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Blindsight by Peter Watts

Blindsight (edition 2008)

by Peter Watts

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1,429815,270 (3.93)81
Authors:Peter Watts
Info:Tor Books (2008), Edition: 1st, Paperback, 384 pages
Collections:ebook, Your library

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Blindsight by Peter Watts (Author)

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Showing 1-5 of 78 (next | show all)
I read this online on my iPad which was a mistake. Everytime I had to quit, I would lose my place - I should have gone for one of the download options.

The story itself was rather interesting with some unusual aliens and some unusual people from Earth who go to check out the aliens before they get too deep into the solar system. The author is exploring questions about consciousness, sentience, and what makes a person human. Are any of the crew actually human? Why is the leader a vampire? And more. Cautiously recommended.
  hailelib | Aug 8, 2015 |
"Blindsight" is an idea book. Nearly all of its science- the science that really matters- is biology, with a special emphasis on neurology. This is unusual for a book set in space, where plasma cannons, self-replicating attack nanoswarms, or the like are more typically the technological focus. Blindsight is also unusual in having powerful computers/AI in the setting that essentially make no difference to the plot. (This is no Vernor Vinge space story, as much as it may superficially resemble one!) It is a book about humans, aliens, and what lies in between.

While "Blindsight" has many good ideas, it has one Big Idea on which the book is founded. You don't recognize the nature of this idea, as well as the beautiful aptness of the book's title, until quite late into the work. The idea is powerful and presents a scary possible view of the cosmos that I hadn't heard before.

Unfortunately, I think the book's fundamentals like plot and character development aren't up to the level of the book's science or philosophical ideas. This is most apparent after the Big Idea comes out, when the book wraps up rather abruptly, with a muddied view of events, and without exploring some of the consequences of and challenges to the Big Idea. I feel like Watts' writing could use greater clarity- sometimes obscurity in writing is needed to help the reader discover ideas or to keep the aliens mysterious, but Watts over-uses obscuring language and writing from limited points of view, so that even things that have no literary purpose to be unclear can be so.

Still, I recommend it, particularly for fans of neuroscience and hard SF, as well as for folks who like first contact stories. This book blows the last first contact story I read, The Mote in God's Eye, out of the water. ( )
  jrissman | May 24, 2015 |
On the surface Blindsight by Peter Watts seems like your standard first contact science fiction story with just a weirder cast of characters, but there is nothing ordinary or formulaic about this book. I was completely blown away by how deftly Watts blends the science and philosophy together—really, the blurring of cognition and consciousness—into vivid storytelling. It was weird. It was profound. I'm still reeling.

I enjoy science fiction, but I've always been the kind of fan that was more into Star Trek or literary works casually inflected with science fiction, than deep forays into the genre. Blindsight is totally hard-core, and I almost gave up in the early chapters. Passages dense with terminology abound; the author even includes a wonderfully recondite 18-page appendix at the back of the book on the technical aspects covered. Yes, serious stuff. But I hope this won't turn people away. It's a common snub to think about stories built on a science-heavy framework as cold and inaccessible, that they are devoid of poetry and emotion and pageantry. But Blindsight has all these things. As Elizabeth Bear put it (Tor.com), "his work is rigorous, unsentimental, and full of the sort of brilliant little moments of synthesis that make a nerd’s brain light up like a pinball machine. But he’s also a poet—a damned fine writer on a sentence level, who can make you feel the blank Lovecraftian indifference of the sea floor or of interplanetary space with the same ease facility with which he can pen an absolutely breathtaking passage of description."

Blindsight is a book about the space vessel, Theseus, and her crew on a special mission: first contact. What sparks this mission was a visit in the 2080s, a day when thousands of satellites drifted into orbit over Earth and then disappeared. A kind of reckoning. No one knows what happened—but they took a photo of every inch of the planet. Something is out there, watching. Humans decide to make the first move.

Our viewpoint character is Siri Keaton who plays a kind of observer-documentarian on the mission. He is joined by four other super-engineered humans and their commander. The crew: Isaac Szpindel is the scientist whose neural circuitry enables him to plug directly into the ship and into other machines and computers, a kind of cybernetic being; Amanda Bates is the defense expert and military tactician, who is a hybrid of flesh and artificial parts, and also controls the drones; Susan James is the linguist-anthropologist-diplomat, an individual with a partitioned mind surgically created to allow for concurrent personalities, each with their own specialization; and Jukka Sarasti, the mission leader, smart, deadly, and not human—he's a vampire. (Steady now! Don't let this turn you off. He's not a vampire in the cape-wearing, gothic sense, nor is he the swooning YA-friendly rendered kind. Watts gives us Homo sapiens vampiris, a very real evolutionary divergence from standard humans. With a brain more advanced than even the most enhanced human, Sarasti makes cognitive leaps and recognizes patterns that give him a considerable edge. That's why he's in charge, so the thinking goes...)

When we first meet the crew, they are just waking up from a "cold sleep," a kind of vegetative state of hibernation needed for deep space travel. They were on track to do recon in one part of space to watch an object dubbed the Burns-Caulfield. But something unexpected happens. The ship is directed someplace even further out in space. They are revived nearly five years later than expected. They wake up to find themselves face-to-face with a massive stellar body ten times bigger than Jupiter. They dub the massive alien entity, "Rorschach," which turns out to be a kind of factory in space. It's building something using technical capabilities beyond anything humans have.

First the crew tries to communicate with it. The conversation that ensues...is strange, I won't say more. They get nowhere. Then the crew decides to send several exploratory missions. Really crazy, f*cked up things start to happen, and the mission turns delightfully Lovecraftian and creepy. There is something about the environment that affects the minds of each crew member, inducing hallucinations and visions that are very, very real; the aliens seem to be striking at the core of consciousness and reality. Then something appears—something they call "scramblers"—which are beings built like cephalopods that can perceive and react with precision. They nearly take out the crew in several confrontations. By chance, Theseus's crew is able to capture two scramblers to study and discover even more chilling things about this so-called alien intelligence. The desire to understand becomes their undoing.

The heart of the story lies with our narrator, Siri Keeton, and how the mission unfolds around him. Unlike the others, he isn't mission critical. He's a "jargonaut." His job is merely to be the best interpreter for his fellow crew of transhumans and to communicate what he observes to mission control back on Earth. It's a weird role, being the Official Watcher—feels mythic in a way—the line of communication to 'ordinary' humans like us. As a child he suffered from epilepsy and his parents elected for brain surgery; in a sense he only has half a brain since the other half is artificial circuity and implants. Ironically he's both a reliable and unreliable narrator—actualized. Siri lacks all the brain centers for processing empathy but can recognize subtle behavioral cues and psychological patterns. Through his eyes, Watts explores the fallacies of the nature of consciousness and intelligence.

The book can be thought of as having two halves: before-contact and after-contact. The before-contact part is loaded with conceptual posturing where Watts introduces his thought experiment and ideas. It can get a little heavy-handed here. To his credit, he does this well enough through the tension between characters and the raw nerves of knocking on the front door of the unknown. The after-contact part is where Watts lights the match under his dense philosophical constructions and sets it all ablaze. Concept becomes action-plot. There were some spots later in the book where characters have epiphanies that get turned into convenient climaxes for the intellectual arguments but it's so freighted with adrenaline that it doesn't make the narrative stutter too much. Essentially and predictably, the after-contact part is not so much about the crew finding out what Rorsharch actually is, though that is shocking and thrilling, too, but what it does to the crew and what they realize by studying it. It's a common but always exciting thematic device in space exploration sci-fi: aliens as the dark mirror we turn inward, a reflection that is more profound and more scary than anything we can find out there.

What was most profound about Blindsight, what will stay with me for a long time, is how thoroughly Watts calls into question the value of consciousness. That precious idea of sentience, self-control, free will is sketchy at best. The chilling realization is this: We exist only as an afterthought. As Siri's friend Pag puts it, "We're not thinking machines, we're feeling machines that happen to think." Think about moving a muscle and that muscle is already moving. Like Siri, we're observers, never agents. This terrifying epiphany comes when the crew discovers that even though the alien beings are beyond advanced, able to detect electromagnetic fluctuations in our brains and rewire them remotely, able to time their movements so that they hide in our saccades (new word I learned!), they are not conscious or self-aware. Superior intelligence does not need sentience. "I" is an evolutionary dead-end; it's our downfall.

That's the scientific epiphany, but there's also another, deeper one under the surface—and this is what separates Blindsight from other science fiction I've read. Niall Harrison puts it best:

"Siri is a demonstration of the book's ideas in action. By design, he calls into question our assumptions about how viewpoint characters work. Siri's ability to "synthesize" the behaviour of his crewmates, for instance, is a brilliant fictional sleight-of-hand to evoke their differences, while masking his own. But he can only take us so far; indeed, any story, however well-told, can only take us so far, because language itself is inefficient, a work-around. Siri makes a point of telling us that what he's telling us isn't really what happened—that his descriptions of the crew are only approximations, not least because in reality, the rest of the crew converse in a bricolage of half-a-dozen languages, using whatever words can best convey the concepts they need. Siri doesn't want to be unreliable, but he can't help it. And, as the book wears on, his privileged status as an unbiased observer is increasingly undermined. This shouldn't be a surprise: for a self-aware observer, any question about noninterference rapidly acquires a moral dimension. Peace of mind may be an illusion, but that doesn't make us want it any less.

"Such dilemmas have an air of inescapability about them, and the visceral relentlessness of Blindsight's story is a large part of its beauty. It is, as I said, a roller-coaster, and not just because it's the result of precision engineering. We trust Peter Watts in the same way that we trust a theme park designer, to carry us through to the end. Nor is the thrill of the ride lessened when we start to realise—largely as the result of a series of deft flashbacks—that we've been on this one before. Every day, in fact. Here's the secret: imagining we are Siri Keeton is easier than it at first seems, because we are like him. We live in the same world (deep down we know that the novel's universe is our own, because this is hard sf), and we ask the same questions (because that's the nature of human existence). It's just that Siri is better at finding the answers. So much better that by the end of Blindsight we're left feeling that Siri Keeton might be able to show us the truth of the world, just once, and make us understand, just for a moment—if only we could trust him as we trust his creator. If only we could trust ourselves."

Dark mirror, indeed.

(Interesting: Peter Watts has released Blindsight under a Creative Commons license, and you can read/download the e-book for free here.) ( )
1 vote gendeg | Jan 10, 2015 |
An excellent exploration of consciousness and what it means to be human, set in the context of alien contact. Depicts a wonderfully different and incomprehensible alien intelligence. Takes a look at augmented humans/cyborgs, AIs and fully virtualised humans. I kept thinking about the ideas in this book for weeks, e.g. how much does our consciousness really control - is it, perhaps, just like a butler for the subconscious? Runner up for a Hugo. A weird but still interesting idea (and necessary for the plot) is de-extinct vampires. ( )
  supremumlimit | Jan 6, 2015 |
This book suffered in my estimation because I read it in close proximity to Solaris, a book that is a vastly superior depiction of contact between humanity and an alien. That being said, Blindsight is a solid work of science fiction, and if I hadn't followed it up with what is perhaps the best depiction of otherness the genre has ever produced, I would have been impressed with how different and alien the aliens of Blindsight are. It only suffers slightly from too many ideas thrown in to one book syndrome, and only a few of the ways humans responded to the alien presence made no sense. In this genre, that puts you solidly above average.

In response to planet earth being photographed by aliens humanity responds by sending a warship. Why a warship? Who knows. Likewise it makes little sense why the people sent on this mission take the most aggressive course of action repeatedly against what they think is a technically superior species. I just chalk it up to that being what humans do in books like this.

In the crew that humanity sends no one is fully human. One has intentionally generated multiple personality disorder, one is a cyborg (am I remembering that right? It's been a few months), one has been augmented to control robots like they are part of her own body, and one is a hyper intelligent vampire. The narrator has the ability to analyze things objectively without feeling emotion due to childhood brain surgery. So like I said, there are a whole lot of ideas bouncing around here at the same time. It would have been nice to have at least one fully human character in the narrative to see how your average human would respond to the situations that occur, but Blindsight seemingly eschews the idea of science fiction as a way to explore the human condition in favor of cramming in lots of ideas about transhumanism.

There are some cool ideas here, like the one about how all the signals humanity sends out into the universe could be interpreted as an attack by aliens that think and behave differently from ourselves, but this book didn't feel like a complete work. Things happen, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes just because, and then it ends. Like I said, it's solid. Read Solaris, then read a bunch more Lem, then wait a couple of months, then if you still want more stories of alien contact then maybe give Blindsight a try. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
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Watts, PeterAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pringle, ThomasCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shimada, YoichiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Try to touch the past. Try to deal with the past. It's not real. It's just a dream.
- Ted Bundy
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Sentient contact?

Conscious thought avails you not

Scramblers are coming


Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0765319640, Paperback)

The Hugo Award–nominated novel by “a hard science fiction writer through and through and one of the very best alive.” The Globe and Mail
Two months have past since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since—until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who should we send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn’t want to meet?
Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can’t feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find—but you’d give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them. . . .

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:37 -0400)

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It's been two months since a myriad of alien objects clenched around the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since. That is until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet.

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