Literature: Blindsight

Blindsight is a hard Science-Fiction 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, the novel is hard to find in stores, owing to troubles with the publisher. Deciding he'd rather have the book be easily available for anyone to read, Watts 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 led 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 relative obscurity.

Echopraxia (released September 2014), a loose Sequel, begins in the early 2090s with a new set of characters.

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:
    • The Theseus AI is in command of the mission, but acts through Sarasti specifically because humans wouldn't trust an AI to give them orders.
    • 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 it's 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. Everyone except the narrator dies, and the narrator thinks that humanity back on Earth is doomed as well, one way or another.
  • Apocalypse How: 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.
  • Bald Woman: Amanda Bates.
  • 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 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 don't just think in a way incomprehensible to humans. They're not even self-aware. Morality is a concept that is so impossible for them to parse that just trying to communicate it is seen as an aggressive act.
    • Jukka Sarasti and the rest of the resurrected vampires. Sociopathic cannibals operate on a rather different wavelength than the rest of us.
  • Brain in a Jar: On Earth, a lot of people have plugged themselves into Heaven, a virtual reality that few choose to return from. While Heaven's managers insist the entire body is kept intact and in peak fitness in case of emergency, Siri suspects this trope is the actual case the second a person's family is barred from visiting them.
  • 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.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture:
    • In the "Imagine you are Amanda Bates" segment, intelligence agents torture a few captured "Realist" terrorists. 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 primarily 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 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.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The "Golem" virus induces rapid Fibrodyplasia Ossificans Progressiva, a particularly horrible condition that causes tendons, ligaments and muscles to turn to bone, effectively petrifying you. There's no cure, and slowing it down just means you die in a couple of days instead of just one. It's used as a biological weapon, and is what kills Chelsea.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: 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 a supremely intelligent and gigantic alien creature from the depths of space. Its perspective is so alien that it's not even self-aware. Going inside of it will drive you temporarily insane.
  • Enemy Within: Rorschach makes some changes to Susan James, as one of many simultaneous plans to deal with the inconvenient humans.
  • First Contact: The reason why Theseus is manned at all, since sending an automated probe would be much cheaper/easier.
  • Five-Man Band: In a twisted, 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: Amanda Bates.
    • The Chick: Susan James (in her core personality), though she also has elements of The Smart Guy. Furthermore, the rest of the Gang play different roles.
    • Sixth Ranger: Cunningham
  • Forgettable Character: the Captain. Never communicates, except through Sarasti, to the point that the others tend to assume he's the one in command, and basically treat the title as an ironic nickname. Near the end of the book is the first time Siri even hears the Captain's voice.
  • Genetic Memory: Humans are thought to be naturally, automatically, and helplessly freaked out when they encounter a vampire due to genetic memory of being hunted by them. It turns out that vampires are smart and fast enough to intentionally trigger hallucinations and fear responses using subtle nonverbal cues.
  • 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 is dead.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The entire crew of the Theseus, except for Siri.
  • Inscrutable Aliens: A variant. 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"[1].
  • Inside a Computer System: People have started to transfer their minds into a computer system called "Heaven." The Realists terrorist group are trying to destroy it.
  • It Can Think: The crew puzzles over whether the scramblers are intelligent aliens or something more like white blood cells in the organism of Rorschach. They eventually figure out that the scramblers are far more intelligent than humans, but they are nonsentient, as is Rorschach.
  • 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: After Siri has half of his brain removed during childhood, 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."
  • Mind Hive: The Gang Of Four are distinct personalities that inhabit the body of Susan James. Unlike Multiple Personality Disorder, the fictional "Multiple Core Complex" is done deliberately and lets a fairly standard human brain run as many as two dozen distinct minds, each capable of thinking independently and communicating with the others. In co-operation they can be a formidable force.
  • My Beloved Smother: Helen's relationship with Siri.
  • Mythology Gag: 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.
  • 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 Amanda Bates and Michelle (one of Susan's personalities) 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 millennia 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 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 because geneticists weren't stupid enough to remove the weakness.
  • 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.
  • 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. Cunningham suspects that his hallucination of the aliens onboard the Rorschach, before actually seeing then, were his subconscious mind trying to get the information out somewhere useful.
  • Shoutout:
  • Shown Their Work: The back of the book has a lengthy bibliography with 133 references.
  • 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 has in the face of the incomprehensible Eldritch Abomination that is Rorschach. He is even (superficially) considerate to his crewmates by choosing to wear sunglasses, in deference to the uncontrolled primal fear they would feel if they looked directly into his eyes. Ironically, towards the end of the novel we learn the true captain of the ship is the Theseus AI, whose creators assumed that the human crew would rather take orders from a Vampire than listen to a computer.
  • Split Personality: Purposefully invoked by Susan's "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.
    • Physically, the scramblers resemble starfish and share a few of their traits. Peter Watts, a former marine biologist, admits to this.
    • It's left ambiguous to what extent which of the Scramblers vs. Rorschach that are/is the actual alien "lifeform", and which is the construct, or whether it's both, or neither, or to what extent this is a meaningful distinction (the sequel hints that they can create entirely new "species" tailored to an invasion, so nothing we see really confirms anything about Rorschach's creators). At any rate human notions of identity definitely do not apply.
  • Taking You with Me: Jukka Sarasti/Theseus' final strategy against Rorschach.
  • Title Drop: "Blindsight" is a real-life phenomenon where blind people, assuming their actual eyes are not damaged, can sometimes avoid obstacles 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".
  • The Corruption: The supplementary material for the novel on Watts's website reveals that first resurrected vampires arose during an experimental autism treatment that used retroviruses to deliver genetic modifications to patients. Whether the result could reasonably be called a "cure" for autism isn't really clear, but the thing that comes out of the other side of the treatment can certainly be said to be terrifyingly high-functioning.
  • 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?
  • Translation Convention: The narrator mentions the crew speaks a multilingual patois they find more exacting, but it's translated for our convenience. The exception is Susan, the linguist, and her personalities, who always say precisely what they mean.
  • 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.
  • Tuckerization: Some of the characters are named after friends of the author who provided some sort of assistance.
  • Verbal Tic: Szpindel ends every other sentence with 'eh?'. The author is Canadian.
  • 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.
  • 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 ...