispherectomies and psychopathy or autism but I don't believe there is one.

Another major drawback for me is that the characters of Amanda Bates, Isaac Spindzell, and Robert Cunningham are not strange enough. The later two are purported to be amped up humans with so many technological enhancements they can no longer feel with their own hands. Instead, they come across as rather baseline humans with a few more research tools that have trouble walking.

Finally, I felt that the vampire vulnerabilty to right angles, i.e. crosses, was a lame concession to the old vampire legends. According to the timeline in the book, vampires died out long before Christianity developed. How the two would become associated is beyond my comprehension.


I found this novel to be an eclectic mix of Canadian and British SF styles. It has the philosophy of Karl Schroeder, the societal dysfunction of Robert J. Sawyer, and the pessimism of virtually all British SF. He even has a tacked on, tangential ending much like most of Alastair Reynolds' books.

At least I know what James Nicoll was talking about now.

"Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts."
I would have to say that you should avoid this book if you are:
- looking for an adventure story
- confounded by big words
- prone to depression



BTW, This novel, as well as the rest of Peter Watts' work, is freely available on his website, rifters.com

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