By Peter Watts
First Published: 2006
Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, First Contact, Thriller
Jacket Art by Thomas Pringle
Blindsight is an outstanding science fiction novel of first contact. This is a “hard” science fiction novel that has something that a lot of hard science fiction novels lack, character development. Perhaps even more importantly for a “hard” science fiction book is that the science is really well done as it is both extremely detailed and believable. And did I forget to mention how well imagined the alien life is or that somehow Peter Watts has incorporated a realistic vampire into a quest to meet alien life for the first time?
As you can probably tell by now, I loved this book. It was the best really hard science fiction novel I’ve read in a long time. If you enjoy well imagined science fiction and can handle some serious forays into biology, evolution, physics, robotics, and psychology, this book is not to be missed. On the other hand, if science discussions put you to sleep, this might not be the best novel for you to tackle.
While the science in Blindsight can occasionally veer towards overwhelming, the character development, particularly the background development of the main character, lends some welcome balance to the science. The main character and narrator is Siri. He is employed as a "systhesist", a person who is tasked with making impartial observations of the most advanced scientific work in order to translate the results into something a lay person might be able to understand. He also happens to be highly autistic caused by undergoing radical surgery to remove half his brain as a child in order to eliminate epilepsy attacks.
In 2082, the discovery is made that an alien intelligence has approached our solar system. A mission is hastily assembled to send a space probe to make first contact. Siri is chosen as the best in his field to accompany a handful of experts in their fields for this mission with nothing less that the potential fate of the world in their hands. The experts are not only the best in their fields, they are artificially enhanced with the best upgrades currently available. The crew includes a linguist with at least 4 personalities who, between them, understand all known forms of communication from the most primitive signals to the most complicated languages. There is also a biologist whose brain is directly connected to his most valuable instruments. Of course, to backup the scientific minds, there is an expert in military operations who not only knows how to lead her robotic troops but can design new models on the fly to meet the most diverse threats imaginable.
To complete the dynamic crew is a captain who is not even human. He is, in fact, a vampire, whose kind has been brought back into being by cloning the DNA of the long extinct cousin of homo sapiens, vampiris. He is the captain because his intellect is more advanced than that of mankind and who would be better at understanding an alien than someone who is already an alien among men. Additionally, a small part of the vampiris genetic makeup has been incorporated into the rest of the team in order to enable all of them to undergo suspended animation which is apparently a natural ability of vampires.
As the mission progresses, our narrator Siri, reflects on his personal past history through a series of flashbacks where we learn about his trials as a child and his challenges trying to fit in to society as an adult. We learn about his experiences with love or at least a fractured form of love with both his immediate family and a serious girlfriend. Siri ends up having the same problems with intimacy as a lot of men except that in his case the problems are magnified by his autistic mind.
Often, with alien contact novels one of the biggest letdowns is the aliens themselves. In Blindsight, this is not the case. Watts has done a fantastic job of creating an alien that is, well, really alien. This isn’t an alien that resembles man in form or thought. It’s not an alien that can be easily anthropomorphized. Suffice it to say that the alien life is fascinating, mysterious, and intellectually challenging.
As the story progresses, tension increases steadily. The further into the story you go, the harder it is to put down. With many mysteries, unrelenting suspense, intense action sequences, and serious science, this story has something for most adults. On the other hand, plentiful swearing and some brutal violence limit me to recommending this only for mature teenagers or older. If you enjoy “hard” science fiction, Blindsight is a definite “don’t miss” novel.