Saturday, August 16, 2008

Blindsight - Peter Watts

At the dawn of humanity there was a human sub-species which liked to feed off us. A supreme predator, 100 IQ points smarter than us, we drove it to extinction at the onset of agriculture. In the high-tech world of the near tomorrow, there is competitive advantage in using such beings in certain ... leadership roles. And so with paleogenetic engineering, we brought them back. Meanwhile, the AIs have transcended the singularity, baseline humanity is basically useless and those few humans who still have a role are very ... different.

The aliens announced their presence with two to the sixteen kinetic missiles which entered the atmosphere on a global grid. No-one was hurt, but the flashbulb was ideal for imaging. The AI-ship Theseus is sent to make first contact. Its crew are altered and its captain a certain top-predator.

There is a style of SF writing deriving from pulp detective novels: laconic, dry, matter-of-fact, jokey. Think Richard Morgan or Greg Egan. Peter Watts does dialogue well and he’s pretty good at high-tech descriptive writing too. Only occasionally was I conscious that I had not got a good picture of a ship scene, or the relative position of Theseus and the alien artefact.

Plot development was also not bad. Contact novels have a problem of tempo: by definition the reader starts -with team-human - in knowing essentially nothing about alien morphology, motivations, capabilities, technologies, intentions. Inevitably, increase in knowledge takes time and the interest-level can sag. Blindsight is not immune from this effect, but there is always enough going on to encourage the reader to persist in the middle section of the book.

Watts is both incredibly smart and well-educated. He weaves a lot of advanced concepts into the plot: advanced propulsion technologies, artificial intelligence, nanotech, genetic engineering, neuroscience and consciousness studies. Without introducing plot spoilers, the crux of the novel is centred around the nature and rationale of consciousness itself. Watts has managed to find another, orthogonal dimension of alien difference.

Blindsight does not avoid the traditional problems of concept-heavy SF. Towards the end, there are chunks of the novel which are indistinguishable from an article in New Scientist magazine. But Watts manages to keep the story on the rails and delivers a suitably bleak conclusion.

It is possible to imagine a further final polishing of this novel which integrated expository material more organically into plot development and produced a more compelling account of the final redemption of the main protagonist, Siri Keeton.

I read the whole thing in a few intense hours. I really think, though, that this is a novel it’s essential to read twice. It’s rare and rewarding to encounter something which has passion and humour behind it, which radiates intelligence and which is happy to assume the reader is educated and smart too. More, please, Mr Watts.