Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review - Blindsight by Peter Watts

Voted #4 Sci-fi/Fantasy Book of the Decade by, Blindsight is an imaginative and thought-provoking book.  Peter Watts has invented possibly the most alien race I've ever read.  He also engages the reader in a thorough, yet agnostic philosophical discussion on what it means to be human.  What does it mean to be intelligent?  What does it mean to be self-aware?

The story is told by Siri Keaton, a man with half a brain.  As such, the first 50 pages or so read like the "Benjy" section (or perhaps more correctly--the "Quentin" section) of Faulkner's Sound and the Fury.  If you find yourself getting confused, just keep pushing ahead in the book, and it'll start to make sense around page 50.

Around 2100, a crew of five (plus four backups) are sent to investigate a possible First Contact situation in the Oort Cloud.  #1) Siri is the observer.  #2) Susan James is the linguist, who has partitioned her brain into four distinct personalities--the future of multiple person disorders.  #3) Isaac Szpindel is somewhat of a cyborg, having upgraded parts of his body with mechanical enhancements.  #4) Amanda Bates is a military chick who knows how to control floating robot grunt things.  #5) Jukka Sarasti is a vampire.  Yes--you read that right.  He's a resurrected remnant of the now extinct species homo sapiens vampiris.  (Note--I can't seem to find any links to anything explaining this species that doesn't also refer to the book.)  Sarasti is in command of the expedition.

The whole encounter in the Oort Cloud is amazing--I won't say what happens except to say I could believe this is how a First Contact situation with such a race might transpire.  The science is mostly accurate.  Peter Watts definitely did his research.  He doesn't dumb anything down (which could be good or bad).  For example, he mentions the "Turing Test" but never explains what it is.  So, throughout the book, you may either find yourself saying, "What the heck is that?" or you may pat yourself on the back for each term you already know.

Sometimes it's refreshing to see an agnostic discussion of what it means to be human/intelligent/self-aware; but ultimately, I don't think one can fully explore the subject while ignoring religion.  Watts' conclusions are pessimistic--that we humans are a very inefficient race.  I think that a hundred years from now we will prove him wrong.

I would rate this book 9 out of 10 stars.  There are a few annoying distractions that keep it from the full 10.  Though it's an interesting, believable story, it still feels highly concocted to prove Watts' points.  Sometimes it feels as if the characters have no choice but to follow along (funny, though, how this fits in with his "free will" discussions).

The name "Bates" is so similar to name "James," it confused me until I realized they were two different names.  Orson Scott Card has some tips on how to avoid this.

In a couple of sections, we see things from the POV of inanimate probes so far removed from Siri, it's unclear how they could be included in the story.  It only happens near the beginning of the book, and is never explained or reused later.

The many f-bombs don't seem to fit such an intelligent book.  The word itself is an overused cliche that should only be used correctly.  Unfortunately, everyone in the book uses it, including Siri's ever-so-romantic love interest Chelsea; and even the aliens!  Very distracting.

Even with these flaws, I found the book to be an engaging read.  I recommend it to anyone who loves sci-fi; one who's looking to learn new ideas; and one who doesn't mind the barrage of f-bombs.  This is one book that will be remembered for a long time.

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