book-reviews

Blindsight

by Peter Watts

Rating: ★★★★★

Blindsight is a science fiction novel about first contact. A crew of the cutting-edge in what might be called humanity in 2083, thrown out to the depths of space to meet with the end-point of a mysterious signal. Those sort of stories are always fun, but Blindsight has so much more depth to it than that.

Apart from the most shallow treatments, first contact novels are always good for exploring humanity. By holding up an alien mirror to our race, authors get to really dig at important questions about our values and unexamined assumptions, as well as try to dig up some universal constants, some common ground for humanity (and, incidentally, aliens or anything else) to argue from.

In this vein, Watts is remarkable only for his boldness, using the novel to pose an interesting and not necessarily resolved question: what does sentience do that makes it worthwhile? So much of human thought rests on the notion of self, and great effort has gone into trying to define and locate it, missing the rather more substantial question of whether it's worth anything. Watts makes only a weak suggestion of an answer, presented through suggestive allegory of the military -- that the central 'self' performs some kind of limiting role on the brain, preventing specialised modules from acting selfishly or mistakenly and harming the greater organism.

The above is quite an interesting question, and the book is worth the read for its presentation alone, but that is by no means all there is to offer. Read also of numerous oddities of the human brain, both normal and abnormal. From multiple personalities within one skull to sense augmentation to the titular blindsight, where those whose frontal lobes can't see images are nonetheless able to react to sight. Read about a man who can only act like he understands anyone, and wonder if you're at all different from him.

Oh, there are also vampires and aliens.

Blindsight wins my admiration for being some of the best of what science fiction should be. Thought-provoking and forward-thinking but with all the adventurous flavour of the strange and terrible, with horrors leaking out from even the most familiar of possible sources. The best thing I've read this year.