science fiction, new weird, old weird, very weird - and everything else
not always save for work. never nice.
What is this elusive thing we call „self“ anyway? What is consciousness, what is self-awareness, how does sentience relate to intelligence – and can there be one without the other? Peter Watts explores this questions in Blindsight and goes some disturbing ways. The human mind is a flimsy thing after all, easily manipulated, easily hacked. Our perceptions betray us, our perceived truth is a fabrication.
That's not exactly news, but Blindsight goes one step further, asking if our whole existence as sentient beings might not be a fluke. It turned out to be exactly the first contact-story I've always wanted to read. The kind of SF dealing with post-humanity I used to love and still like a great deal. It's grim and utterly bleak, nihilist and hopeless, too ambiguous for its own good, more than a little bit pretentious, not exactly sci-fi horror, but with a constant sense of dread. And although the darned aliens seem to speak English, it was also oddly satisfying in a linguistic and, even more so, semiotic sense. With some interesting tech to boot: subtitles for face-to-face communication – I WANT THAT! In short: My idea of fun.
It also turned out to be the perfect book to bridge 2017 and 2018, the last bit of Ariadne's thread combining the years, with yet another Theseus visiting yet another labyrinth. (And Gödel, of course. If I never read about this guy's fucking theorem ever again in my life, it would be too soon.)
Watts didn't make this an easy book to love – for most readers, at least. The language, the jargon, can be an obstacle. It's deliberately abstruse at points. Not everyone has fun parsing sentences like The new macrostructure hovered in the magnetosphere like the nested gimbals of some great phantom gyroscope. I still have no idea what that's even supposed to mean, even after looking up all the words. Watts keeps stringing words together with absolutely no regard for clarity. I don't know if this is his MO or owning to the story's narrator. I found my way into SF reading William Gibson, so I don't really mind.
The characters could be another obstacle. A ship full of mice, commandeered by a cat: four augmented humans and one sociopathic vampire. But although „less cuddlesome than usual“, like Watts described them, I didn't find them unlikeable. Szpindel, sliced with machinery as he might be, was basically a good man; Bates had guts and brains; from the Gang of Four I liked Sascha, she had drive. Sarasti, the vampire, was just as predatory as well-written vampires are supposed to be.
And then there's our narrator, Siri Keeton, half his brain cut out in childhood and replaced by machinery, a man with almost no sense of empathy and connection, the uncaring observer, a “Chinese Room”. At first I thought Watts just wanted to create a character who's hard to relate to; reading other reviews, that trick seems to work for more neurotypical readers. It worked differently for me. I could relate to Siri, because his half-brain and my brain think a lot alike. That birthday/ Game Theory thingy? I do the exact same thing in RL, for the exact same reason. And that's just one minor similarity. Siri and I share the difficulty to connect, to empathize; we stand outside, looking in, making others feel uncomfortable. (And why do people so unwilling to communicate end up working in communication?) This perceived similarities led to a stronger than usual response on my part; the very same thing that made me love the book also made me violently hate it sometimes. Especially when faced with questionable authorial decisions like the careless, ill informed, unnecessary, incredibly lazy use of rape and trauma as a plot-devices.
So, you can consider us lacking, if it makes you feel better and more wholesome. Watts does (or does he? I think he does) and in extension made Siri see himself as not fully human. He had to; more than anything, Siri is a plot-device, and the story wouldn't work any other way. That doesn't stop me from being somewhat angry (okay, very angry). You - general you - talk about empathy? You consider it a virtue? And yet your ability to empathize starts and stops with people similar to yourself, maybe extents to cats and dogs, but not, let's say, cows or chicken; includes next-of-kin, but not strangers, not aliens. No, considering what „normal“ people are capable of doing to each other, and to everything/everyone that's perceived as „other“ - I don't see myself as lacking.
Anywaaaaay - we're still talking about a book I rated 5 stars. And all that above is just to say: What's a mere plot-device and was probably also supposed to be a distancing method turned the book into an unexpectedly emotional and intense read for me. I just was unsettled for different reasons. I never expected the universe to be anything but vast and cold.