Sunday, July 15, 2007

Blindsight, Peter Watts

It seems cliché to talk about science fiction stories that examine “what it means to be human.” While Peter Watts’ stories do just that, they do it from a unique perspective. He uses the huge variety of mental illnesses to examine just how different humans can be from one another before they become alien. He has previously examined this territory in his Rifters series, consisting of Starfish (1999), Maelstrom (2001) and Behemoth (published in two parts in 2004 and 2005). In that trilogy he started with his characters deep underwater, specifically chosen for their tasks because their mental illnesses were perfectly suited to their alien environment. In Blindsight the set up is similar, with radically flawed protagonists finding themselves in space chasing after an alien spaceship that may or may not be a threat to Earth.

To give you a sense of how alien the cast is, consider Siri Keeton, our first-person narrator. When he was a young child half his brain was removed in a drastic surgery to cure severe epilepsy. No longer even close to a normal human, and lacking any natural sense of empathy, he had to reconstruct his internal model of what “human” meant through sheer brute force reasoning and memory. The fact that he was more or less able to do so and function in society is a testament to his brilliance and makes him a perfect all-subject systems analyst, or “synthesist.” Hence he is chosen to accompany this trip to the outer reaches of the solar system, chasing down a gigantic alien enigma. The rest of the crew consists of a linguist deliberately given multiple personalities to maximize the potential of her brain, a doctor so interfaced with machinery that while his surgical precision is unparalleled he can barely hold a cup of coffee, a soldier with a traumatic past, and a genetically reconstructed vampire. By the time they start to penetrate alien territory, one wonders if our definition of humanity can stretch so far as to encompass these beings. If not, where is the line drawn? With a person who doesn’t know what it feels like to be human but has to think it instead? With a cyborg? With a genetically engineered subspecies that regards us as prey?

Once they get to the alien ship, a planet-shaped mystery, things get even more complicated. Subjected to the intense electro-magnetic fields inside the ship, weird things happen to their brains. Thought, after all, consists of electro-magnetic and chemical messages, and when they are interrupted or changed very odd things happen. All of the effects Watts inflicts on his crew are based in current medical literature, but having them presented this way is chilling. Consider a claustrophobic and alien space where one constantly sees things moving from the corner of one’s eyes, and where one can easily come to believe that one’s own body parts are foreign, as if your own leg had become an alien thing:

“Get it off me!” Harsh voice, raw and scared and scary, as male as female could sound. Cruncher in control. “Get it off!”
I looked back. Susan James’ body tumbled slowly in the tunnel, grasping its right leg with both hands.
“James!” Bates sailed over to the other woman. “Keeton! Help out!” She took the Gang by the arm. “Cruncher? What’s the problem?”
“That! You blind?” He wasn’t just grasping at the limb, I realized as I joined them. He was tugging at it. He was trying to pull it off…
“Get it off me!” “It’s your leg, Cruncher.” We wrestled our way toward the diving bell.
not my leg! Just look at it, how could it – it’s dead. It’s stuck to me…”

Likewise, blindsight, from which the book takes its name, involves the curious, and curiously creepy, phenomenon when a person thinks they are blind, but can still catch things thrown at them by reflex. The optical signals are still being captured, but aren’t being recognized by the brain.

In the midst of all this chaos, the actual aliens, when we meet them, seem anti-climactic.

The characters in the story are not particularly likeable, although they are perhaps more understandable than the characters in the Rifters trilogy. In the midst of the narrative we get flashbacks to Siri’s family situation and also his one doomed attempt at a “normal” relationship. People generally don’t want to be involved with someone who is modeling what a person in love is like, as opposed to genuinely being in love.

There are many ways of being alien in this book: mental illness or surgery, temporary brain signal interruption, machine-hybrids, genetic engineering, or even uploading the consciousness into a computer to lock one’s self away from the world forever into irrelevance. To the extent that we can look at people in any of these conditions and still label them “human” makes it harder to apply the “alien” label to the aliens when they are finally met. Watts is pushing the boundaries of human experience, and it is not comfortable reading. As seen above, going this far out on a limb can easily lead into horror, and people who have become something Other than human are hard to empathize with or like, and that makes for hard reading. Luckily, I found something to relate to in Siri, a person who has to consciously check himself to make sure that he is acting within norms and sometimes fails. That made the story easier to dive into for me, since when I didn’t find any similar point of congruence amongst the characters of Starfish and Maelstrom I didn’t enjoy those books half as much as this one. Blindsight, however, struck me as one of the stronger books I’ve read this year, and I’m rooting for it to win the Hugo award. It’s available for free online, so make sure to check it out. While it’s not for the faint of heart, for the fan of hard sf (inclusive of physics, neurology and psychology), this should not be missed.

Monday, July 9, 2007

SFWA European Hall of Fame, James & Kathryn Morrow, ed.

This review originally appeared at

James and Kathryn Morrow have presented us with a labor of love in the SFWA European Hall of Fame, and it is a remarkable achievement. It contains sixteen stories from thirteen countries, each a memorable piece, each beautifully translated. There is no question that English-speaking SF/F fans would be interested in European (and Chinese and Indian, etc.) fiction if only there were more and better translations available. As some of us may remember, having perhaps read less-than-perfectly translated Jules Verne, translation is an art, not a science. By combining efforts and communication between the translators, writers and editors, and making use of the enabling medium of email, this collection provides us with the amazing styles and atmospherics of the story tellers, not just their raw content.

Not that their content is in any way uninteresting. In this volume we see a high density of political concerns from several angles, especially dystopian ones. We also see that fantasy motifs are crossing over into European science fiction as much as they are in English SF, with beautiful and fun results. There is obviously no "European" style here, as each author is uniquely their own. However, one can make some broad generalizations based on these stories, such as Northern European stories seeming darker than Southern ones, and stories from ex-communist countries being more overtly political than their American allied counterparts.

The politically-leaning stories range from the quietly elegant to the abundantly absurd. "A Birch Tree, A White Fox," from Russian author Elena Arsenieva, deals with the power of enforced silence on an alien planet, a piece of poetry. "Sepultura," from Italian author Valerio Evangelisti deals with the plight of political prisoners in a near-future Brazil, with echoes of both Dante and the native religions. "Baby Doll" from Finland's Johanna Sinisalo disturbingly deals with the sexualization of youth, forcing teen angst and behavior on children of seven or eight. From Poland we have "Yoo Retoont, Sneogg. Ay Noo." by Marek S. Huberath, a story of monsters and mutants in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, which does a remarkable job of humanizing its characters while never shying away from their deformations. "The Day We Went Through the Transition" by Ricard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero is a straight-forward time travel story dealing with the importance of the post-Franco Spanish transition to democracy between 1975 and 1981. "Some Earthlings' Adventures on Outrerria" must be the oddest story in the collection, from Romanian Lucian Merisca. It is both a Lewis Carroll-esque surreal dance of alien courtly etiquette, and a post-colonial commentary on Earthly politics. Runner-up for weirdness and whimsy must be "A Night on the Edge of the Empire" by Portuguese author Joao Barreiros, an "Innocents Abroad" take on an alien ambassador traveling incognito on Earth, with pointed commentary about political activism and tolerance for the Other. Finally W.J. Maryson, a Dutch author, brings us a dystopia of perfection in "Verstummte Musik," a story of political escape full of the tension between beauty and death.

Of the more stylistically oriented pieces we have the two French entries, "Separations" by Jean-Claude Dunyach, dealing with ennui, romance and maturity by traveling through a worm hole with quantum repercussions, and "Transfusion" by Joelle Wintrebert describing with a woman assuming power over herself and her demons in a physical, sensual and spiritual way. Both of these tales are very dark in their tone. The Czech entry "The Fourth Day to Eternity" deals with time loops of the main character's own making, and the battle he must repeatedly fight. "Athos Emfovos in the Temple of Sound" is a mythic anti-war story, the sort of thing that could only be written by a Grecian author, in this case Panagiotis Koustas. The famous Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko contributes a piece reminiscent of early Heinlein, "Destiny, Inc.," in which a company presents itself as able to swap people's destinies around, free of charge. TANSTAAFL. Andreas Eschbach contributes a piece that goes straight for the extreme sense-of-wonder SF sentimentality with "Wonders of the Universe," a story of a dying astronaut on Europa. It's not subtle, but it's a good candidate to bring a tear to your eye. Spanish author Jose Antonio Cotrina brings us "Between the Lines," a fun fantastic story of a young man who learns to literally read new things between the lines of books. Finally pseudonymous Danish author Bernhard Ribbeck writes "A Blue and Cloudless Sky," a story about time travel, space travel and religion.

With any collection of this sort, one can argue about the editorial choices. For one, given the inclusion of such becoming-famous-in-English authors as Johanna Sinisalo (Troll – A Love Story), Sergei Lukyanenko (The Night Watch series) and Andreas Eschbach (The Carpet Makers), why not include something from Zoran Zivkovic, for instance? Or perhaps the better known authors should have been excluded in favor of newer authors needing more exposure? I'm sure these were painful decisions that the editors had to make, being faced with trying to represent all of European science fiction with only sixteen stories. A more significant quibble of mine would be that from this collection one would think that European SF was almost, but not quite, unrelentingly dark, with only "Transition," "Outrerria," "Edge of the Empire" and "Between the Lines" containing much in the way of humor, and even then only "Transition" and "Between the Lines" having anything resembling happy endings. It's impossible to know if that is a coincidence, a reflection of the editors' preferences, or the real state of European fiction.

Trifling issues aside, the editors are to be thanked for putting together such a beautiful collection of works that we might never have read otherwise. Science fiction is the literature of ideas, and the more geographically diverse the authors, the more broad the spectrum of ideas we will be exposed to. The fact that the editors were able to do so while still conveying the beautiful styles and poetry of the authors involved is icing on this already substantial cake.