Blindsight

Blindsight, Peter Watts, 2006

Lrrr from Futurama
This concept of Earth “wuv” confuses and infuriates us!

This is the first hard SF book I’ve read in a while, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. A lot of the ideas were familiar from my previous SF and non-fiction reading, but they were put together in a very coherent story with a strong narrative and a minumim of tedious exposition. Watts takes few central ideas and builds plot, character, and setting out from them, so the tone of the first-person narrator matches the tone of the story itself and the themes of the book: rational, cold, dark, no warm fuzzy feelings. There is no warm fuzziness of any kind in this story.

General plot: A ship with a small crew is sent to make first contact with an alien something that’s camped out past the Kuiper belt and has sent probes to scan Earth. The crew is composed of five humans, but this being 2082 humans aren’t so human anymore. What with the genetically engineered vampire, the linguist with her brain partitioned into multiple personalities, and the tactical and science specialists with their nervous systems hooked up to machines, the humaniest human on board is the half-brained narrator who’s had his social skills and empathy surgically removed.

Well, he’s physically the most human, but mentally the least human. Which is pretty much the theme of the book: If you can chop off and change parts of a body, replace them with something more perceptive, intelligent, and efficient, and still have “you” inside there looking out, then would you be even more competent if you cut out the part that’s “you”?

Familiar sci-fi themes:
1. First contact, when the creepy aliens do something creepy and alien that freaks out humanity as a whole.
2. Traveling in a cool spaceship to a weird alien place, lots of entertaining (and well-researched, judging from the bibliography) science-babble as characters explore the place. It’s so creepy and alien!
3. Attempting to understand unknowable aliens. Those aliens sure are different from us humans. And yet, in understanding them, can we not better understand ourselves?
4. The characters are bioengineered humans augmented to be smarter, more perceptive, and more efficient. Those humans sure are different from us humans. And yet, in reading about them, can I not better understand myself?
5. In order to survive/adapt/compete, human civilization must transfigure/destroy itself. Being human just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

New (to me) sci-fi ideas:
1. Genetically engineered vampires! Homo sapiens whedonum. Ha!
2. “Technology implies belligerence”. One of the Watts’s themes is that all technology is an attempt to change the natural state of things, so cultures evolve technology to the level they need to survive, and then a culture that’s developed in a harsher environment comes along and destroys them with more highly evolved machinery and/or bodies. Guns, Germs, and Steel, but with post-humans, AI, and aliens.
3. Sentience is not an adaptive trait. Losing our humanity through augmentation, genetic engineering, or uploading ourselves into virtual reality is not enough. To compete on an interstellar level we need to lose consciousness itself. All this navel-gazing self-awareness is just slowing us down.

I liked the narrator. I imagine that many of the geeks in the book’s intended audience can identify with not really “getting” human interaction, and needing to get by socially on a lot of observation and learned behavior. I’m only slightly socially impaired (I like to think), but a lot of it was familiar to me, especially the funny and sad scenes of the narrator trying to manage his relationship with his irrational sentimental girlfriend. And I liked the fact that the narrator trying to constantly figure everything out from observation both underscored the rationalist theme of the book and gave the author an excuse to explain things in first person that might have otherwise been cryptic or explained in exposition.

Now that I think about it, this book is antisocial geek propaganda. You know, in the future, when humans must compete on an insterstellar level, all that shmoopy social interaction is going to be useless, so we might as well start atrophying it now.

Note: if you want to read the opposite of this story, read Up the Walls of the World

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