Blindsight is a hardScience 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 websitefor 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 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: 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.
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 his narrator thinks that humanity back on Earth is doomed as well, one way or another.
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.
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.
Big Damn Hero: Jim Moore saving Dan Bruks from an enraged Rakshi, then Valerie saving Bruks from a crazy Jim Moore.
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.
The aliens 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.
Turns out the reason why he had epilepsy in the first place was because he had been infected by the zombie virus while still in the womb.
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.
Valerie used her clicking to implant a suggestion into the people around her that enabled to use a variant of the Crucifix Glitch on humans.
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.
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 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.
Echopraxia partly deals in part with the theory of the universe being a simulation; with The Laws of Physics being basically the OS and God being a virus that breaks it.
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.
It comes back again in Echopraxia. The Bicamerals are basically walking brain tumors.
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.
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.
Echopraxia. Bruks kills himself when he realizes he was taken over by Portia. Portia manages to continue firing his brain cells and takes over his broken body and walks towards civilization. Humanity will be forever be changed.
Rorschach is intelligent, about thirty miles across, filled with hard radiation and 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.
Et Tu, Brute?: Bruks stabs Valerie after the two become friendly, well as friendly as a lion can be to a lamb; of course, Bruks had already been taken over by Portia, which Valerie herself infected him with.
Expy: Valerie for Jukka Sarasti, although way more unnerving, and not entirely working with the rest of the "Crown of Thorns" crew.
First Contact: The reason why Theseus is manned at all, since sending an automated probe would be much cheaper/easier.
Gainax Ending: Echopraxia. Portia is a parasite. Valerie hacks Portia and infects Bruks with it. Strengthens him and plans to use him as a vector to create a sort of upgraded humans and to disable the glitches in Vampires. Maybe humanity will survive after all, but at a great cost to itself. Maybe.
Genetic Memory: 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 brain senses that the Vampire is a predator and triggers a flight-or-fight response, due to the fact Vampires used to hunt prehistoric humans for 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 is dead.
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".
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: After Siri has half of his brain removed during childhood, his mother secretly gives him stimulants to promote mother/child bonding.
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.
Noodle Incident: Averted in Echopraxia. It is revealed halfway through that Dan Bruks was tangentially responsible for an incident that killed Rakshi's wife that involved an encephalitis variant outbreak.
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.
Oh Crap: In Echopraxia, it is implied that Vampires can now give the Crucifix Glitch to humans.
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.
Our Zombies Are Different: In Echopraxia.It is revealed what the Zombie virus does is to turn off self-awareness and leaving only the flight/fight/fuck response. And Siri Keeton had been infected while still in the womb. The Viral Epilepsy had been just a cover.
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.
Religion vs Science: A running theme in Echopraxia, where one of the arguments is that Science must be taken as an act of faith, for even though we can replicate the same experiment over and over and quantify many of the constants in the universe, we do so in the belief that they will not change tomorrow.
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.
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 proposes that Siri saw the structure of Rorschach and subconsciously deduced what an alien inhabitant of that structure would have to look like. The hallucinations were his subconscious mind trying to get the information out somewhere useful.
Echopraxia gives a shout-out to World of Warcraft, during the discussion of simulating pandemics in a virtual environment, something that accidentally happened in real life when pandemic researchers took at look at the Corrupted Blood Incident , even calling it explicitly as such.
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.
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 ships is the ''Thesues' AI, who's 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.
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 physically resemble starfish. Peter Watts, after all, was a marine biologist.
Team Pet: Dan Bruks is so out of his element, he might as well be this in Echopraxia, at least initially.
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".
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 either 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.
In an aversion, Dan Bruks, is the least augmented person so far, and he gets called Oldschool and Roach.
The Singularity: It's gotten to the point that people known as Bicamerals, with all their augmentation, have even merged Religion and Science, with their scientific discoveries being closer to divination more than anything else.
Trigger Phrase: Valerie is able to implant a hypnotic suggestion on baseliners that emulates the Crucifix Glitch vampires suffer from.
Valerie:"Imagine Christ on the Cross."
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.
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.
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.
What the Hell, Hero?: Bruks gives one to Jim Moore, Siri's dad, over him now being worried about Siri's well-being when it had been his partial zombie-ism, the augmentations and hemispherectomy that he got to counter the effects that made him the best suited Synthesist for Theseus. Not to mention that the reason why Siri got infected was because his dad was the actual target.
Jim:He's out there because he's the most qualified for the mission. Full stop. Anyone in my place would have made the same decision.
Dan:Sure. But we both know why he was the most qualified.