Consciousness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in Blindsight

Blindsight book coverBlindsight: the ability of the cortically blind to respond to stimuli they cannot (consciously) ‘see’.

Also: a Hugo-nominated hard SF novel by Peter Watts, which asks us what makes us human and whether – in the face of demonstrably more viable alternatives – it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

This post is much-delayed (I finished Blindsight back in November for #RRScifiMonth), mostly because I was so determined to write all the things that Blindsight made me think and feel. Needless to say, the subsequent delay means I can’t remember most of them so I’ll have to settle for a cursory ramble instead.

I read Blindsight some years ago, but went into this re-read remembering nothing except a comedy fragment of concept: the cast includes a resurrected vampire, who doses up on antiEuclideans because he’s allergic to right angles (think about it). That’s my sort of idea right there: both the notion that vampire legends are an echo of Ice Age racial memory, and the suggestion that they died out when we started building windows (got it? Right). Resurrected Jurassic Park style by some clever scientists, these supreme predators stalk through Earth’s cities making the wildlife (that’s us, by the way) a bit nervous. Just don’t look them in the eye.

Or make them captain of a first contact mission to the asteroid belt. Let alone the outer reaches of the solar system. It’s going to end badly, and you know it. But apparently one of the vampires’ strengths (other than the long life, superhuman strength, amazing reflexes and so on) is an entirely different perception of the world. They can think in additional dimensions or something. I’ll be honest – hard SF isn’t my thing, and when I stop being able to tell if it’s science or pseudo, I basically tune out and just go with it so I can’t really recall the detail. Anyway – this mental agility makes them perfect for solving difficult problems and making tough decisions.

In Blindsight‘s near-future, unmodified humanity is last century, darling. Our narrator has been half-lobotomised to cure his epilepsy; the biologist experiences his lab results through synaesthesia; the enforcer is mentally connected to her drone forces; and the linguist has induced multiple personalities. Plus they’ve all had a few vampire genes inserted to help them hibernate.

Back on earth, many live permanently in fully-immersive environments (‘Heaven’), and only a few freaks still cling to old-fashioned relationships and physical intercourse (reproduction is presumably mostly in a test tube). Like the post-scarcity economy, most of this is hand-waved world-building in brief flashbacks; we find out about ‘Heaven’ because our narrator’s mother is uploaded on the eve of the (rather uncommunicative) first contact event.

The relevance is our narrator’s tangled lack of emotional response to his mother’s departure. With empathy a primary casualty of losing half his brain, he has taught himself to rapidly process social cues to identify the appropriate response to any given situation. It doesn’t always work out, but it qualifies him for translating the responses of 3 post-human specialists and a vampire in space. If only the mission hadn’t been redirected beyond Pluto, cutting off any hope of communication with their back-up, he’d actually be a useful member of the crew.

Instead, he’s a classic unreliable narrator. And he’s called Siri. Since I first read Blindsight, Apple have changed the context for any protagonist called Siri, not least one who tries to infer what you meant by what you just said. Unintended comedy for the win.

The first half of the novel throws ideas at you thick and fast – and then the crew are sent into the heart of a sort-of-sentient asteroid. Even before the team realise what they’re up against, the narrative works very hard to sow distrust. It’s notable that Siri doesn’t recognise how unreliable his methods are; his protocols have always sufficed in the past. When he is exposed to the perception-altering magnetic effects inside the creatureasteroid, he can only try to piece some truth together from the beliefs he clings to.

What follows is an extended philosophical exploration of perception, consciousness and humanity. It’s challenging, and difficult, and unlikeable in numerous ways; it features much harder science than I’m equipped to deal with; it hinges around crucial questions of identity and purpose and rejects more or less everything I feel passionate about; and, and, and – and at the end of it all I’m left (for a second time) not entirely sure what to do with it.

This is not the flailing distaste I experienced reading Behemoth (the third in Watts’s Rifter trilogy). It’s far more intellectual for a start, rather than a squalling rant about unnecessary violence against women. One reason this review has taken so long to write (or arguably not to write) is that it would be easy to write about Blindsight from several different angles or to knock out angry, impassioned, finger-pointy essays – all of which goes to suggest this is terribly good science fiction. It takes science and psychology and pushes (and then pushes a bit more) to ask and answer big questions. And then it doesn’t give you answers you expect or appreciate. It made me think, and made me want to debate. All of which sounds like I should be giving it a glowing review and a high star rating.

However, I found it emotionally dissatisfying and at times downright confusing. And as ever with Watts’s work, there are places where I couldn’t tell if certain behaviours were displayed to make the point they are inhuman/unacceptable, or because his view of humanity is so awfully bleak. I found it hard work, and there’s even a hint of a story going on off-page that might have been further up my street (because Watts had thought through the consequences of some of that hand-wavey world-building after all). Thankfully, he went and wrote about that in Echopraxia, which I will read in due course.

Ultimately, however much I appreciated Blindsight, I didn’t really enjoy it all that much (in part because Difficult Stuff was going in my life, making A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet far closer to what I needed to be reading). So just the 3 stars. For now. But I can tell I’ll have to revisit it again at some point to deal with all those impassioned rants still clogging up my system. Or admit that consciousness impedes response, and just get on with living.