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.

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