Dec 13 2010 4:21pm

The Consciousness Glitch: Peter Watts’s Blindsight

Blindsight by Peter WattsLet me tell you a secret:

…this book is hilarious.

This is probably not the most common reaction to a book which is, beneath its rampant-awesome surface story of a misfit Magnificent Seven exploring a gargantuan alien artifact, ultimately about the failure of humanity and the futility of consciousness. I admit that it’s replete with man’s inhumanity to man, man’s inhumanity to inhumanity, and inhumanity’s inhumanity to man. I grant that its ultimate effect is a bit like a sucker punch to the gut. But it’s still really funny, in a fuligin-dark way. Like having the stuffing beaten out of you by Buster Keaton.

Full disclosure: Peter Watts is a friend. Which in most cases should force me to recuse myself from public analysis of his book...but this book is not most cases. Au contraire. In fact I suspect that many who have read it will blink in amazement at my disclaimer and mutter to themselves in disbelief, “Wait, what, you’re kidding me, no way—Peter Watts has friends?”

Yes, and he’s very funny in person, too, although it says something about his sense of humour that the James Nicoll quote, “Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts” has front-page-headline placement on his web site. For another taste, consider Blindsight’s protagonist, a literal halfwit1 named Siri Keeton, as he considers the failure of his one and only relationship:

I wrote her a bedtime story, a disarming blend of humor and affection,
...Sperm said, “I am cheap and plentiful, and if sowed abundantly I will surely fulfill God’s plan. I shall forever seek out new mates and then abandon them when they are with child, for there are many wombs and little time.”
But Egg said, “Lo, the burden of procreation weighs heavily upon me. I must carry flesh that is but half mine, gestate and feed it even when it leaves my chamber” (for by now many of Egg’s bodies were warm of blood, and furry besides). “I can have but few children, and must devote myself to those, and protect them at every turn. And I will make Sperm help me, for he got me into this. And though he doth struggle at my side, I shall not let him stray, nor lie with my competitors.”
And Sperm liked this not.
And God smiled, for Its commandment had put Sperm and Egg at war with each other, even unto the day they made themselves obsolete.
I brought her flowers one dusky Tuesday evening when the light was perfect. I pointed out the irony of that romantic old tradition— the severed genitalia of another species, offered as a precopulatory bribe—and then I recited my story just as we were about to fuck.
To this day, I still don’t know what went wrong.

I don’t want to talk too much about the events of the book, because I don’t want to spoil its many unexpected delights. Let’s just say that some months after 216 alien probes suddenly appear and plummet into in Earth’s atmosphere, and transmit what they have learned from their collective survey of Earth before they burn up, after a crew of barely human neural nonpareils—including a vampire2—are sent to a distant fringe of the Solar System, where they discover an alien vessel the size of a large city.

Or should I say: where it discovers them.

I haven’t asked, but I bet the author has read Algis Budrys’s Rogue Moon more than once. (Like Blindsight, it was a Hugo nominee.) Its characters have that same grim answers-at-all-costs determination to explore, no matter what the costs. And in Blindsight, as in Rogue Moon, it’s not until after they leave the alien artifact that the true horror of what’s really been happening all this time raises its terrifying head—a horror which has nothing to do with the aliens.

C’mon, that’s funny, right?

Blindsight is easily the most compelling book I’ve read this year...but it may not be for you. Conveniently, though, you don’t need to buy it to find out: it’s been released under a Creative Commons license, so you can start (and even finish) reading it on the author’s site, or download it from Feedbooks. Give it a try. You too may find it amusing—and even if you don’t, you certainly won’t forget it.

1As in, half of his brain has been surgically removed.

2The book’s appendix, which discusses the genetics and ecology of vampires, is even funnier than the main text. No, really. I laughed aloud while reading it, heedless of my fellow subway straphangers, who gave me alarmed sidelong glances and shuffled away.

Jon Evans is the author of four technothrillers, one graphic novel, a (forthcoming) epic squirrel fantasy, random bits of journalism, and weekly columns for TechCrunch. He mostly lives in Toronto.

James Goetsch
1. Jedikalos
An excellent book. It sent me off to read "The Ego Tunnel," by Thomas Metzinger, which makes an excellent companion volume.
2. Raskos
I believe that Watts is an environmental biologist. Mordant humour would be his only refuge.
Sean Arthur
3. wsean
Watts is a good writer, but I just couldn't enjoy the book.

The "futility of consciousness" stuff didn't fly for me. I'll grant it's been half a decade since I really followed cog sci, but much of what Watts says just didn't seem to mesh with what we actually know about intelligence (which is, yes, still not all that much). And at times it read like an author tract, what with the citations of studies and whatnot.

Could've done without the Jurassic Park vampires, too.

I like other stuff he's written. This particular book, not so much. Ah well.
Helen Wright
4. arkessian
I loved this book, and hated it, both at once. And I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants their thinking disturbed for weeks.
James Goetsch
5. Jedikalos
wsean: check out the Metzinger book I mention above, which gives the cog sci angle.
Sean Arthur
6. wsean
Thanks Jedi. Heh, sounds almost Buddhist from the Amazon reviews. I'll have to give it a look.
7. Neville Park
"Fuligin-dark"—ha! It's the perfect term for Watts's work.

My favourite aspect of Blindsight is that the aliens are so, well, alien—not just humanoids with knobbly foreheads or whatever; Watts obviously put serious effort into imagining what extraterrestrial life would be like, and the results are far weirder than bacteria with arsenic in their DNA.
Herb Schaltegger
8. LameLefty
I read this a year or so ago and agree COMPLETELY with arkessian's views in #4 above. A very compelling and disturbing concept and one that meshes pretty well with what any street hustler, magician or major league pitcher could tell you - what the eye sees and what the mind perceives are not the same thing. "Hilarious" is not a word I'd use to describe this book.
9. TheDumbass
This was by far my favorite SF novel of last year. I have recommended it numerous times. So many different concepts to tickle one's mind.
I think that many cognitive scientists (Susan Blackmore springs to mind) would agree with Watts' characterization of consciousness as spoiler redacted.
10. redhead
the first time I read this book it blew my mind and scared the crap out of me. I was in love.

the second time I read it I laughed my head off every 5 pages of so, and was in love even more.
11. dmg
Science fiction, as a literary genre, often succeeds as science fiction but fails as literature. BLINDSIGHT, though, succeeds on all counts. A brilliantly told tale of awe and wonder, it deals with the Big Ideas but never, not one time, stints on its characters and their motivations. Yes, things are done to them, but they all are where they are for the organic decisions they made, and make; right or wrong. In sum, Blindsight is one of the better, if not best, SF novels ever published. (Okay, I will modify that comment, and say that I have read that has been published. :-)

My useless assessment out of the way, Blindsight also is the poster child for the futility that accompanies an author. Let's see whether I have this correct: An author will slave away for a year or more writing one book. Then begins the lengthy pre-production process: editing and re-writing the book to the editor's, publisher's, and (sometimes) bookseller's specifications. Finally, after all this time and effort, comes forth the finished product: one book, which is only one slot, times the many slots, for that publisher, for that month... times the many other publishers. Etc. Easy to see how crucial marketing and promotion are to the author's effort. Something -- author, colophon, art, opening sentence, something -- must be done to differentiate this book from all the others so its consumers can find it...

I know not the marketing scheme for Blindsight on its publication, only that it seemed non-existent. In both versions. My perception, if fact, surprises me; I fail to grasp why a publisher would risk money, however much or little, and not promote the books they buy. I fear that, were I an author who poured blood, sweat, and tears into a tiny keyboard for a protracted period of time to scant result... well, add a little exsanguination to the other three items.

I sure hope Peter writes more novels. I sure hope his publisher keeps his past novels, and any future novels by him, in print. It would be a loss to SF, its community, and Peter were the opposite to occur. Blindsight is one for the ages -- even with the vampire. :-)

Thank you for the soapbox.
Michael Grosberg
12. Michael_GR
Watts is Brilliant. And, yes, funny. Not the only "depressing" author who turns out to be funny in person - Ian Watson, who wrote "The Jonah Kit" in which (spoiler!) the earth is DOOMED and the environment is RUINED and it's scientifically proven (I kid you not!) that there's no point to existence anyway, turned out to be a very amusing person when I saw him at a con a few years ago.

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