Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Blindsight, by Peter Watts

One-line summary: Earth sends a crew of freaks and monsters to make first contact with an unknown alien race.


Goodreads: Average: 3.89. Mode: 4 stars (40%)
Amazon: Average: 4.0. Mode: 5 stars (52%)

Two months since the stars fell. Two months since sixty-five thousand alien objects clenched around Earth, screaming to the heavens as the atmosphere burned them to ash. Two months since that moment of brief, bright surveillance by agents unknown. Two months of silence while a world holds its breath.

Now some half-derelict space probe hears a whisper from the edge of the solar system: a faint signal sweeping the cosmos like a lighthouse beam. Whatever's out there isn't talking to us. It's talking to some distant star, perhaps. Or perhaps to something closer.

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. . . .

This is a terribly underrated book. As described on the author's website:

Watts' latest book, Blindsight (Tor 2006) might be best described as a literary first-contact novel exploring the nature and evolutionary significance of consciousness, with space vampires. Astonishingly, and against all expectations, it did not tank. In fact it survived rejection from half a dozen publishers, a minuscule initial print run, zero preorders from one of the continent's largest book retail chains, an absence of relevant blurbs on an otherwise questionable cover design, and a suicidal Hail-Mary act of desperation in which its author gave the whole thing away for free online under a Creative Commons license. As of this writing Blindsight is in its fourth hardcover printing, is being translated into several languages (including— at long last— German and Russian), and made the final ballot for the Hugo, John W. Campbell, Sunburst, Locus, and Aurora awards, winning exactly zero of them.

I'd say the literary prose style and the complexity of the ideas swirling through this novel might explain why it's relatively obscure, while crap like Out of the Dark gets bookstore tablespace and plentiful blog reviews. If you want to feature vampires in your sci-fi, Peter Watts could take David Weber to school.

Vampires in Blindsight are paleolithic predators who went extinct when the predator-prey ratio could no longer sustain them. (And there's a brilliant explanation for their aversion to crosses which I've never seen before.) Then, in the late 20th century, human geneticists resurrected them because they're also super-genius pattern-matching machines. So when sixty-five thousand alien "probes" blanket the Earth, and Earth sends a manned deep space vessel to investigate their origin, they put a vampire in charge.

You only meet one vampire in this book, but he's scary enough to make you wonder what the hell those geneticists were thinking. And he's not the scariest thing you'll encounter.

Blindsight is packed with ideas in every paragraph -- from geeky in-jokes to disturbing conundrums concerning the nature of consciousness and sentience. This is a hard sci-fi novel with references to linguistics, neuroscience, anthropology, climatology, astrophysics, and a dozen other disciplines. It practically requires a reread because you're likely to miss a lot the first time through. It reminded me of a slightly less wanky Charles Stross, a darker Alastair Reynolds, a tighter, less meandering Neal Stephenson.

The tone, however, reminded me of Event Horizon (which was not a great film, but did succeed in being deliciously creepy).

The story is great (though not always easy to follow), bouncing along at a fast pace from one twist to the next. While Watts's writing style may not be to everyone's taste (he shifts POV and verb tense in ways that I usually find annoying), I found that it stopped just short of being schizophrenic, and went well with the borderline-schizophrenic characters.

Besides the general darkness in tone, my other caution about this book would be that there aren't any real likeable or sympathetic characters. There's not a lot of heroism, character development, or warm interpersonal dialog. One reviewer described Blindsight as "Alien if Ripley had Asperger's."

What the negative reviewers say

"Too nerdy. Too confusing. Too strange. I didn't get it." And my favorite one-star review:

This book is horrible. Do not read this unless you are a complete loser younger than 15. This guy is WAY to into style over substance, which can be OK. If you have style, which he does not. He thinks half thought references to things he remembers from highschool are enough to get him through until the end.

I have only twice in my life ever made it too within 100 pages of the end of a book and not finished, because I believe in finishing what you start, but that cannot be done with this book, without a single character you even would care to read a magazine article about. They are creepy. the whole book feels like reading the inner working of child molesters, and their hunt for children. But at least that book would have some sort of quasi-public function, this book is just trash, and I doubt the sanity of Peter Watts, I get the impression that if he lived on my block he would be the guy you don't let your kids go near his house.


Verdict: While it's not that long, this is not a light read, nor a light-hearted one. However, if hard sci-fi with vampires sounds appealing, I urge you to check it out. Blindsight is a slightly weird book, but a rewarding one if you like your science fiction equal parts creepy and geeky.
Tags: books, highly recommended, reviews, science fiction, vampires don't sparkle!

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