BLINDSIGHT – Peter Watts (2006)
Blindsight is a contemporary classic of Hard SF. I’ve known about the book for years, but I was put off by the fact that it features a vampire – supposedly they did exist, as a kind of side branch of human evolution, and were resurrected using gene technology. I thought that to be very gimmicky. I also got the impression Watts likes to show off all the scientific papers he’s read, adding to an overall braggy vibe that didn’t appeal to me.
I did give The Freeze-Frame Revolution a shot though, a 2018 novella by Watts – review here. Turns out I liked that a lot, so I decided to take on Blindsight.
While it is not without problems, I enjoyed reading it a lot. Watts wrote a page turner about first contact. His ideas are often wild and especially the first two thirds of the novel are among the best the genre has to offer – if you don’t expect your reading to spoon feed you that is. Easy breezy reading it is not.
This book is mainly about the human brain, and Watts is a clear advocate of neurobiological determinism – how can one not be, looking at all the evidence? It’s also about the nature of intelligence: does that need consciousness or not? The other big thematic angle is information processing.
It’s interesting to see that lots of the ideas he drew from have become a bit more known a decade later – I didn’t learn a lot of new things, but it was nice to see so much tidbits about our nature crammed into a novel. Intellectually, Watts is a kindred spirit to R. Scott Bakker, who writes fantasy and – more importantly – highbrow brain philosophy on his challenging blog.
My main issue with Blindsight is that it’s not as clever as it makes us readers believe. For one, the protagonist is just another version of the autistic savant, and one that claims he can do things that I think are bullshit, future or not. Sure, understanding systems just by looking at their surface output will work in some cases, but as a general guideline I would not put my money on it. And while there’s lots of talk about said principle, in the end Siri Keeton doesn’t do much more than read body language, and that’s a bit of a disappointment after all the build up. Another crucial part of the plot – roughly speaking: human language being perceived as a dangerous virus because we tend to contradict each other and ourselves – doesn’t ring true either, as a super-quantum-intelligence should be able to tackle seemingly paradoxical systems. But I’m nitpicking: also the final third of the book is still a good read. It’s just that the beginning creates expectations Watts can’t uphold.
What about that vampire? A gimmick, yes, I stand by that even after reading the novel, but a gimmick that doesn’t really hinder the suspension of disbelief all that much. Still, he remains a visible construct, so I would have ditched him. Jukka Sarasti could have easily been written as a regular human with some cybernetic tweaks. Then again, I guess there’s lots of readers that gobble up similar stuff – he’s kinda mildly, satirically fun – so commercially speaking it probably was a good idea.
Blindsight deserves its status as a classic. I’ll read more of Peter Watts, including the ‘lateral’ sequel to this one, Echopraxia.
Peter Watts made Blindsight entirely available for free in various electronic formats on his own website. There’s also 50 pages of scientific notes to the story – the expanded version of the 17 pages included at the end of the print version. Dive in right here: https://rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm.
H IS FOR HAWK – Helen Macdonald (2014)
This book won both the Costa Book Of The Year and the Samuel Johnson Prize. That latter award is given to non-fiction books, and indeed, this is technically non-fiction, albeit with a literary bent. It is of interest to the fantasy fan however, as it contains significant chunks of biography on Terence H. White, acclaimed author of the Arthurian novels collected as The Once And Future King.
H Is For Hawk chronicles Macdonald herself, who, after the death of her father, tries to overcome her grief by training a wild goshawk. As T.H. White also was something of a falconer, Macdonald juxtaposes her story with that of White, who also wrote on the subject in 1951’s The Goshawk.
Apparently White was a homosexual and a sadist – not really a merry combination back in the days. He shares some similarities with an equally tormented Wittgenstein, who was 17 years older: both were failed school teachers, both were gay, and both had a penchant for recluse in nature.
But I digress. While White’s story is important for Macdonald’s, it’s not the main course – White takes up about one fourth or fifth of the page count. The rest of the book is mainly devoted to the story of Macdonald and Mabel, her goshawk. But Macdonald being a naturalist, scholar and historian, and her tendency to embed her own experiences in traditions, what we get is a hybrid of nature writing, memoir, biography and the history of falconry. She has done her research thoroughly – even into the archives that hold the stuffed hawk of Göring.
Her prose is stunning at times, and again – like Blindsight – especially the first part of the book really shines. It works very well as an account of grief, and as a poetic description of certain landscapes and their inhabitants. Falconry is also simply – somehow unexpected maybe – an interesting subject, with lots of ins and outs so to say. This is not regular – boring, dry – non-fiction at all, and it should appeal to a broad spectrum of readers.
It is not a masterpiece however. After the first free flight of Mabel, a bit of a drag sets in, as the narrative arc of this book is pretty predictable from the onset: grief, educate hawk, educated hawk, grief overcome, more or less. It stays interesting though, there are enough tidbits of information and anecdotes remaining, but the tension dwindles a bit.
But maybe the main critique I have on this book is that all things considered it’s a variant of the noble savage trope. The goshawk as the Strange, Wild Other, unspoiled by consciousness, grief, society. It is no coincidence Mabel is very much like a child to Macdonald: like the savage, also the child was a Romantic ideal, pure and free, innocent.
While I understand Macdonald’s emotional need for some kind of bond with the animal, there is a level of sanctification I’m a bit uncomfortable with. Not that it’s bad writing, not at all, it’s just that I experienced a subtly growing dislike for that aspect of Macdonald’s character as the story progressed.
On the other hand, maybe I cannot hold that noble savage stuff against her. Nature – and death – is very much a cruel, sublime, wild mystery to behold indeed, and as such the goshawk aptly serves as a pars pro toto.
Suffice to say both books are recommended, caveats aside – ymmv.
I really like that you liked Blindsight, as it is one of my all time favorites. I would, actually, not recommend Echopraxia. I feel like Watts takes it too far with sounding smart and he starts to overuse the vampires. Instead, I would recommend his earlier novel Starfish. Starfish also, like Blindsight and the Freeze-Frame revolution, is about an isolated crew of neurologically atypical people confronted by something alien in a very challenging environment. It is possibly even more tension-filled. It’s probably free online as well.
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Yeah, I’m glad I liked it too, I was up for a shot of successful hard SF.
Good tip on Starfish, I was wondering about that but couldn’t find any reviews that pulled me one way or the other. I gathered from other reviews Echopraxia to have the problems you list, but thought it might still be decent enough, and I’m still curious what the aliens will do next.
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