November 2006

Niall Harrison


Blindsight by Peter Watts

Imagine you are Siri Keeton (says Siri Keeton, via Peter Watts). Imagine you live in the world of the late 21st century, he means: a time when unmodified, baseline humans are all but obsolete (subjected to playground taunts by their enhanced peers: "mongrel", "polly"); a time when people prefer their relationships safe and virtual instead of messy and "first person"; a time when you remember the day -- 13th February 2082 -- that an alien intelligence took a picture of the world. Imagine that as a boy you received a radical hemispherodectomy as a treatment for epilepsy, that the left hemisphere of your brain has been replaced with circuits and solder, and that now you can't experience empathy. Imagine you have, of necessity, invented a substitute: that you can figure out what people are thinking just by watching them move. Imagine that's your job: "watching the world behave." That you observe beings on the edge of incomprehensible posthumanity going about their jobs -- which, in this case, is following up on that first contact event -- and translate what you see into something normal humans can understand. Imagine you're telling your story. Imagine that you're telling it from a coffin falling past the edge of the solar system.

And hold that thought.

There is, I think it's fair to say, a common sentiment that a scientific worldview is a cold, rigid thing, that it insists on stripping the mystery and the poetry from life's rich pageant. I have never entirely understood this sentiment -- to me, to make the attempt to fully understand something is to pay tribute to it -- but you can see how it could be leveled as an accusation against a book like Blindsight. Peter Watts's latest novel is frequently quite stunningly unsentimental, not least because it's unarguably the type of story known as "hard science fiction" -- if the 18-page technical appendix doesn't give the game away, three of the five blurbs on the back cover, not to mention the one on the front cover, use the term as a description of Watts's work. But it would be a shame if that label (rather than any of the others the book could legitimately carry, such as, say, "one of the best novels I've read this year") put anyone off, because in point of fact, it's the book's diamond hardness that makes it work.

This is not the time or the place for an in-depth discussion of one of SF's heartland subgenres, but it's worth at least agreeing terms, because what Blindsight does, among other things, is what hard SF should aspire to but in fact so rarely achieves: demonstrate the literary value of a scientific worldview. So for the purposes of this review, let's say that hard SF is SF played by the rules -- or, in Gregory Benford's phrase, "with the net of scientific fact up and strung as tight as the story allows" (Ascent of Wonder, 1994). It is the purest distillation of SF's urge to rationalise: above all else, it trusts that the world is a thing that can be made sense of, and specifically made sense of in scientific terms. It could be argued that hard SF attempts to be more true to the world than the average story, except that most of the time it conspicuously avoids anything resembling an everyday situation. Hard SF stories are usually stories of extremes, and as such, among other things they tend to require characters who think a bit differently than most of us. One common approach, therefore, is to use rational, explicable characters to do the legwork of exploring the story's rational, explicable world; another approach, less common but more striking, is to use characters intimately shaped by the story's world, characters who by their thoughts and actions demonstrate their author's argument.

Which brings us back to Siri Keeton, and indeed brings us to the crew he's observing on that alien contact mission. They are all such shaped characters. Like many others, they are heirs to Bruce Sterling's Shapers and Mechanists, having been designed for their environment, adapted both genetically and prosthetically. I was reminded, in particular, of the Forged characters in Justina Robson's Natural History and Living Next-Door to the God of Love, though Blindsight arguably carries the argument further than those already-ambitious books, right up to the question of what a character is, anyway. To start with, there are five bodies, and eight personalities. In addition to Siri, the bodies are Amanda Bates, a soldier; Isaac Szpindel, a biologist; Susan James, a linguist; and Jukka Sarasti, the commander. Two of them -- Bates, with her remote-control combat drones, and Szpindel, with his cybernetic and laboratory equipment -- have phenotypes radically extended by machinery. Susan James, a deliberately created multiple known as the Gang of Four, accounts for the extra personalities. And Jukka Sarasti is a long-extinct subspecies of humanity brought back to life through genetic archeological voodoo: he is a vampire.

As far as they know, the crew of the Theseus are being sent to investigate a trans-Neptunian Kuiper Belt object known as Burns-Caulfield; but while they're in cold sleep (a form of undeath, in this novel) Burns-Caulfield is destroyed, and they wake up five years late, way out of the plane of the solar system, and nose-up against a stellar body the size of ten Jupiters. Orbiting that they find the baroque alien artefact they name Rorsharch: "a city-size chaos of spun glass, loops and bridges and attenuate spires... A nest of obsidian snakes and smoky crystal spires." They have a (surprisingly easy) conversation with it. They land, despite warnings not to. Things fall apart.

The book divides into two unequal halves around that landing. On one level this is a simple matter of necessity: before the landing, the crew are mostly sitting and waiting; after it, they're running around trying to work out what's going on. On another level, though, it's a reflection of Watts's thought-experiment approach to his tale. The book is front-loaded with a sort of conceptual potential energy, introducing ideas and setting up character dynamics so that the tension we feel as the characters approach Rorsharch is as much the anticipation of the start of an experiment as it is simple curiosity or nerves. We suspect (from its name, and from the history of Big Dumb Objects in SF in general) that Rorsharch will provide a dark mirror for its explorers to gaze into, but we want to see the theory put into action. After the landing, that's exactly what happens: the conceptual energy is converted to plot energy. The result is a roller-coaster with little time for infodumps. With the exception of one scene late on, which represents both the apotheosis of the book's intellectual argument and an injection of adrenaline to carry the plot over the last ten yards, the thrill of riding the second half of Blindsight comes primarily from watching events unfold with compelling precision.

There is precision, too, in the writing. Siri's clipped ASD tones are those of someone who sees life as patterns, as a procession of numbers. A marriage decays "with the exponential determinism of a radioactive isotope," for example; and when Sarasti sends him on the Rorsharch boarding party, he doesn't delude himself as to why: "Three valuable agents in harm's way. A decoy bought one-in-four odds that an enemy would aim somewhere else." Siri seems to be right about the nature of Blindsight's universe, too. All indications are that it's an existence that can be modeled, gamed, possibly even solved. And intelligence doesn't get you out of that rat race: when one character wonders whether some or all of what they've found on Rorsharch might be the result of natural processes rather than sentience, another chides, "It's a meaningless question. Get your head out of the twentieth century." The difference between a bee's honeycomb and a human's spaceship, Watts suggests, is one of degree, not kind. They are both attempts to solve a problem. Humans may be very, very complex, but they are in principle as comprehensible, and as part of the world, as anything else.

What impresses most about the book is the extent to which Watts follows through on the implications of this stance. For the characters, Blindsight's story is a lesson in abject humility. Many characters in many sf novels over the past fifteen years or so have learned that space is not a venue for human stories, but the crew of Theseus learn it more thoroughly than most. As in Bruce Sterling's "Swarm," and some of Stephen Baxter's work (such as the grand Evolution), the value of consciousness itself is questioned. Control is an illusion, after all: think about moving your arm, and your arm will already be in motion. We exist after the fact -- or, as Siri's friend Pag puts it, "We're not thinking machines, we're -- we're feeling machines that happen to think."

We are observers, not agents, and where's the survival advantage in that? Watts's aliens, certainly, think rings around his humans and posthumans. They can detect the electromagnetic fluctuations of a human brain, and rewire them in real time. They can time their movements so precisely as to hide in the saccades of our eyes. And they can do it, in part, because they are not conscious, because consciousness is expensive: "I wastes energy and processing power, self-obsesses to the point of psychosis [...] They turn your own cognition against itself. They travel between the stars. This is what intelligence can do, unhampered by self-awareness," is Sarasti's blunt assessment. We are a fluke, a mistake; in evolutionary terms, a dead end. Once we get beyond the surface of our planet we are not fit.

Which is an argument that has certain implications for the attempt to write a first-person novel. With a very few exceptions -- Ted Chiang's story "Understand"; some of Greg Egan's work, such as "Learning to be Me" -- most stories argue (implicitly, at least) that what matters about us is that we are more than our brains. Very few stories, I would suggest, include characters who even approach the question of "I"; still fewer include characters who believe what Siri knows to be true, that we are only our brains. Perhaps this is in part because anyone who understands the implications of the question is going to be disinclined to narrate the story of their life. But if you believe that's the way the world really is, it's not a question you can justify avoiding for long, and Watts meets the challenge head-on: like the plot, Siri is a demonstration of the book's ideas in action. By design, he calls into question our assumptions about how viewpoint characters work. Siri's ability to "synthesize" the behaviour of his crewmates, for instance, is a brilliant fictional sleight-of-hand to evoke their differences, while masking his own. But he can only take us so far; indeed, any story, however well-told, can only take us so far, because language itself is inefficient, a work-around. Siri makes a point of telling us that what he's telling us isn't really what happened -- that his descriptions of the crew are only approximations, not least because in reality, the rest of the crew converse in a bricolage of half-a-dozen languages, using whatever words can best convey the concepts they need. Siri doesn't want to be unreliable, but he can't help it. And, as the book wears on, his privileged status as an unbiased observer is increasingly undermined. This shouldn't be a surprise: for a self-aware observer, any question about noninterference rapidly acquires a moral dimension. Peace of mind may be an illusion, but that doesn't make us want it any less.

Such dilemmas have an air of inescapability about them, and the visceral relentlessness of Blindsight's story is a large part of its beauty. It is, as I said, a roller-coaster, and not just because it's the result of precision engineering. We trust Peter Watts in the same way that we trust a theme park designer, to carry us through to the end. Nor is the thrill of the ride lessened when we start to realise -- largely as the result of a series of deft flashbacks -- that we've been on this one before. Every day, in fact. Here's the secret: imagining we are Siri Keeton is easier than it at first seems, because we are like him. We live in the same world (deep down we know that the novel's universe is our own, because this is hard sf), and we ask the same questions (because that's the nature of human existence). It's just that Siri is better at finding the answers. So much better that by the end of Blindsight we're left feeling that Siri Keeton might be able to show us the truth of the world, just once, and make us understand, just for a moment -- if only we could trust him as we trust his creator. If only we could trust ourselves.

Blindsight by Peter Watts
Tor Books
ISBN: 0765312182
384 Pages