Saturday, April 28, 2018

"Blindsight" by Peter Watts [Review]

Blindsight (Firefall, #1)Blindsight by Peter Watts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first read this book, I liked it a lot. I also thought I understood it. I had a few nagging questions, but I thought those were easily dismissed in favor of a larger story. I read the book again to clear up those questions, and I was even more confused. I also discovered plot threads that had come up earlier that were never addressed and parts where I thought something had happened that really didn't. I know some people argue this book improves on further reading, but I had the opposite experience. I thought the novel got worse on the second reading.

In case you haven't read the summary, here's the short version: a group of transhuman scientists enhanced with cybernetics is sent on a mission to make contact with a spaceship on the edge of the solar system. As they begin interacting with the alien ship, the crew becomes consumed with the question of whether the ship itself or the creatures inside are actually capable of communicating or even sentient beings.

First, the good.

This is one of the few First Contact novels that made the aliens feel truly alien instead of just humans with bumpy foreheads. The attempts to communicate and understand the aliens were detailed and baffling. The twist of how the aliens became invisible and what it revealed about them was mind-blowing. I also liked the philosophical debates about sentience and consciousness.

I also thought the portrayal of a transhuman world was very well-done. The use of cybernetics ranged from people with slight modifications that put moving color-changing tattoos to people so heavily modified that their bodies had become almost useless to them. Many dropped out of the real world entirely, living in a virtual world known as Heaven. At the same time, it felt like people were still human and grappling with human problems. Very intriguing and well-developed. I wish Watts had spent more time on that aspect.

The technical details are great. You can tell Watts put a lot of thought into the spaceship, the aliens, and the science behind his story. That's proven by the lengthy (but mostly unnecessary) appendices at the end of the book.

I also thought the use of vampires was interesting, although the race should have been called "cannibals" instead of vampires, because that would have avoided confusion. The "vampires" are really just a prehistoric predator of humans who share some traits from the legendary creatures like pale skin, fangs and avoiding crosses (really, 90-degree angles), but they don't drink blood, avoid sunlight, live forever, or have any other features we associate with vampires. Another aspect I wish Watts had spent more time on.

Now, the bad.

The characters are mostly unpleasant, making it hard to get into the story because I didn't really care about any of them. Their personalities ranged from arrogant to violent to sociopathic, and their enhancements made it hard to identify with them. Also, one character shares her body with three other personalities, meaning it was hard to tell who was in control. Some of the personalities were introduced without explanation so I thought they were separate crew members until halfway through the novel.

The main character Siri Keeton is a sociopath, making him an unpleasant and unreliable narrator, which made it hard to know what happened in the story. He also tried to avoid getting involved in the mission in any way so others did most of the action. That formed another barrier since there are literally moments where Siri doesn't know what's going on, doesn't care or is shut out of events. Some crucial moments are never explained at all. At the very least, switching perspectives to other characters (if not choosing another viewpoint character in the first place) would have made the novel better and easier to follow.

The novel ends with a resolution that neither Siri or any other characters had anything to do with (except the ship's AI who spent most of the novel not interacting with anyone), meaning the ending wouldn't have changed if the Earth ship had been simply launched at the alien spaceship without any crew at all. Obviously, that's disappointing after spending so much time with the characters to find them ultimately useless.

This is a really hard sci-fi technical novel with a lot of conversation about biology and mechanics. I could follow most of it, but I can understand a reader without a scientific background struggling. Not all of it was really important to the story, either. It's obvious Watts put a lot of thought into the aliens, but some of the design like how the creatures process ATP had nothing to do with the main focus of the story. He was just showing off at that point.

The whole point of the novel seems to be that sentience isn't necessary for intelligent life, but in many places, Watts confuses the issue. In some areas, he argues the subconscious is more efficient than the conscious, which confuses consciousness with sentience. If a person walks into an office, holds a meeting with three other people, builds a prototype invention and then announces that he was sleepwalking and didn't know he did it, that doesn't mean the person wasn't sentient. Watts also confuses self-awareness with sentience. Just because an animal can't recognize itself in a mirror doesn't mean it's not a sentient or conscious being. In other areas, Watts confuses empathy with sentience, presenting the vampires as being more advanced than humans because they lack empathy, but empathy isn't the same as sentience. In other words, Watts' argument only works if you broaden the definition of sentience to mean anything from kindness to being awake. Without that broad definition, his argument is worthless.

Then there are the plot holes. [SPOILERS] How could Siri imagine the physical shape of a completely alien species before he even set foot in their ship? If the Captain was controlling Sarasti, why did it talk and behave like Sarasti, right down to threatening the crew and calling itself a predator? What exactly was Sarasti and the rest of the crew trying to get Siri to understand? That the scramblers were non-sentient and communication with them was a threat? That Siri needed to be more empathetic? How did cutting open Siri's hand help him do that?

Bottom line is that I can understand how readers could enjoy this novel. The scientific details are good, the writing is phenomenal at times, and the story turns all First Contact clich├ęs on their heads. At the same time, the novel is depressing, confusing, and full of ideas that never get developed. On my first reading, I would have given the book 4 stars. Second reading gets 3 stars.

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