Blindsight by Peter Watts
 

Blindsight by Peter Watts

I think Peter Watts is trying to tell us that he isn't conscious. Besides being a science-fiction version of The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger, Blindsight is a story that sets out the author's argument that consciousness is an evolutionary mistake and that we would be much better if we would just let our unconscious get rid of that slow and unnecessary awareness.

The book is good enough that I'd be willing to buy that argument if he'd reveal that it was written unconsciously.

Blindsight

Blindsight
Peter Watts

ISBN: 9780765319647
Tor Books, 2008
English

A very good story about a small crew on a spaceship far out in the Oort cloud contacting an alien life form that, from the very beginning, makes it clear that it does not want company. Watts fills his worlds with a seething and tense psychological horror; but when you as a reader almost have to suspect the coffee maker of being a serial killer in order to keep up with the plot you wish someone just told him to chill a bit. (4/5)

It is a very good story about a small crew on a spaceship far out in the Oort cloud contacting an alien life form that, from the very beginning, makes it clear that it does not want company. It falls into the subgenre of "first contact procedurals", where, like crime procedurals, the story is built around trying to figure out just how to contact aliens that are unfathomably different and whose intent is unknown and possibly hostile. In this case, Watts puts an extra spin on it by making the human crew highly non-neurotypical: the commander is a vampire that views the rest of the crew as prey, the biologist regularly transfer his self-image to his teleoperated machinery, mentally leaving his body, and the narrator only has half a brain - the other half is replaced with machinery for observing and reporting on the crew[1].

If you've read The Ego Tunnel, you'll recognize a lot of the plot elements - the teleoperating biologist, for example, is almost a replica of the "Virtual Out-of-Body Experience" experiment by Metzinger, et al[2].

But unlike Metzinger, who states that The Ego is an extremely useful instrument—one that has helped us understand one another through empathy and mind-reading[3], Watts's argument, throughout the book, is that we would be more evolutionary fit if we were more like sociopaths: not really thinking, not really being there - and certainly not having any empathy.

Unfortunately this is a belief that permeates his writings. Just like the grim darkness of Warhammer 40K quickly becomes a parody of itself, when Watts lets one of his aliens say that since those stupid humans won't understand I will have to rape it into them[*][a], it's not particularly unexpected - it's just Watts - and just like WH40K we're off to self-parody pretty quickly. If Peter Watts wrote My Little Pony, the ponies would all be cannibal pedophiles.

In Blindsight, a character abuses the narrator as a way of making its point, and if you were to search through discussions among fans of the book you'll find that whatever point Watts was trying to make by that scene it evidently passed right by his readers. It stands out as gratuitous, unnecessary, and... Watts.

Which is a shame, because Blindsight is a really good story, bordering on a fantastic one if you could just cut out the little tics. If you could just let Watts do what he does best all the time and not what he does worst.

Just like a beneficial mutation can bring with it a highly undesirable side effect that almost but not quite negates the good it brought, Watts's tics on one hand lets him fill his worlds with a seething and tense psychological horror; but when you as a reader almost have to suspect the coffee maker of being a serial killer in order to keep up with the plot you wish someone just told him to chill a bit.

The book is freely available on the author's website under a CC license as HTML and ebook downloads[b].

Footnotes