Blindsight by Peter Watts
Imagine you are Siri Keeton.
So begins this hard science fiction novel from Canadian author Peter Watts. It is 2082. It is the day of the Fireflies. Sixty-five thousand objects burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. The beginning of an invasion? For two months nothing more is seen or heard. Then a deep space probe picks up a whisper at the edge of the solar system. Is it talking to us, or is it calling for reinforcements?
The story is narrated by Siri, a synthesist, an observer of patterns and human behaviour. The problem is, Siri isn’t entirely human himself. When he was a kid he suffered from epilepsy – so his parents had half his brain cut out. Now he is cold, devoid of feeling, completely lacking in empathy. When the mission to investigate the whispers at the edge of the solar system is first imagined, his father has no hesitation in putting him forward for the job.
But that, that distance – that chronic sense of being an alien among your own kind – it’s not entirely a bad thing.
It came in especially handy when the real aliens came calling.
He is an outcast among outcasts. The other crew members include a linguist with multiple personalities who might be able to communicate with the aliens, a soldier sent along to fight, should it be needed, though she’d rather keep the peace, and a vampire . . .
Nobody gets past Jupiter without becoming part vampire.
If the mind boggles at the thought of a vampire in a hard science fiction novel, don’t worry – Watts has it covered. The worldbuilding, the characters, the environment they inhabit, the danger they face – it’s all so coherent and consistent and relentlessly logical that it works. Watts carries this consistency through to every facet of the novel. Every sentence has impact, the tone and voice is rock solid and never deviates, every line of dialogue fits the setting. The scarily thin hull of their ship, the Theseus, groans and twists with every course change, and in his hands this journey to the edge of our solar system becomes an exercise in terror. Think Alien by way of Event Horizon and other such films, but with real substance, and real fear.
Another huge plus point in the book’s favour is he doesn’t waste any time, at all. After a brief, riveting prologue we are thrust aboard the Theseus as its crew come out of deep sleep, approaching their destination. He emphasises this relentless narrative focus by eschewing conventional chapters, splitting the novel into parts with names like ‘Rorschach’ and ‘Charybdis’ which, in turn, only serve to make it more intense.
This is hard science fiction at its best, with a little grim and a pinch of dark thrown in for good measure. The science itself is completely uncompromising, with several pages of notes and references at the end just so you know Watts did his research. He will throw an idea out there, he’ll explain it once, then he’ll expect you to keep up. It must be a Canadian thing, because Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker are wont to do exactly the same. Watts is similarly unforgiving in this regard, and it means this is not a book where you can switch off for even an instant. If your mind wanders for one paragraph, one sentence, maybe even one word, you might find yourself adrift and rudderless.
Another issue could be that, because of their very nature, the characters are difficult to like. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – they are full of character. You may dislike them, but you sure as hell know about them, and sometimes they seem even more alien than the aliens themselves – which, by the way, are superb. No humanoids with bumpy foreheads here – these are completely alien. This could potentially turn Blindsightinto a bit of a slog for some, but throw in the chilling alien presence and Siri’s flashbacks to his family and girlfriend and it becomes a potent mindf*ck of a novel. It’s also rewarding. When you understand a particularly difficult passage, you can almost feel your mind expanding.
Ultimately, though, this is a story about what makes us human or, more precisely, what consciousness is, why we have it and why it sets us apart, for better or worse. It’s written with such flair, such – I keep coming back to this word – relentless drive that I found it impossible to put down. When I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it. When I was reading it I was, at times, holding my breath, because Watts has a way with thrilling large scale action and quietly dramatic character moments that made the scenes come alive in my mind’s eye.
Blindsight is a phenomenal first contact novel that challenges the reader on almost every level and – during these times when genuine, forward-thinking science fiction is like gold dust – it is a book that deserves far more attention.
So, just imagine you’re Siri Keeton . . .
There’s a line from an early pop-dyn textbook, really old, maybe even TwenCen. It’s something of a mantra – maybe prayer would be a better word – among those in your profession. Predators run for their dinner, it goes. Prey run for their lives.
Blindsight is followed by a linking novella, The Colonel, and a sequel, Echopraxia. The two novels are gathered in an omnibus edition called Firefall. The novella is available to read free of charge at Tor.com.