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Literature: Blindsight
How do you say "We come in peace" when the very words are an act of war?

Blindsight is a hard sci-fi novel by Canadian author Peter Watts. It's a dark and cerebral First Contact story that deals heavily with issues of sentience and what it means to be an "intelligent" species. Despite being nominated for a Hugo Award for "Best Novel", the novel is hard to find in stores (owing to troubles with the publisher). Watts, deciding he'd rather have the book be easily available for anyone to read, put the whole thing up on his website for free.

Set in the near future, the story begins soon after an event known as the Firefall has stunned the world and unequivocally demonstrated that we are not alone in the universe. Tens of thousands of alien probes enter the Earth's atmosphere in a perfect grid, scanning the entire planet across the EM spectrum as they burn up. A powerful radio signal is generated, aimed toward somewhere outside the solar system. Scientists track the signal to what appears to be an alien vessel in the far reaches of the solar system. In need of answers that simple unmanned probes can't provide, a ship called the Theseus is built, packed with as much cutting-edge technology as its creators can muster, for the purpose of carrying a manned expedition of exploration and First Contact.

A crew full of odd and eccentric specialists are aboard: a linguist with surgically-induced multiple personalities, a biologist who has given up some of his neural pathways for senses and perception far beyond what a baseline human can experience, and a top-brass soldier whose career-defining moment was an act of treason. The narrator, a information analyst with half his brain removed, is sent to observe these transhumans and translate for the benefit of their earthly masters. They are all lead by a vampire; a genius, sociopath, and cannibal, who nevertheless is the only one coldly-logical enough to run the mission.

Depressing and pessimistic, yet enlightening, the story explores a variety of topics relating to consciousness, information theory, and neurology, and has received highly positive critical acclaim despite its semi-obscurity. A forthcoming sequel, Echopraxia (set to be released in August 2014), takes place during the same time period but is set on Earth.

This book features the following tropes (Warning: spoilers below):

  • Action Girl: Amanda Bates, the awakened military portion of the crew.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Averted by the Theseus A.I. It turns out that it really was the Captain all along, and Sarasti was just a puppet.
    • Discussed by Szpindel and Siri, regarding the combat drones Bates commands, and again averted - the drones actually operate more efficiently when they're allowed to run autonomously.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: Intentionally used in-universe in a dialog with the aliens to see if they really understand or are just using sophisticated translation algorithms to parse the syntax.
  • Antimatter: Theseus is powered by an anti-matter engine. This becomes important later when its used as a bomb in Jukka's final Taking You with Me action against Rorschach.
  • All There in the Manual: The back of the book has a "Notes and References" section that fleshes out some of the more radical ideas in the novel. Watts's website also provides supplementary information, including a fictional in-universe audio log and powerpoint presentation of a scientist presenting his findings on the vampire sub-species to his "FizerPharm" investors.
  • Anyone Can Die: Considering Watts' past work, and since the novel is very dark and pessimistic, this is a given. Almost everyone does die, including an implication that humanity back on Earth is doomed as well.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 3. Siri suggests that by the time he returns to Earth, the vampires would have exterminated humanity and taken their places as rightful owners of the world.
  • Attack Drone: Commanded by Bates, who insists on personally inspecting every newly-fabricated drone.
  • Arc Words: "Imagine you are Siri Keeton." Repeated in a similar fashion, each asking the reader to imagine they are someone (or something) different, culminating near the end of the novel, where the reader is asked to imagine they are one of the non-sentient aliens.
  • Being Human Sucks: In the world of Blindight, baseline humans are obsolete. Some go Transhuman to keep their edge, but even the engineered superhumans can't compete with the newly-resurrected vampires. And not only that, but humans were defective to begin with - self-awareness is holding us back.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: One of the book's twists is the discovery by the human explorers that humanity is pretty much the only race out there with a concept of self, reason and such things as art... which the aliens see as an abomination of infection and have decided to eliminate humanity because it hurts them.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The aliens, as it turns out, don't just think in a way incomprehensible to humans - they're not even self-aware. Morality is a concept that is most likely impossible for them to parse.
    • Jukka Sarasti and the rest of the resurrected vampires. Sociopathic cannibals operate on a rather different wavelength than the rest of us.
  • Came Back Wrong: In order to cure his epilepsy and save his life, Siri's parents agreed to have a radical hemispherectomy performed on their son, literally cutting out half his brain. The kid that came out on the other side is demonstrably not the same - emotionless, without natural empathy. Siri thinks back to what his life was like, pre-op, and the memories feel like they belong to someone else.
  • Cannon Fodder: When the crew has no other option but to go explore Rorschach in person, Siri has no illusions about his role in the enterprise.
    Three valuable agents in harm's way. My presence bought one in four odds the enemy would aim somewhere else.
  • The Captain: Jukka Sarasti, the vampire. It's later revealed that the ship itself, the Theseus, is artificially intelligent and was the real captain the whole time.
  • Character Tics: Jukka clicks his sharpened teeth together. Cunningham is noted as frequently smoking.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: In the "imagine you are" segment that reveals the backstory of Major Bates, a few men that can be assumed to be intelligence agents of some kind engage in a bit of this on a few captured Realists. Bates does not approve, and decides to give the surviving terrorist a bit of payback as a gesture of good faith.
    • When the crew finally capture a pair of Scramblers:
      "This is how you communicate with a fellow intelligence: you hurt it, and keep on hurting it, until you can distinguish the speech from the screams."
  • Cool Starship: Theseus. Hyperintelligent AI? Check. Antimatter engines? Check. Fabrication units that could put the replicators from Star Trek to shame? Check.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: FizerPharm in the book's supplementary backstory.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Blindsight deals extensively with characters that display psychopathic or sociopathic traits, and is set in a future in which the basic human sense of worth is undermined by the social implications of new technologies. But the true cosmic horror is not revealed until near the end of the story, as it's revealed that Watts is portraying a universe in which sapience (that is, self-awareness, sentience, and the empathy that goes with it) is unnecessary for advanced intelligence and creative thinking. In fact, it's a inefficient, tending to lead to Solipsism and wasting resources on pointless endeavors like art. Apparently most other species in the Blindsight universe may not be sentient at all, despite possessing vast intelligence and the ability to travel the distances between stars.
  • Crapsack World: The short version is that mankind hit The Singularity... and it didn't really take. If the bastardized technological world doesn't kill us, the superintelligent sociopath vampires we brought back to life with our genetic prowess and put in charge of everything will. And if they don't... well, the novel is about how we just met an intelligent alien life vastly superior to our own single planet existence and it very may well want to wipe us out.
  • Cybernetics Dull Your Senses: Isaac Szpindel's mechanical augments let him interface directly with the ship's labs - giving him all the senses that implies - but his own normal senses have been so numbed that he has to wear force-feedback gloves just to give him a sense of touch. Cunningham, Isaac's replacement, gets around this by using the neurons that control his face instead.
  • Death Is Cheap: This is what allows the crew to explore Rorschach. Body riddled with tumours? The Theseus has the facilities to let you sleep that off. Unfortunately for Szpindel, you can't sleep off a gaping head wound.
  • Deer in the Headlights: To look into a vampire's eyes is to remember what it's like to be prey.
  • Doing in the Wizard : In the novel, Vampires are not supernatural but rather are explained as an extinct subspecies of humans that evolved to prey on normal humans in ancient times. This explains the persistent myths and stories about them: these are a kind of racial memory. Many of the qualities of Vampires are given logical, scientific explanations as well. See Our Vampires Are Different below.
  • Downer Ending: Nearly all the characters in the novel end up dead or soon to be dead, and it's implied that humanity back home on Earth is doomed by a vampire uprising. In a more general sense, we've discovered that humanity is an aberration in a cold, uncaring universe.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Rorschach is an intelligent, city-sized, incredibly scary vessel, filled with an unbreathable toxic atmosphere. Merely going aboard will drive you temporarily insane.
    • Closer to home, Vampires induce PTSD-like symptoms in humans, an effect that dates from long before recorded history. It's apparently so hardwired that simply being face-to-face with a Vampire induces fear, if not outright panic. See Genetic Memory below.
  • First Contact: The reason behind the manning of the Theseus which would otherwise operate unmanned.
  • Five-Man Band: In a twisted, highly unusual way, but it's there.
    • The Hero: Siri, as the narrator, despite his policy of noninterference.
    • The Lancer: Isaac Szpindel.
    • The Smart Guy: Sarasti (so frighteningly intelligent, like all vampires, that the average human is incapable of understanding how he reaches his conclusions)
    • The Big Guy: Bates.
    • The Chick: James, though she also has elements of The Smart Guy. Furthermore, the rest of the Gang play different roles.
    • Sixth Ranger: Cunningham.
  • Genetic Memory: Most normal people - that is, baseline humans - are naturally, automatically, and helplessly freaked out when they encounter a Vampire in the flesh, to the degree that it's akin to having PTSD flashbacks. On an instinctual level the human brain sense that the Vampire is a predator and can't help but fear it. This is due to the fact that Vampires used to hunt prehistoric humans as prey.
  • Fling a Light into the Future: This is what Theseus and the rest of the crew has in mind when they send Siri back toward Earth on board one of the ship's shuttles. Siri realizes en route that it's not going to work - there might not be anyone left by the time he gets home.
  • Hallucinations: Rorshach's incredibly strong magnetic fields induce some rather vivid and disturbing visions in the crew when they venture inside. Siri sees alien beasts out of the corner of his eye, James thinks her leg is some kind of monster attacking her, and Bates at one point believes she no longer exists.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The entire crew of the Theseus, except for Siri.
  • Inscrutable Aliens: A variation. The alien ship does make contact, but for hours talks in circles without revealing any useful information. The crew figure out that they're talking to a "Chinese room".
  • Inside a Computer System: The aptly named "Heaven".
  • It Can Think: The crew initially believe the scramblers are unintelligent and non-sentient, possibly security/maintenance robots created by whoever made Rorschach. They eventually figure out that to the scramblers, sentience is unnecessary and they're capable of intelligence and rational problem solving on an entirely unconscious level. Then the scramblers figure out that the crew have figured it out...
  • Last of His Kind: On his long, long trip back toward Earth, Siri reflects that he may be not only the last human, but also the last sentient being in the universe. Talk about a Downer Ending.
  • Love Potion: Not exactly a Love Potion, but after Siri has half of his brain removed, his mother secretly gives him stimulants to promote mother/child bonding.
  • Manchurian Agent: Susan's fifth personality.
  • Magic from Technology: Invoked at one point.
    Bates spread her hands. "Who knows? Might as well be black magic and elves down there."
  • My Beloved Smother: Helen's relationship with Siri.
  • Never Split the Party: On one expedition into Rorschach, Bates orders the crew to split up and cover more ground, though they each get their own combat drone for a bodyguard. Not that it helps all that much when Siri has his first run-in with one of the aliens.
  • The Nicknamer: Szpindel dubs Siri "commissar" early on in their training, and refers to Bates and Michelle (one of the Gang of Four) as Mandy and Meesh, respectively.
  • Not So Stoic: Siri quickly loses his detached demeanor after he's mauled by Sarasti.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The crew's first few expeditions into Rorschach. Siri expects to be nabbed by a horrible alien monster at any second, and yet the place seems to be deserted, yet still creepy as all hell. The hallucinations induced by the magnetic fields in there don't help matters.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Vampires turn out to have been an ancient Human Subspecies adapted to prey on us. They existed millenia ago, before recorded history. Since they were predators, they had to have superior pattern-matching skills (all the tricks of autistic savants plus more) and general intelligence, better night-vision and the ability to put themselves into suspended animation (since, being apex predators, they had to give our populations time to rebound else they would hunt us to extinction). Unfortunately, the super-intelligence comes at a cost: their super-charged pattern recognition tends to get overstimulated when intersecting right-angles take up too much of their visual field. Basically, their brain glitches out and they have fatal epileptic seizures whenever they see anything with corners - thus explaining the origin of the myth about them being weak against the cross. When humans invented architecture, the vampires all died out. The modern-day resurrected vampires have to take "Anti-Euclidean" drugs to enable them to survive.
  • Posthumous Character: Siri's girlfriend Chelsea.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The Theseus' crew.
  • Red Herring: There are several, both in-universe and as a narrative device. For example, there is the issue of Amanda Bates' mutiny against Jukka Sarasti, the messages from Rorschach, the Burns-Caulfield comet, and the very nature of the Unreliable Narrator.
  • Science Marches On: The research Watts got a lot of his ideas from are almost all from Nature and Science, which are journals specifically designed to get out new, controversial research into the scientific community. As such, some of the cutting-edge ideas that Watts based the science of the novel on have now been disproven.
  • Self-Deprecation: A meta-example comes later in the book, where "the occasional writer of hackwork fiction who barely achieved obscurity" is listed amongst those who wondered about the necessity of conscious thought.
  • Sherlock Scan: Siri can look at you and tell, based on the way you slouch, your innermost thoughts and fears, whether you were abused as a child, and who your favorite painter is, all in the span of a few seconds.
    • Remember his hallucinations of aliens onboard the Rorschach, before the crew even saw the scramblers? Cunningham figures out that Siri saw the structure of Rorschach and deduced what an alien inhabitant of that structure would have to look like, without even realizing that he'd done it. The hallucinations were his subconscious mind trying to get the information somewhere useful.
  • Shoutout: One of the chapter headers has a quote from the fictional book called Zero Sum, written by "Kenneth Lubin". Lubin is a character in Watts' Rifters Trilogy.
  • Shown Their Work: The back of the book has a lengthy "Notes and References" section explaining the various Real Life science items that inspired Watts to write the story.
  • Sleeper Ship: The crew were all modified with vampire hibernation genes so they could sleep through the five-year voyage to the alien ship in the Oort Cloud.
  • Sociopathic Hero:
    • The protagonist Siri has shades of this, since he doesn't actually feel emotion.
    • Jukka Sarasti, the commander of the crew. He is the one somewhat-reassuring ace-up-the-sleeve the crew seems to have in the face of the incomprehensible Eldritch Abomination that is Rorschach. He is even somewhat superficially considerate of his crewmates, wearing sunglasses to apparently protect the crew from the primal fear of looking into his predator eyes. Ironically, towards the end of the novel we learn the true captain of the ships is the ''Thesues' AI, who's creators assumed that the human crew would rather take orders from the sociopathic Sarasti than listen to a computer
  • Split Personality: Played with by the Gang of Four. Susan is the core personality, and the others were surgically induced to allow them to translate languages at incredible speed.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Scramblers are among the best examples of this trope. It's implied that their alien way of thinking is actually the status quo in the universe and that human self-awareness is an aberration. The Scramblers picked up our various transmissions from Earth and, after decrypting the signals, get incomprehensible (to them) statements about "feelings" and "identity". From their perspective, since they lack sentience, they assume the only reason to broadcast things like that to somebody is to waste their time; they see this as tying up vital processing power. As such, this appears to them as a kind of attack by us. So the aliens decide to strike back. Self-awareness itself - that which makes us human - is seen by the aliens as a dangerous virus to be stamped out.
    • In a more literal sense, they actually resemble starfish, considering their distributed eyespot array. Peter Watts, after all, was a marine biologist.
  • Taking You with Me: Jukka Sarasti/Theseus' final strategy against Rorschach.
  • Title Drop: "Blindsight" is a real-life phenomenon where blind people, who's eyes are not actually physically damaged, can sometimes avoid obstacles in their path despite not being able to consciously see them. Some part of their brain is still processing visual input despite the normal vision part of the brain being damaged. In the novel, this is used as a metaphor for the distinction between conscious and unconscious mental processing. The characters experience a kind of blindsight when their cognition is impaired by Rorschach's powerful magnetic fields. The Scramblers are suspected to be non-sentient beings for whom all sensation is blindsight. Vampires are implied to be similarly evolving toward non-sentience. And the fundamental horror of the novel rests in the final implication that non-sentient, unconscious cognition is evolutionary superior and will dominate in the universe. Human awareness is portrayed as inherently self-destructive, as evidenced by the creation of the solipsistic cyberspace "Heaven".
  • Too Dumb to Live: All of humanity. Why don't we bring back our ancient predators and put them in charge of everything since they're so smart?
  • Transhuman: In the year 2082, you're transhuman or you're obsolete. Baseline humans are physically and mentally unable to keep up with those who have received augments. The majority of the characters in the novel have some kind of augmentation.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Siri, after his childhood operation. He loses all understanding of social norms, most of his emotions, and his sense of empathy. After rescuing his friend Pag from a group of bullies in the prologue - by bashing a few of them in the head with a large rock - and seeing one on the ground trying to crawl away, he wonders in a detached way if he should "kill it before it gets reinforcements". He was eight years old at the time.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Siri does not have any sort of doctorate, and also has serious problems empathizing with people for backstory reasons. As such, his perceptions of the world and how other characters think and feel is often suspect and sometimes proven outright wrong.
    • It gets worse after Sarasti intentionally traumatizes him in order to reawaken his emotions, since he needs emotions to be a better advocate to the people on Earth. Unfortunately the final chapter makes it sound like Siri is partially delusional from the shock of the experience.
  • Verbal Tic: Szpindel ends every other sentence with 'eh?'.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: But the uneducated reader forcing themselves through it will learn many interesting things, guaranteed. With this expectation, Watts includes a lengthy citation section that references the most bleeding-edge theorists and scientists in many fields, for follow-up if you've recovered from the book itself.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: The vampire's classic weakness against the cross is discovered to be a weakness against anything with intersecting right angles. See Our Vampires Are Different.
  • We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future: Averted. Aboard Theseus, all mundane maintenance is taken care of by the ship itself. It's implied that war has been contracted out to drone soldiers. Siri dryly remarks early on that the only reason a human crew is being sent out at all is because no one has yet optimized the software for First Contact.
  • Write What You Know: Watts' Starfish Aliens are starfishier than usual, due in large part to his expertise in marine biology. The premise for the book comes from some of the more out-there theories on how intelligent marine life could differ from intelligence as we know it.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: A few of the characters, at different times, make the mistake of assuming theirs is a fairly standard tale of First Contact. It takes some longer than others to realize the reality is closer to a Cosmic Horror Story ...

TemeraireHugo AwardThe Yiddish Policemen's Union
Little BrotherSeiun AwardThe Prisoner
Blind LakeScience Fiction LiteratureBlood Angels
Blind LakeLiterature of the 2000sBlood Angels

alternative title(s): Blindsight
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