That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Credible Creatures in Space: Peter Watts’ Blindsight

I’m a sucker for space stories. I love ‘em: being out there among the stars, colonizing worlds, travelling FTL, encountering new life forms, fleeing from said life forms. The sci-fi writers that get me the most excited, however—the ones that separate the space wheat from the cosmic chaff—are those who back up their ideas with plausible science, thereby bringing the stars within reach. So it should come as no surprise that I find Peter Watts’s Blindsight so effing awesome.

At its core, Blindsight is a tale of first contact. It’s got everything you could want: a ship named Theseus that “eats” ions to churn them into manufactured matter, an AI captain that keeps its own council, a crew of genetically and mechanically altered transhumans, and an all too believable and terrifying alien anomaly, aptly named Rorschach (the likes of which haven’t been encountered since Clarke’s Rendevous with Rama).

Ironically, however, the element of Watt’s brilliance that truly shines for me is much more terrestrial in nature. Sort of.

Jukka Sarasti is the leader of Theseus’s crew. He’s highly intelligent, calculating, and intimidating. Probably because he’s a vampire. And before you get all agog about vampires in space, that’s not the part that I found exciting. It’s the vampire himself, specifically Watt’s conception of him.

In the story, Sarasti is not some mythical monster with magical powers. Rather, he is an offshoot from our family tree. Around 700,000 years ago, a subspecies diverged from our genetic line, distinctly different from Neanderthals and sapiens: homo sapiens vampiris. Elongated limbs, pale skin, canines, extended mandible. The works. Along with superior hearing, they’ve evolved extra types of cones in their retinas that provide quadrochromatic vision (i.e. infrared eyesight).

If you don’t believe it, just check out the impressive mini-dissertation included in the appendix that serves as a “Brief Primer on Vampire Biology.” The whole take is a re-conception of vampires as predators, not monsters. Like a cross between a shark and a chess grandmaster. Watts’s biological twist on an old archetype is literally hair-raising. And his background in biology provides both a hair of believability and credibility. (He holds a BS, an MS, and a PhD.)

The most fun part is how Watts takes everything you know about vampires and retrofits it all with a sound, scientific explanation. In developing a radically different immunology, vampires exhibited a stronger resistance to prion diseases (you know, the ones you get from cannibalism). So, that’s how they can eat people. Awesome.

Somewhere during their evolution, vampires “lost the ability to code for y-Protocadherin Y,” a protein they desperately need. Guess who’s the only the viable production source? So, that’s why they eat people. Perfect.

While human prey is a prolific food source, it is a slow-breeding one. As anyone who’s studied basic ecology knows, if predators’ dining habits outstrip its prey’s mating habits, they run out of food. Quickly. In order to sustain their food source and themselves, vampires developed a knack for hibernating (think more lungfish than bear). These periodic respites gave the human population time to, well, repopulate. Or as the vampires saw it, restock the shelves. Hence, vampires affinities for long naps, in dark quiet places.

The most creative and downright genius revamping (sorry, I couldn’t resist) Watts creates is the “Crucifix glitch.” Yes, in the world of Blindsight vampires hate crucifixes, but not for the reason you’re thinking. It has nothing to do with his Holiness. Remember when I said vampires have advanced eyesight and whatnot? Well, there’s a downside to that. Vampires are natural creatures that evolved for thousands of years to maximize their perception and pattern matching abilities (it helps with hunting). There are two problems with this: 1) with evolution, neutral traits become fixed in small populations; 2) there are no right angles in nature. So vampires developed a glitch. When the synapses that process vertical and horizontal stimuli fire at the same time, across a large enough visual field … vampires have grand mal-like feedback seizures. So with a little Euclidean architecture, humans took the upper hand and stamped vampires out into extinction.

In this fantastic story, Watts makes vampires real and subsequently, scares the bejesus out of me. And yes, I do know that I’ve ignored the looming question: if vampires are extinct, then how did Sarasti end up on a space ship in the future? For that answer, you’re going to have read Watts’s terrifyingly plausible tale.

Joshua V. Scher is a recent transplant from New York City to the Hollywood hills, where he is continuing his transition from writing for the stage to the screen, both theatrical and television. His film, I’m OK, is in postproduction and slated for a festival run in 2016. The cinematic adaptation of his play The Footage was developed by Pressman Film. Scher collaborated with Joe Frazier and Penny Marshall’s Parkway Productions on the Joe Frazier biopic Behind the Smoke. He also worked with Danny Glover and Louverture Films on Scher’s original TV pilot, Jigsaw. His works for the stage include Marvel, Flushed, and Velvet Ropes, as well as the musical Triangle. He holds a bachelor’s degree with honors in creative writing from Brown University and a master of fine arts degree in playwriting from Yale University. Here & There, out now from 47North, is his first novel.

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