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Blindsight by Peter Watts

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

A number of readers have commented that the characters in this novel are bland and uninteresting, but that you keep reading it because the ideas are so fascinating that you have to find out where the author's gong to go with them. Thus I initially thought that Watts was writing in the tradition of John W. Campbell. Think the style used in the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, who often derided the "little tin god of characterization" as actually detracting from the most essential element that separated science fiction from all other forms of literature -- the ideas. The only really memorable character in the whole trilogy is the Mule, but the concept of the possibility of a scientific method of foreseeing the future by statistical analysis is so gripping that we don't care that all the other characters sort of blur into one another.

However, having read the book, I don't think that Watts is consciously trying to imitate the tradition of science fiction's Golden Age, sparely written with characters who often are little more than mechanisms by which the author explicates the concepts. Far from it, I think he's trying for a very literary style with an unreliable narrator, or at least trying to capture the sense of a narrator whose consciousness is very different from our own.

For this is a novel about the nature of consciousness. Siri Keeton is a man with half a brain. When he was a child, he had one entire hemisphere of his cerebrum removed in order to cure him of seizures that could not be treated by drugs, seizures that were rapidly destroying his health and even his very life. As a result, he had to consciously rebuild his mind, relearning all the various social responses that most children learn by osmosis. Where most people feel intuitively he has to observe and develop heuristics by which to deal with other human beings.

It's not an easy task -- our very first encounter with him is on a playground, as he observes a group of bullies picking on one of his friends and tries to determine the appropriate course of action. When he does finally act, attacking with such unbridled ferocity that he completely overwhelms several boys bigger and stronger than himself (and presumably with better-developed fighting skills), it leaves authority figures at a loss as how to deal with the situation.

Fast forward to adulthood. Siri's painstaking rebuilding of himself has made him a superb Synthesist, a specialist in amassing and sorting through enormous amounts of data, observing peoples' actions and reactions for subtle clues to what's going on inside their heads, what's going on at the unspoken levels of social interaction. As a result, he is chosen for one of the most daring missions of all time.

One unremarkable day, a strange pattern of lights appeared in the sky, a grid far too regular to be a random fall of meteors. Shortly thereafter, a mysterious object is detected in the outer fringes of the solar system, a gigantic body just a little too small to ignite hydrogen fusion. An object that may be the source of the visitation that has come to be known as the Fireflies.

Since the concept of technological aliens first came up, thought on the subject was divided into two camps -- those who assumed that intelligence would necessarily mean aggression and aliens would automatically be a threat, and those who held out the hope that any society sufficiently technologically advanced to travel between the stars would have to have already mastered their aggressive instincts just to survive the destructive power inherent in any force that could propel a vessel across such vast distances. However, all of them simply presupposed that any technological race would be sapient -- not merely intelligent, but self-aware, able to contemplate its own consciousness.

When the crew of the Theseus first approaches the artifact that calls itself Rorschach and opens lines of communication, they assume that the alien entity's ability to respond to their hails with grammatical English transmissions indicates the high level of intelligence possessed by the aliens. Obviously they have been observing humanity's radio communications for some time and have learned from them. However, as the exchanges continue, linguist Susan James begins to detect troubling indications that although the alien entity clearly is able to follow complex rules in forming statements, it seems to lack some essential quality we would normally expect from another intelligent being.

Worse, it seems to regard communication less of a means of reaching concord than a form of combat, even naked aggression. It is as if Rorschach cannot distinguish between a friendly hello and a fist. It seems particularly offended by Susan James, the linguist who has been sent to facilitate communication, and makes threats specifically naming her as their target.

After several failed attempts to send robot drones to investigate, the crew of the Theseus enters the hellish internal environment of the alien artifact in search of its masters. Although the intense radiation that fills the artifact causes enormous levels of cellular damage, the medical technology Theseus has brought with it is just sufficient to repair it, so long as the brain is not damaged. The first few forays into this hostile environment prove unsuccessful, but finally they are able to kill one of the aliens and bring its body back to be examined by the biologist.

Except the creature they find cannot possibly be an intelligent alien. Resembling a starfish, it has a distributed nervous system with no central brain in which to process and correlate data. Worse, instead of anything comparable to vertebrate eyes, it has a system of eyespots scattered all over its body. The sheer amount of processing power necessary to integrate the data coming in from all those eyespots would leave no room for anything else in the relatively simple nervous system. The crew of the Theseus then draw the conclusion that these creatures, which they call Scramblers, are not the organizing intelligence of Rorschach, but rather on the order of organic robots, "waldos with hands" as one of the characters puts it.

Once they have learned all they can by dissecting the dead Scrambler, they return to the alien vessel to capture two live Scramblers in an effort to force them (or their actual masters) to communicate. This is a painstaking procedure which involves imprisoning the Scramblers in cages in which they can see and hear one another, but cannot touch, then tormenting one of them while the other is given a series of problems to solve. At first it appears that the two aliens are not communicating at all, but in time it is discovered that they do in fact communicate, but in a system of clicks that resists all efforts to decode it.

Bit by bit the evidence accumulates that our assumptions about the nature of alien intelligence has been wrong, and that consciousness as we generally understand it may not necessarily be essential to a tool-using intelligence, even one with a high level of technology. In fact, consciousness may actually be a liability, as it requires a tremendous amount of neurological overhead to support it. After all, it is so demanding that the human brain reserves it only for top-level executive functions, while routine processes like walking are handled by more primitive parts of the brain, such that one can drive for hundreds of miles with little or no awareness of the actual process of handling the controls, so long as everything remains routine.

The idea that our very sense of self as an entity distinct from our environment and our awareness of it is a fluke of nature, even possibly a mistake, is a very chilling one for the average American reader. Yet many philosophers throughout human history have questioned the value of self and conscious awareness. Many forms of Buddhism seek to extinguish the self as the seat of attachment and suffering and thus to attain Nirvana. And even Christianity, that bastion of the the individual's relationship to God and thus eternal life, has its own doubts about the value of the self, and some denominations frequently speak of "dying to self" as a necessary step on the road to salvation.

Review posted December 14, 2009.

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