Blindsight - Peter Watts what is Consciousness? how did the silly human race evolve beyond the herd instinct, beyond our reptile brain? how, and why? what is the purpose of our individuality, what is the need for our sense of self, what use is Human Connection, why are we even equipped with Empathy? for some naive, kinda-sorta spiritual folks (like myself), these things may explain the existence of God. but that's rather besides the point of the question. does empathy help us in the long run, does the ability of humans to connect with each other truly offer anything besides constant discomfort and potential danger? is a psychopath who does not experience empathy somehow less than human? how would a highly developed species that has somehow evolved without empathy or individuality react to a species like ours - one that is contantly talking to itself, connecting, empathizing, exploring, throwing itself and its messages out into the void, to seek, to find, to understand, to know?

exploring all of those questions is the purpose of Peter Watts' superb Blindsight. the novel is about one of those Ambiguous Threats Appearing in the Outskirts of Known Space. future Earth is a fucked-up Earth, no surprise there. humans regularly 'ascend' into a fake-sounding cyberheaven. vampires - apparently an extremely predatory offshoot of the homo sapien, complete with an anti-Euclidean mental bias that explains their phobia of crosses - have been revived and now serve the human race (the inclusion of vampires may sound cheesy, but believe me, it is one of more absorbing things about the novel). there is some deadly construct called the Icarus Array located somewhere near the sun, stationed there to "protect" us. sex is an outdated activity (perhaps the sole unconvincing part of the novel). genuine human contact rarely takes place face-to-face. your usual Cold Techno-Dystopia. the Ambiguous Threat is noted shortly after a startling "Firefly" effect occurs over the earth - an effect that appears to be the Ambiguous Threat's way of taking long-distance pictures of human shenanigans.

so the silly humans decide to fling a crew of misfits out into the void to engage with said Ambiguous Threat. there's a woman who has compartmentalized herself into 4 different and distinctly individualistic personalities. there's a military type armed with slaved drones whose biggest flaw/greatest attribute is her ability to empathize with her enemies. there are a couple guys who project their consciousness through machinery, all inputs mediated by that machinery - all the better to study the world around them. there is the ship's captain, a sociopathic vampire mentally bonded to his ship's computer brain. and then there is our hero - a sort of minister of information, missing half a brain, trained to avoid all forms of true connection, unwilling to engage in basic empathy. this fascinating crew finds much to be fascinated with when confronting the Ambiguous Threat. for one, a spaceship that looks like it's from Dante's Inferno. aliens from, well, the Alien films, with some upsetting Predator type invisibility to boot. hallucinations and corresonding loss of self within those hallucinations. strange communications that sound full of villainous bravado - except those communications feel oversimplified, threatening in the most obvious of ways, purposely dumbed-down...to what end? the Ambiguous Threat appears capable of automatically healing its own hull, controlling thousands of asteroids at once, and harnessing the power of a gas giant... yet seems oddly powerless, even uncaring. things don't add up. despite all the crew sees and analyzes, the Ambiguous Threat has a rather terrifying lack of signifiers.

the author is clearly a highly intelligent sort, PhD and everything, and the novel is full of Exra Hard Science Action. but i think folks are really mislabeling Blindsight if they consider it to be genuine Hard Science Fiction. to put it in the corniest of terms: this is a novel about the human condition. look at the dystopic details of this future Earth, review the cast of characters... Blindsight is built on examining all of the different options for humans and nonhumans to connect or not to connect, all the ways that individuals can reach across their individual sense of self to connect with another person's reality. the nature of the Ambiguous Threat and the root of our protagonist's problems are disconcertingly connected: a rejection of individuality; an inability to connect with others. the novel is elegantly constructed so that form follows meaning rather than narrative. this may be frustrating to folks who eschew literary novels in favor of genre fiction. that's understandable... "narrative tension" is definitely lost by the constant switching back and forth between parallel storylines. on the one hand, the protagonist's past life of non-communication and deliberate avoidance of empathy (shades of Dying Inside); on the other hand, the mission into the void (which itself is rife with pointed character flashblacks). but for Watts to have structured Blindsight in any other way would have been to lose the point of it all. the novel is not really about a dark space adventure. it is about the importance of empathetic connection, its value and its dangers, how it condemns us with one hand and lifts us up to a higher place with the other.

oh, and one last thing... if that last sentence makes you think that this is one of those enriching spiritual journey type of books, think again. this awesome novel is about as bleak and pessimistic as they come. an important warning to keep in mind before approaching: this dog bites!