Book Review: Blindsight

Blindsight Book Cover Blindsight
Peter Watts
October 3, 2006
epub, paperback
ePub from Watts's website, paperback on the Husbeast's bookshelf.

It's been two months since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since - until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who to send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn't want to meet?

Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder, and a biologist so spliced to machinery he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior, and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find - but you'd give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them..

A little fair warning here – I’m predisposed to like this book. The author, Peter Watts, is a distant acquaintance. We learned about him through a mutual friend, and hosted him at our home when he needed a bed to sleep in on a layover long, long ago. (If you’re reading this, Peter, I’m very sorry for the state of that house/room. If you ever need to crash again, the current house is in somewhat better order).

That said, while I’m biased towards Blindsight and enjoy a good Space Opera, it’s also in the realm of Hard Science Fiction. I can read science-y books, it just takes me forever. Gary Taubes‘s non-fiction opus Good Calories, Bad Calories took me ages, and not just because it quotes reams of medical jargon and scientific experiments. It’s also huge. Blindsight felt almost like wading through GCBC again. The difference is that after awhile, the scene-setting and jargon leech away into story — and then the science gets handed to you in mostly bite-size chunks. Much more manageable. There is a part of me, though, that still feels like I missed something in the translation. The book is like a roller coaster…you get started, feel a little doubt as the ride begins, relax into the excitement of the curves and turns, and when you get out of the ride — think you might want to try it again because you’re not sure just what you just experienced (yes, a run-on sentence. Deal).

Blindsight is good pre-reading for the Aurora-nominated Echopraxia, which is the second book in the series. Again…I’m not great with the hard science stuff. Sometimes Pratchett’s Discworld series is a challenge! The bonus to reading both books back-to-back? You stay involved in the world that Watts has built. For me, not having to switch my perspective on the world-building has been very helpful.

Blindsight is set in the late 21st Century. Imagine a world where genetic modification is normal, sex is no longer a contact sport, and you can decide to permanently “check out” of real life and into a virtual reality called “Heaven”. One day, as our main character, Siri and his father are returning from visiting his mother in “Heaven”, he experiences  the first sign of contact with an alien race. The world is surrounded by small craft that appear to take a picture of the Earth, then disappear. A mission is launched to attempt to track the source of the contact. Siri is chosen as one of the crew, responsible for ensuring that information is sent back to Earth in terms that humanity will understand.

The story takes place mostly on the ship, Theseus, with flashbacks to Siri’s personal life before the mission. We see he has been physically modified due to a childhood illness, his awkwardness dealing with people, and his utter helplessness at communicating with those he loves. Over time, we experience his confusion at the way his crewmates treat him – some seem friendly, but others tread the line of hostility.

His crew members are an interesting bunch, too. None appear to be “totally human”. Either they have implants for interfacing with computers, or they’ve spliced their personalities in order to gain a wider spectrum of knowledge and experience. There’s even a vampire.

Yes. A vampire in space.

I will say that as cheesy as space-faring vampires sound, Watts makes the concept work. He explains that they were a race from the Pleistocene that died out or became ultra-dormant due to the fact that one single vampire could chew through a significant portion of their food supply (pun intended). Gene therapy and experimentation brought the species back, and they have qualities ideal for space travel. In fact, in order to go into a deep enough slumber to survive a long space flight, crew members must have vampiric genes that can be triggered. Watts explains the vampire’s intolerance of crosses (right angles) in an interesting way — I recommend discovering it for yourself.

The group finally make contact…and it isn’t what anyone was expecting. It is obvious that Watts has thought long and hard about what an alien race might be. We usually take it for granted that it will be a carbon-based lifeform like ourselves – two arms, two legs, a head… Watts doesn’t give you that comfort. The sense of the unknown is furthered by the fact that our crew is confronted with an entity that they can’t hope to understand in the time they have been given.

If you have a head for hard SF and like a good story, I definitely recommend Blindsight. If you want to read the story but can’t afford a hard copy at this time, you can pick up an epub at his website. I definitely recommend having the paperback, though. We got ours at the local Chapters, but you can also pick one up online from Amazon (specific e-reader links are in the synopsis above!). I believe in helping authors make their mortgage payments 😉

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