Friday, June 13, 2014

Review of Blindsight by Peter Watts

Amongst the many changes the development of science has brought, one is a push toward existential honesty.  Certainly huge gaps and questions exist in our knowledge of reality (did I hear you say something, Heisenberg?), but in the past two centuries mankind has put to rest innumerable myths and legends that had pervaded culture and society.  While boxing religion in (or out, depending on perspective), the rational view has forced humanity to face hard facts, or in the very least, uncomfortable questions.  Is the grave the only thing waiting after?  Are we just skin bags of chemicals and electrical impulses?  Is “love” only evolution’s way of ensuring the species survives?  Wholeheartedly embracing the hardline answers to such questions in order to see what comes next, Peter Watts is a sci-fi author who truly holds no punches.  In the tradition of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, his 2006 Blindsight is a superb look at the limits of humanity’s sensuality and intellect.  Less a philosophical and more a strong biological and neuroscientific perspective, what you see may be more—or less—than you think.

Blindsight is the story Siri Keeton.  Born an epileptic, half of his brain was removed and replaced with biotech, in turn enhancing and improving his interface with the world.  Thereafter disowned by his mother for being “unnatural”, his talents nevertheless lead him to space.  Earth abruptly contacted by an alien species dubbed the Fireflies, strange communications emanating from a distant point in the galaxy cause humanity to mount an investigation, and Siri, along with a fellow crew of people biomodified to varying degrees, are chosen to make contact.  But encountering an object beyond human imagination, getting at the heart of who, or what is behind the super-planet may be more than humanity is capable of comprehending.

Beyond just being the next BDO/first contact novel, Blindsight is foremost an examination of what makes us physically human—in the strictest sense of the term.  Following a hard line of determinism—perhaps the hardest, Watts subsumes the mental and the spiritual into the physical.  The strangeness of the BDO and the things encountered near its “surface” mere triggers for discussion, it in through the crew’s reactions, as well as the options for reaction, that the main thrust of the novel exists.  This approach allows Watts to dig at deeper processes within the human—gene to cell, body to brain—in exploring what makes us human.

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris placed a man into an environment so alien as to be incomprehensible.  In Blindsight, Watts too tackles the emotional and rational limits of being human, but instead of adopting a purely philosophical/literary approach, he does so more from a scientific perspective.  Human biology and neuroscience the main bodies of knowledge applied, Watts presents what is both startling and enlightening, and in the end, challenges some of the most basic notions of what we commonly accept are the criteria for being humans with agency.  Ideas like, fear as the root of action, the lack of free will, intelligence vs. insight, and many other sacrosanct concepts of humanism fill dialogue and exposition.  So many ideas included, in fact, the last fifty pages of the online version (available on Creative Commons) are devoted entirely to story notes that unpack the the larger scientific principles and latest work in neuroscience that underpin the story.

Blindsight unpacking itself simultaneously via plot and exposition, Watts should be commended for rendering an appealing narrative beyond its informative qualities.  Not a scientist expounding to the reader in the driest of ruler-straight prose, simply put, the story is written with style.  Harsh, bleak, biting—however you want to describe it, Watts writes with emphatic purpose, and an impetus that compels reading further.  His vision of existence may turn off the reader, but the manner in which the story is delivered, cannot.  The mystery of the Fireflies revealed steadliy and consistently, the plot healthily complements theory through dense, meaty prose.  See the following sample taken early in the novel as the crew awaken after a lengthy cryo-sleep.

    Imagine you are Siri Keeton:
    You wake in an agony of resurrection, gasping after a record-shattering bout of sleep apnea spanning one hundred forty days. You can feel your blood, syrupy with dobutamine and leuenkephalin, forcing its way through arteries shriveled by months on standby. The body inflates in painful increments: blood vessels dilate; flesh peels apart from flesh; ribs crack in your ears with sudden unaccustomed flexion. Your joints have seized up through disuse. You're a stick-man, frozen in some perverse rigor vitae.
    You'd scream if you had the breath.

In the end, Blindsight is an engagingly visceral story of a crew’s encounter with an alien group inside an atypical big dumb object.  The aliens a mirror, however, the focus remains humanity; Watts reveals chinks in our ontological armor through their qualities—the “big reveal” forever lurking behind the mysteries of perception which are uncovered the deeper into the object their ship goes.  Watts a good stylist, at no time does the science overwhelm.  The prose biting and gritty, the reader is dragged along through body uploads, sentient purgatory, realities that are but aren’t, false thought patterns, truly alien encounters, and lastly, some of the most fascinating and profound questions modern man faces—and must face if they are to evolve.

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