Mar 3 2011 1:00pm

Best SFF Novels of the Decade: An Appreciation of Blindsight

Blindsight by Peter WattsIt’s my opinion that Peter Watts’s Blindsight is the best hard science fiction novel of the first decade of this millennium—and I say that as someone who remains unconvinced of all the ramifications of its central argument. Watts is one of the crown princes of science fiction’s most difficult subgenre: his work is rigorous, unsentimental, and full of the sort of brilliant little moments of synthesis that make a nerd’s brain light up like a pinball machine. But he’s also a poet—a damned fine writer on a sentence level, who can make you feel the blank Lovecraftian indifference of the sea floor or of interplanetary space with the same ease facility with which he can pen an absolutely breathtaking passage of description. His characters have personalities and depth, and if most of them aren’t very nice people, well, that’s appropriate to the dystopian hellholes they inhabit.

Blindsight is the story of Siri Keaton, a man with half a brain, who is one member of the crew of the research vessel Theseus. The Theseus is crewed by a  carefully selected group of technologically engineered superhumans, which—quite by accident—encounters alien life in a vessel they name Rorschach. An alien life that cannot even be described as malevolent, for it is as indifferent to humanity as everything else in the universe, except for humanity itself. An alien life form that is better than us in all imaginable ways, because it is not handicapped with this thing we call consciousness—self-awareness, the I, the ability to observe and question our own actions.

Watts’s universe is capricious, agencyless, and coldly mechanical. He takes a rigorously behaviorist stance on human neurology. His people are ticking clockworks—beautiful, strong, wounded, heroic ticking clockworks, with that perception familiar to so many of us of being trapped outside the course of our lives.

I keep returning to those words—Lovecraftian, indifferent—but Blindsight is also a brilliant argument for the inevitability of that indifference. There’s an icy, logical nihilism at this book’s core that Watts never shies away from, that—in fact—he ruthlessly exploits. Horrible things happen for no reason, because he universe is like that, and Watts doesn’t give us the pretense of some higher meaning as a comfort.

In its own way, though, that nihilism itself can be comforting, and this is the place where I quibble. If it’s all futile, we’re excused from trying. And not trying is so much easier than trying-and-failing, it’s soothing to have an excuse.

The funny thing is, that quibble does not detract from my assessment of this book as among the best of its kind. The fact that I find Watts’s argument insufficiently nuanced doesn’t actually change the fact that he makes it brilliantly, that his ideas are horrible and fascinating and glitter like a swarm of darkly jeweled beetle carapaces, that he’s got a hard-biology explanation for vampirism and that his thematic freight—that all we see when we look out at the universe is our own selves reflected, because that is what we are programmed to see, and that our conscious minds may very well be bad for us—is gorgeously developed.

Blindsight is one of those rare books that alters the reader’s perception of the world and of himself, if the reader is brave enough to tackle it head-on. The idea that consciousness is self-destructive is a heady one. I can think of exactly one other novel that even has the guts to take that one on: it’s Kurt Vonnegut’s much-maligned Galapagos. But where Galapagos is a farce, Blindsight is a tour de force, a science fiction novel that should be able to make any alert reader question not only what just happened in the pages, but exactly who is reading them.

Blindsight is also available to read through Peter Watts's website.

Elizabeth Bear is the two-time Hugo-winning author of Grail, The Sea thy Mistress, and a bunch of other things.

Return to the Best SFF Novel of the Decade Readers’ Poll index.

Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Thanks, Bear.

This was a difficult, uncompromising book that was well worth the effort.
3. amphibian
I agree that it's an excellent review, as the unintentionally self-destructive consciousness is perhaps my favorite theme of the book.


In its own way, though, that nihilism itself can be comforting, and this is the place where I quibble. If it’s all futile, we’re excused from trying. And not trying is so much easier than trying-and-failing, it’s soothing to have an excuse.

I disagree with this. Watts makes the fuming vortex of nihilism clear from the section title of the last (Charybdis). What happens to the characters and the attitudes they take certainly get very grim, but his writing shows that it is possible, and even heroic, to try and struggle out of the nihilistic morass and do something - anything, even.

Siri's last thoughts in Charybdis are one of determination to do something. Sarasti and The Captain set the entire thing up as a fact-finding endeavor using the mechanisms of scientific study and outright war. That Siri survived and brings back data to the rest of humanity is a victory of sorts for that endeavor.

Sometimes, surviving and continuing to live is the victory against nihilism.
4. bobbyshane
Finally, a review of this book that does it full justice. Everyone who has at least half a brain (pun intended) should read this book!
5. Finlen
I give this review 5 out of 5 Starfish! Unfortunately, you can't see them, as they only exist in the gaps in between the firing of your brain synapses.
James Goetsch
6. Jedikalos
Yes, I do love and respect that book. It is also rather grim. A very good book that serves to back up Watt's rather uncongenial argument is "The Ego Tunnel" by Thomas Metzinger. It has reports of some cutting-edge experiments and research that helps make Watt's case, as well as giving a good philosophical overview of the issues.
Nicholas Alcock
7. NullNix
I agree with everything you said. A few points, though (all spoileriffic as hell).

They don't name the vessel _Rorschach_. It gives them its name. The name is exceedingly apt.

I wouldn't call the scramblers 'better than us in all imaginable ways'. Like us, they need a starship wrapped around them to function normally (though they can last for a while outside it, again, just like us). Though we never see it, they probably require very long periods of downtime between their active periods, which we don't need (either that or their lifespans are very short: both are quite possible: they may be considered less crew than internal extensions of the ship, if indeed the distinction can be made at all).

I've never encountered a book that made me think as hard as _Blindsight_, nor one that changed my outlook on the human condition as much (save, perhaps, _Icehenge_).

And -- forget the vampires as vampires. Forget the awesome corporate puff-piece for the vampires (also on his website). What's so amazing is that Watts came up with an environment in which a vampire of the nasty sort is actually *more pleasant* than the things _Theseus_ was facing.

Amphibian, Siri doesn't bring back data to the rest of humanity. Reread _Charybdis_. Humanity is no longer in charge...

(One last point: given how amazingly bleak Watts was when he wrote this -- and the Starfish trilogy -- I can't imagine what he'll be turning out now he's had the charming experience of being beaten up by border guards, becoming a felon, and having his leg eaten alive. I suspect his next book will break the Bleak Event Horizon.)
8. MidPuddle
The best thing about this novel is I am not sure if I love it or not. And for a science fiction novel, making me think is what I expect.
9. JimDumas
I think I would possibly second the nomination of this book as the best of the 00s. I have been recommending it like crazy. The cognitive science is first rate, the vampires an unexpected bonus. Consciousness as a parasite agrees with memetic theory of the selfplex ala Susan Blackmore. I was reminded of it by Charlie Stross's "Missile Gap", which also finds our extravagant minds wanting compared to more group-oriented models.
However, a lot of the web stuff happening now, with people communicating with each other more and more, have seemed to me to be "baby steps towards the group mind" -- so maybe there's hope for us.
Michael Grosberg
10. Michael_GR
You can probably tell by looking at my avatar that I'm a huge Watts fan (it's the cover of _Starfish_ ). I agree wholeheartedly with Elizabeth's review of the novel. it's a must-read, whether you agree with its main theme or not. The word "Lovecraftian" is an apt adjective for Watts' work, but I believe there is one thing that Watts got right and Lovecraft missed most of the time.
A lot of people claim that horror is more effective when you never let the reader / viewer get a full glimpse of the monster, and Lovecraft worked according to this theory, hinting at "undescribable" this and "unmentionable" that. Watts, on the other hand, lays it all out. We know how his monsters work on the cellular level. We know what makes them tick and what they want. And it may be subjective, but I, at least, find it so much more scary / unsetteling this way.

One more thing I should mention is that _BlindSight_ does have an earlier precedent with a similar theme: Stanislaw Lem's _The Invincible_. Despite having been written in the 60's, it's surprisingly modern in its depiction of artificial life and evolution, intellignet robotic swarms and proto-nanotechnology.
11. dmg
What can I say about Blindsight that I have not already said on this site... and you say better anyway?

Except this: Blindsight requires the love and support you, and the respondents, lavish on the book. (And Jon Evans earlier.) Blindisght, and Peter Watts, demand a lot of the reader; it is no easy, simple, or even straight-forward story. When reading, you must pay attention, never allow your attention to wander, or miss a critical revelation. Kindasorta like the saccades thingee Watts uses so intelliegently.

So on many levels Blindsight is a must-read: on a sentence level, Watts can write, really write, as you note. (Cripes, he was trained as a marine biologist?!) Its plot compels you to turn the pages. Hurry! The novel is rife with ideas, BIG ideas. And the characters are more than 3 dimensional; the choices they make come as a result of the people they are, not the author pulling (their) levers.

So what's not to like? :-)
Amy G. Dala
12. amygdala11
This book crawled inside my head. I kept thinking about it weeks after I finished it (the first time).

Great mindbending, challening stuff - this is what scifi should be.
13. amphibian
@ NullNix, 7,

Amphibian, Siri doesn't bring back data to the rest of humanity. Reread _Charybdis_. Humanity is no longer in charge...

Actually, I still view humanity as still being in control. We've just metamorphed into a slightly different form, and with the aid of the hyper-smart computers like Theseus, humanity in its different form has a better chance of being good starfarers in a hostile universe.

That's my own view on the ending and I think that Siri's bleakness about that change in fortunes is sort of a misdirection. He's going to deliver the data, he's going to give his impressions and he's going to continue to try and survive. That's a victory in and of itself - although perhaps not the preferred one.

I do hope Bear participates in this discussion or see this. Going by her review, her input would probably be fantastic.
14. Seruko
Blindsight is a wonderful book. The vampire thing, though forgivable, is a jarring unnecissary segway which breaks suspension of disbelief. I love the book, but the vampire flaw makes it difficult to recomend to friends.
15. Tritium

I don't understand how you could so completely mis-read the ending of Blindsight. Humans are NOT in control. The Vampires have taken over. In fact, the interplanetary spacecraft transmissions Siri intercepts makes it completely apparent that the sole surviving humans are being systematically hunted down and exterminated.

Also, the haunting "clicking" vocalizations that Siri hears in the Earth broadcasts are from the new usurpers (the Vampires).

IMHO, it is as plain as day. You really need to re-read the last chapter.

16. splifyphus
There are no 'vampires' in this book. There are ancient extinct hominid apex predators that just got called vampires after they got ressurected, Jurassic Park style. It's just a somewhat tongue-in-cheek label, a word. If you can't disassociate from your twilight binge-reading days because of a word, that right there is your consciousness holding you back from understanding something.

No matter what label you assign them, they're definitely not a 'flaw' in the book - they tie perfectly into all the themes and ideas presented, not to mention being integral to the plot. The book simplwouldn't work without them.
17. The Ender
I've had this book in my wish list for some time. Other reviews were positive but did not present it in a way that connected so well with me. I intend to read this book the next chance I get.
18. mortimer
The review states:
"The Theseus is crewed by a carefully selected group of technologically engineered superhumans, which—quite by accident—encounters alien life in a vessel they name Rorschach."

In the book this was not -quite by accident - the crew were infact sent out to meet the alien life form. The whole purpose of the mission was to find out what was out there. Not sure that -accident- played any part in the story.
19. JiWe
I too think this was possibly the best SF I´ve ever read. Having vampires is a bit odd and some people might find it jarring but it didn´t really bother me.

Did anyone else think this was a plot hole though: the reason why the aliens would be hostile, isn´t that really implausible? They interpreted all those those transmissions they couldn´t understand as a (rather ineffective) virus attack AGAINST THEM? When, just to take ONE argument against that hypothesis, everything else they would have learned about us indicated that we didn´t even know they existed?

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