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yuletide and Blindsight, by Peter Watts

(well, I composed this entry back in October, so I might as well post it before it becomes December, good grief. November is a month that is exhaustingly busy. Hello, flist, my old friends! I've come to talk to you again.)

I've been looking at yuletide letters and it makes me laugh/cry that both letters for Shades of Grey both start with "I don't think hiatus will ever end" and that's why they're requesting fic. If I'd known Fforde was a serial WIP author, I'd have...well, I'd probably have still read the book, because concepts like colour hierarchy are catnip, but I would have known going in!



In other news I read Peter Watts' Blindsight which I've had a copy of forever and had actually assumed was a self-pubbed book, which is possibly why I left it for so long (it was available free, the cover is, well) but it was really good.

It's a first encounter with aliens book, with a crew of five sent out to investigate. Narrated by Siri Keaton, who is there to record and interpret events, the crew is led by a vampire with faster-than-human reflexes and thought, and who can solve problems intuitively that humans can't. There is the Gang, a multiple personality/disassociative identity, all of whom are linguists; Isaac Szpindel, a biologist; and Amanda Bates, a military commander. All of them, including Siri, have been extensively modified. In his youth Siri had brain surgery to remove seizures, Szpindel barely has fine motor skills because he's almost more machine than human.

It was a really packed book with a lot going on, told out of sequence. There's Earth, which apparently is a post-scarcity world, and where people have chosen to be uploaded into Heaven, which appears to be a virtual reality, which says something about how far into the future it's set. Then one day "Fireflies" happens, which is like a massive meteor-shower canvassing every square inch of the earth, and Earth concludes it's some alien intelligence that has just taken a photograph of the planet. They send out Theseus, crewed by vampire Sarasti, to investigate.

[Review! Spoilers.]
The alien 'ship' calls itself Rorschach and surprises the Gang when it talks in Earth languages, competently and with apparent comprehension. It's polite, but all it really says to Theseus is not to approach--not to come any closer, to alter its course, not to proceed.

Obviously Theseus isn't going to do this; they've spent five years in an undead state just to get there. They need to investigate. Rorschach turns out to be a huge tangle of spikes and arms and drowning in eletromagnetic radiation. The probes they send down there fry immediately. So Sarasti sends the humans down, because medical technology has gotten to the point that apparently, as long as you don't have extensive brain damage they can fix you up afterwards. And everyone has a backup, still in their undead pods, who can be revived if they don't make it.

When they are down in Rorschach, they start having neurological symptoms: hallucinating sounds and sights, being convinced they are dead, experiencing Anton's syndrome (believing they are sighted despite feedback that they are blind), and so on, in addition to crippling radiation. They don't see anything in Rorschach until their fourth or fifth trip, and when they do see someone they think it's a hallucination.

Information about Siri is revealed in pieces during the book; the storytelling isn't linear and switches between interludes in deep space to short bits about Siri's past.

The book really revolves around the consciousness and what it means to be conscious or to understand. The crew, excluding Siri, are all on the "bleeding edge" of their fields, and that's why Siri's present, as the translator for Earth; as it stands their results are unintelligible to the rest of the population. But the inhabitants of Rorschach go further. They are blindingly fast and intelligent. They are invisible to Siri even though he's staring at them, because in a flicker of a moment it assessed the way Siri's eyes and brain worked, figured out a strategy, and only moved during saccades to appear invisible. They are faster mentally than any human or even Sarasti, fast physically due to how their biochemistry is wired, have a network to share information among all its members as fast as they can get information, and clearly, unmistakably intelligent. The catch is that they are not sentient. They don't have self-awareness.

The biologist--Robert Cunningham, after Szpindel is killed irrevocably--and Siri come to the conclusion that the loss of consciousness, of awareness, is what allows them to be so fast and incredibly fitter than humans. Without the bottleneck of the conscious awareness, the scramblers (the aliens on Rorschach) do better than humans in every possible way. The technology of the Earth is a similar parallel; in many ways the ship can run better without humans, many people on Earth don't need to work. Cunningham says that chimpanzees are more intelligent but can't always recognize themselves in the mirror, but stupider orangutangs can. Humans with their slow and costly awareness are hopelessly outmatched against beings that don't have awareness.

Keaton's a fairly bleak character and his reaction to this is to interpret that humans, cut off from outside contact with the wider universe (perhaps simply because there's just so much empty space), have never moved on from this particular milestone. That we might have moved this way, and maybe we are--and there's a link with sociopathy here that I am still not quite getting: perhaps that sociopaths don't have hampering emotional responses?

Generally I would assume this is a depiction isn't endorsement thing, but at the end of Blindsight there is this afterword where Watts explains where he got his ideas from. It is an afterword saturated with citations, and crikey I've never seen so many cited in such a short piece. It's fascinating, though, and I appreciate the bibliography especially. But having read that I wonder if Watts believes it himself.

This argument is a bit tangled, because the scramblers aren't truly independent. As soon as the crew takes the specimens away from Rorschach, they begin to die, because part of their biochemical processes are supplied by the Rorschach. In the Chinese room analogy, they are the man inside, and Rorschach is the one with the rules, the understanding. I don't know if this means that there is still the requirement to have the conscious thought controlling the rest.

Moving past the (FASCINATING) consciousness/evolutionary fitness ideas, though, I want to say that Blindsight was amazing and I think very different in many ways to the contact with aliens books I've read. Don't get me wrong--I love books where aliens are humanoid or humans or vaguely different. Explanations provided or not, I love them. Blindsight was very, very different, consciously. (Heh). That was really cool. But if you strip away the SF part for a minute, there underlying theme that humans are still super different (and special!) remains. It's partly twisted because the specialness is not a good thing, it's a weakness, but there are other works exploring the same things--eg humans vs robots/AI, how we have empathy but slower reflexes but then TEAMWORK or whatever. This isn't a criticism of Blindsight; I am very tired of books that are written apparently to overturn all story conventions at the same time, to "make me think", edgy for the sake of edgy.

I am going to cut the review short here because I'll never finish if I go on, because I could talk about the post-scarcity economy (I admit I am having so much trouble trying to imagine a post-scarcity world), the idea of Heaven (download brain into virtual world), the various professions onboard the Theseus, the Theseus controlling reveal, the vampires angle, Keaton's terrible difficulty with relating to humans, how human society has changed, the biology parts (this was the coolest part and I definitely need to read more of Watts), the game theory (that was fun to encounter! I wonder if you can apply our human-centric payoffs to model alien behaviour? IS our model with its assumptions robust enough to deal with this? Does the preceding mean I have spent too much time studying game theory?), AND MANY OTHER THINGS, but basically I recommend this book, a lot. A lot, a lot, a lot. Especially if you like SF. Then again, if you like SF and you are not completely out of the loop like me you've probably a) read it or b) heard about it and decided not to. But in case you do want to, it is up for download legally on his website under a non-commercial license. In epub, pdf, HTML directly on the site. 10/10

Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/161843.html.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 23rd, 2014 05:59 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the rec - I had not heard about it before (out of the loop is where I live sometimes!) but it sounds right up my street!
Nov. 23rd, 2014 11:44 pm (UTC)
I hope you enjoy it! It's an awesome book.
Nov. 25th, 2014 03:57 am (UTC)
Sounds like another book to put onto my ever expanding wants list.
Nov. 25th, 2014 04:32 am (UTC)
I swear my TBR pile grows exponentially, but this book is at least easily available online! It's a great book; I hope you enjoy reading it.
Nov. 25th, 2014 12:36 pm (UTC)
Like you, I thought this book was mind-bending and full of big and sometimes disturbing ideas. I really liked his SF vampires, too. It's put Watts on my "to read more of" list, but somehow I just haven't gotten around to any of his other books yet.

My review here.
Nov. 26th, 2014 04:52 am (UTC)
I feel like there almost wasn't enough space to explore the vampires. I wanted to know stuff like how the vampires managed to do stuff so fast (consciousness again?), more about how they survived on earth (there's tantalizing hints about how they go dormant for long periods of time so they don't exhaust their prey, and moreover each have a really really big territory each, which devalues empathy), more about basically everything about them.

I just heard he has a sequel out, Echopraxia! I have to track that down.
Nov. 26th, 2014 03:14 pm (UTC)
Whoa, did not know about the sequel. I need to track it down too.
Nov. 26th, 2014 11:25 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I had no idea either! It looks like it's not a direct sequel with Siri though, sadly.
Nov. 27th, 2014 07:53 pm (UTC)
The sequel is awesome
I'm working on my own review, of Blindsight and of Echopraxia, the sequel (which, per the subject-line) is every bit as good and, remarkably, given it's a sequel, contains nearly as much in the way of new ideas).

Meanwhile, if you have about 18 minutes, I commend to your attention the following slide-show, which explains a lot about just how those vampires came to be. It's also very funny, in an extremely dark sort of way. http://www.rifters.com/blindsight/vampires.htm
Nov. 28th, 2014 10:52 pm (UTC)
Re: The sequel is awesome
Hm, I'm glad to hear that about the sequel! It'll be awhile till I can get a hold of it (and time, mostly.) I'm always uneasy about sequels that don't involve the first set of characters; they're very hit and miss for me.

I'll have to check that out!
Nov. 30th, 2014 01:19 am (UTC)
I just finished this book myself. Most of the physics and biology flew right over my head, but it's every bit as good as you say. I also love how the book ends: the last section implies that Siri's an unreliable narrator, and it drags you right back to the beginning, where you're almost impelled to start the book over, to see if he's as unreliable as you suddenly realize he might have been.

It was nominated for the 2007 Hugo for Best Novel, and I think it should have won.
Nov. 30th, 2014 03:31 am (UTC)
I hear you on the unreliable narrator thing! But I feel like some of the views that Siri expresses are still, I think, reflections of Watts, especially the stuff around consciousness (or well, this is what struck me, because when Siri and Cunningham were going on about consciousness, the back of my mind was going "NO NO NO"). The afterword and bibliography were what made me think that, mostly. I am still going back to read bits of it, because some of it was very confusing and there was just so much packed in--like when there were flashbacks to Siri's life on Earth I mostly skimmed them because I wanted to get back to Rorschach, but they're legitimately fascinating in and of themselves.

Yes, it won quite a lot of awards! I am horribly out of the loop of sf and have been for a long time, so I can't argue one way or the other whether it should have won in 07 (I am not even sure I read any of the books running for the 07 Hugo, heh) but it's definitely a really great book.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )



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