The Consciousness Glitch: Peter Watts’s Blindsight

Let 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.


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