Blindsight by Peter Watts
Published by TOR Books, October 2006
Review by Hobbit
Well, I was warned. “Peter Watts is ‘Hard SF’ “, I was told. ‘You need a Science degree just to think about reading it’, I was warned.
Well, that is true. What I wasn’t prepared for in an SF book was the statement that Vampires exist – or at least existed, about 700 000 years BP, as Homo sapiens vampiris. It’s true: Peter shows the details at his website and in the eighteen pages of Notes and References at the end of this book. (There’s more at Peter’s website: see link below. It even shows why vampires are afraid of crosses!)
This is one surprise, amongst many, in this meticulously researched book.
And Yes, it is VERY Hard SF. Perhaps that should be ‘HARD SF’, in both senses of the word, though perseverance will pay off. Many critics currently point out that perhaps the best SF is that which is firmly based in science, but challenges using cutting-edge concepts. If that is the case, then this is a book which does this admirably.
The story is, in essence, simple enough. It is a tale of First Contact, told through Siri Keeton. Siri is one of the team sent to deep space after the Earth is visited by Fireflies: 65 536 probes spaced in the sky along a lat-long grid covering the Earth, at 1035 GMT on February 13 2082.
Two months later a team of specialists are sent on the good ship Theseus to a place out in deep space. An old space probe has heard a message of sorts. What is unusual (but evidently a pattern in Watts’s novels) is that the specialists sent are all altered (retrofitted) or different from the ‘normal’ in some way. Siri had half of his brain removed when young to stop seizures and so now has skills as a Synthesist, incapable of bonding with his shipmates but there to observe. There’s Susan James, a person with four personalities inside her head, all with different skills in order to try and decipher any alien communication; there is also Isaac Szpindel, a biologist with so many added technological enhancements that he can’t feel anything with his own hands. Amanda Bates is a soldier almost court-martialled for having a conscience is in charge of armaments and defence, should they be necessary. Their leader is Sarasti, a reengineered (Jurassic Park style) vampire, from the Palaeozoic, able to think in different worldviews simultaneously.
With this scenario and rather unique crew, the story deals with the old question: Can humans communicate and survive contact with alien intelligence?
Such a short description may make you feel that you’ve read this before – Rendezvous with Rama, Contact, Mote in God’s Eye and lots of others.
However, what such a brief précis doesn’t do, and what makes this such a dazzling book, is the sheer force of Watts’ style.
Try this from page 54, one of many but chosen to avoid spoilers:
‘ “X-ray spike appears during the ‘seventy-six microwave survey.” Six years before Firefall. “Never confirmed, never required. Like a torsion flare from an L-class dwarf, but we should see anything big enough to generate that kind of effect and the sky’s dark on that bearing. IAU calls it a statistical artefact.” ‘
Watts’s prose is so supersaturated with science that sometimes for me it was just a case of hanging on and hoping it will all make sense. Our heroes, if you can call them that, throw around scientific terminology and concepts to such a dazzling degree that you may, as I did, have difficulty keeping up. They know what they are talking about: after all, they should. It does give the form of people who are appropriate to their function, and a depth to the characters that is often seen as a weakness in lesser novels.
However the characterisation is not the only aspect for the reader to chew over. The book also deals with weighty issues - ethics, morality, intelligence and self-awareness are all examined, discussed and utilised to synthesise an appropriately complex response. We have met the aliens, yet the protagonists are just as strange. First Contact is interesting and gives a premise that our protagonists have to investigate and try and communicate, knowing that their bodies will be destroyed by radiation and have to be regrown afterwards.
The aliens are appropriately alien, in that are definitely non-human and un-humanlike in thought and deed. Think Crazy Eddie? Ramans? These are definitely an evolutionary scale up.
If you can stick with it, the book’s climax is both revelatory and satisfying, but with enough of a twist to allow the story to evolve later in possibly another book. It is however suitably stand alone should this be as far as you wish to go.
So, to sum up: If you like your SF filled with scientific jargon and deep philosophical debates, then this is about as good as you can get: it challenges the reader with its scientific ideas, even more than many of the writers currently heralded as the new wave of SF - say, Hamilton, Asher and Reynolds. Watts fills his page with enough vocabulary to fill a scientific report, yet the plot is just as challenging. Yes, it is Hard SF, but ultimately rewarding and yet often baffling. Nevertheless, perseverance is justified and Watts’ characters are unusual enough to win through any technical differences.
This is the work of a writer not frightened of using real science to ground his unique take on an old SF standard. For those up to the challenge, highly, highly recommended.
I can see this one walking away with prizes in the next year.
Peter’s website is at: http://www.rifters.com/
The Blindsight section is at: http://www.rifters.com/blindsight/BS_main.htm
(Look for scientific details, slideshows and alternative covers.)
LATER EDIT: Peter is offering the book free under Creative Licence: LINK HERE.
Hobbit, November 2006
Copyright © sffworld.com. If quoted please credit "sffworld.com, name of reviewer".