Blindsight, Peter Watts

Tor, 2006, 384 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31218-2

After years of knowing the author, I’m hardly the most objective reviewer any more when it comes to Peter Watts’ stuff. Still, even I didn’t expect him to bat it so far out of the park with Blindsight, a strong contender for best-SF-novel-of-the-year accolades. It’s a crackling good read, a compendium of dangerously counter-intuitive ideas and the best novel yet from a writer at the top of his game. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s also a work of hard Science Fiction that provides good arguments to anyone arguing in favour of the literary merits of the genre.

The premise is immediately familiar to anyone with even the slightest experience in the genre: decades from now, an alien ship is detected. A crew of specialists is sent to meet and greet the extraterrestrials. It doesn’t go well. Pure first-contact scenario, the bread-and-butter of SF-specific stories.

(Warning: Thematic spoilers ahead.)

But don’t jump to conclusions yet. Because the aliens may not be understandable, and the humans on board the exploration vessel may be even stranger than the extraterrestrials. Clearly, Watts is after more than a simple fuzzy story of first contact. After a while, his theme becomes clearer, as every character illuminates a different facet of non-standard consciousness. The title already alludes to actions that escape rational thought: the rest of the novel explores the same area. Before the novel is through, hard-SF fans will feel the pleasant sensation of hitting the floor nose-first as the rug is pulled from under them: For Blindsight uses the oldest SF scenario in the book in order to question one of hard SF’s core assumption: What if conscious thought wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be? What if consciousness was a wasteful illusion? What if consciousness wasn’t a way to solve problems but was, in itself, the problem?

Readers of Watts’ previous “Rifters” trilogy-in-four-books already know that the author isn’t afraid to follow implications where they logically lead. Even if the conclusion ends up indistinguishable from existential horror. But Watts’ fondness for deeply disturbed characters also allows him to explore issues through destructive testing. Here, the human crew is so far removed from baseline human stock that they each become a different way to ask the central question of the book in different ways.

This is more interesting than it first appears to be, especially considering how Blindsight embraces the type of Science Fiction that sticks closely to current science. Locking the novel in a straight-jacket of reality gives a convincing edge to the book’s speculations, but the impact of Blindsight‘s hard-SF elements goes beyond that: Indeed, one can make the case that hard-SF is the only mode of expression that can reliably explore the characters that Watts posits. Their interactions become thought experiment given dramatic form, thier personal quicks becoming wedges of illumination. There is something fascinating in how this novel understands the rules of the hard-SF game and uses them to its advantage. If anyone ever starts questioning the literary value of scientifically-knowledgeable authors, just give them this novel.

It helps that Watts has never written tighter, more steadily compelling prose. Told by an unreliable narrator, Blindsight appropriately plays tricks of perception, directly addresses its audience (“Imagine that you are…”), skilfully presents exposition into dramatic scenes and works wonders with scientific metaphors.

In many ways, this is the most remarkable accomplishment in Watts’ career so far, displacing even his short story collection Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes as a defining expression of his favourite themes. Biological determinism, a lack of sentimentality and playful pessimism have always been components of the Watts oeuvre, but here they find a clarity of expression that will convince even those who want to disagree with his conclusions. The inevitable nature of Blindsight‘s final chapter will resonate a long time with its readers, virtually ensuring the novel’s impact as anything but a safe and comfortable commodity in the genre SF assembly line.

Even in a year where SF fans were well-served by new novels such as Charles Stross’ Glasshouse and Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, Blindsight stands as one of the highlights of the year. Crammed with jazzy ideas, fully fluent in genre conventions and written to a compelling polish, Blindsight ought to land straight on the Hugo nominee list and find its place as a reference in the hard-SF genre.

You don’t even have to take my word for it: Blindsight is freely available on Watts’ web site. Read it. Think about it. Hold on to your illusions.

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