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Blindsight by Peter Watts
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Dec 28, 08

bookshelves: fiction, science-fiction
Read in April, 2007

Yes, it is not quite as good as I’d been told, but orders of magnitude more brilliant than anyone had conveyed. Which statement will be very puzzling to anyone who hasn’t read the book, but just take my word for it: it makes perfect sense. And yes, this book will deservedly win this year’s Hugo, if the rumblings are right. Sorry, Temeraire, you’ll have another shot, I’m sure.

So. The actual review. Summarizing this book is quite difficult without being far too parsimonious or far too verbose. It’s SF, and there ain’t much squishy here. It’s told by Siri Keeton, informational synthesist, professional observer, member of a tiny human expedition sent out to meet an unknown alien presence at the outskirts of the solar system. Mostly human – it’s hard to classify people living on the “bleeding edge” of the future, with edited brains and altered bodies. They meet the Scramblers, an alien race more frighteningly alien than anything I’ve ever seen in any other science fiction. There they are reminded of the eminent hackability of the human brain, what a fragile machine it really is, and that’s just the start.

It’s hard, because I want everyone to read this book, though I know the majority of people won’t get past the first fifty pages. It’s not just the hard SF elements, not the dense but oddly beautiful prose. This book just requires a lot. It’s packed tight with theory, and I don’t know what it would be like going in without at least a conversant background in biology, psychology, neurology, a bit of physics. It’s just that, when the boom swings around about three-quarters of the way in and smacks you on the forehead, you really should be leaning forward eagerly into it. And I don’t think that’ll work if you’re struggling to keep up with the ologies. The science isn’t background here, it’s not ambiance, and the unprepared reader would probably be very puzzled by an obscure and strangely technical alien encounter book.

Because you’ve got to do the work to get the payoff. It’s one of those arguments which is reduced out of all reasonableness by reduction at all – that’s why it’s not made often. Watts called this book a “thought experiment.” It’s about intelligence existing in the absence of sentience, of that conscious I first person narrator. About the brilliance of our brainstems; they are faster than us, smarter than us, perfectly capable of surviving just fine without upper management – that’s what the brainstem is for, after all, surviving. Blindsight starts there, and then bypasses the perennial bottleneck of what consciousness is, and goes straight on to what it’s for. Evolutionarily. Biologically. I think its conclusions are wrong. Well, I hope its conclusions are wrong. But it’s brilliant none the less.

"You invest so much in it, don't you? It's what elevates you above the beasts of the field, it's what makes you special. Homo sapiens, you call yourself.
Wise Man. Do you even know what it is, this consciousness you cite in your own exaltation? Do you even know what it's for?

Maybe you think it gives you free will. Maybe you've forgotten that sleepwalkers converse, drive vehicles, commit crimes and clean up afterwards, unconscious
the whole time. Maybe nobody's told you that even waking souls are only slaves in denial.

Make a conscious choice. Decide to move your index finger. Too late! The electricity's already halfway down your arm. Your body began to act a full half-second
before your conscious self 'chose' to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary—almost an afterthought—
to the homunculus behind your eyes. That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality:
it reads the summary and it sees the hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other.

But it's not in charge. You're not in charge. If free will even exists, it doesn't share living space with the likes of you.

Insight, then. Wisdom. The quest for knowledge, the derivation of theorems, science and technology and all those exclusively human pursuits that must surely
rest on a conscious foundation. Maybe that's what sentience would be for— if scientific breakthroughs didn't spring fully-formed from the subconscious
mind, manifest themselves in dreams, as full-blown insights after a deep night's sleep. It's the most basic rule of the stymied researcher: stop thinking
about the problem. Do something else. It will come to you if you just stop being conscious of it."

A fascinating, difficult book. I was right there all the way, but then again I took a lot less convincing than many readers probably will. That, and I was highly entertained by the quick and dirty tour of some of the stranger stops in the DSM-IV (oh right, there’s Cotard’s Syndrome. Love that one). Not for everyone by its very nature, and also by necessity populated with strange, uncuddly people and stranger situations, so that a casual, surface read of a typical hard SF story may or may not be enjoyable. I don’t know, and the inaccessibility is not a flaw, it’s a necessity. I do know that I admire the single-mindedness required to write so narrowly, so smartly, and that it's definitely worth the work, if you're positioned for it.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Amber (new) - added it

Amber Dunten This book just came up on a list of "SF & Fantasy books hat will make you smarter," and having never heard of it, I hopped over here to have a look at a few ratings and reviews. OMG I want to read this book. Want. Want. Want.


Lightreads Amber wrote: "This book just came up on a list of "SF & Fantasy books hat will make you smarter," and having never heard of it, I hopped over here to have a look at a few ratings and reviews. OMG I want to read ..."

I do recommend it! The sequel is not nearly so ground-breaking (and actually, this book is not nearly so ground-breaking in 2014 as it was even just a few years ago). But it's still totally worth it.


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