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Blindsight
Peter Watts
Tor hardcover $24.95

review by Duncan Lawie

As a child, Siri Keeton, the narrator of Blindsight, had half his brain cut out to cure seizures. He had to learn again what it meant to be human, an experience which suited him well to life in the late 21st century. The rise of machine intelligence and the increasing specialisation of knowledge workers has formalised the profession of 'synthesists', who grasp knowledge from the higher realms and translate it. Siri repeatedly defines this, his own career, as a "topological transform," a rotation of concepts, but he also makes clear that he is grappling the edges of things he doesn't understand, and professes no guarantee that his work doesn't also destroy information. Siri's narration is littered with his concerns that he is contaminating the tale by becoming involved. This is particularly affecting in the threads where he tries to tell his own life, which show his attempts to be human by modelling the behaviour of those around him, seeking to present the right emotions for the benefit of others.

Siri, uses 'Human' as a capitalised word throughout, as we are no longer the only sentient species. Long before finding the alien artefact at the core of the story, geneticists have brought back the Vampire from extinction. There is delightful whimsy in the author's scientific basis for vampires devouring the first homo sapiens and their extermination due to a "Crucifix Glitch." However, their re-animation in the 21st century is as dark as anything else in this bitter novel. The vampires are few, but the idle mass of humanity is ascending to heaven, slotting their bodies into storage and entering a virtual world. Those who don't want to retire push their limits to remain competitive.

When the book starts we don't know any of this. Siri is one of a small party of humans, lead by a vampire and travelling, undead, in a spaceship, which has a machine-intelligence as captain. They wake up far out in the emptiness at the edge of our Solar system, approaching a previously unknown super-Jupiter around which something alien is orbiting. This is what they are here for. As alien encounters go, this one begins normally enough, even if this is 'first contact' played out explicitly according to 'game theory' - by the Earthers, at least. In due course conversation opens and eventually the team enters the alien artefact. But this description says no more about what really happens than saying Odysseus had a few encounters on his way back from the Trojan Wars.

The thesis at the core of this novel needs a lot of detail, skating dangerously close to becoming a disastrous mass of info-dumpery. However, Watts maintains a vicious narrative tension where each fact is shared at the last possible moment. The result is that Blindsight is the best book I read in 2006. It is confronting science fiction, challenging the notion that our field is tired. I strongly recommend it. Peter Watts' evocation of contact is sharp, swirling, dark and intense. The conception of his aliens is original, vivid and horrendous. Both narrator and reader are trapped by our own expectations, by the limits of our understanding of the nature of the universe, or the nature of SF. By the time the proof is laid out before us, he is under our defences and rewiring our brains.
Blindsight by Peter Watts

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