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How do you say "We come in peace" when the very words are an act of war?”
Blindsight is a hard sci-fi novel by Canadian author and marine biologist Peter Watts. It's a dark and cerebral First Contact story that deals heavily with issues of sentience and what it means to be an "intelligent" species. Despite being nominated for a Hugo Award for "Best Novel", the novel is hard to find in stores (owing to troubles with the publisher). Watts, deciding he'd rather have the book be easily available for anyone to read, put the whole thing up on his website for free.
In the near future, an event known as the "Firefall" stuns the world when a collection of unknown alien objects burn up in the Earth's atmosphere, simultaneously in a grid over the entire planet, accompanied by a strong radio signal. The signal is tracked by scientists to an approaching alien vessel outside the solar system. A mission is quickly organized to send a ship out to establish contact and see what's going on.
A crew full of odd and eccentric specialists are aboard: a linguist with surgically-induced multiple personalities, a biologist who's given up his sensory pathways for machine augmentation and perception, a top-brass soldier known for treason, and the protagonist is an information analyst with half his brain removed. They are all lead by a literal vampire, a sociopathic genius and cannibal who, nonetheless, is the only one coldly-logical enough to run the mission.
The book is known to be a depressing and pessimistic (yet enlightening) story on a variety of topics relating to consciousness, information theory, and neurology, and has received highly positive critical acclaim despite its semi-obscurity.
This book features the following tropes (Warning: spoilers below):
- Action Girl: Amanda Bates, the military portion of the crew.
- Ambiguous Syntax: Intentionally used in-universe in a dialog with the aliens to see if they really understand or are just using sophisticated translation algorithms to parse the syntax.
- Antimatter: The Theseus is powered by an anti-matter engine. This later is used as a bomb in Jukka's final Taking You with Me action against Rorschach.
- All There in the Manual: The back of the book has a "Notes and References" section that fleshes out some of the more radical ideas in the novel. Watts's website also provides supplementary information, including a fictional in-universe audio log and powerpoint presentation of a scientist presenting his findings on the vampire sub-species to his "FizerPharm" investors.
- Anyone Can Die: Considering Watts' past work, and since the novel is very dark and pessimistic, this is a given. Almost everyone does die, including the implication that humanity back on Earth is doomed.
- Apocalypse How: Class 3. Sirri suggests that by the time he returns to Earth, the vampires would have exterminated humanity and taken their places as rightful owners of the world.
- Attack Drone: Commanded by Bates, who insists on personally inspecting every newly-fabricated drone.
- Arc Words: "Imagine you are [X]."
- The Captain: Jukka Sarasti, the vampire. It's later revealed that the ship itself, the Theseus, is artificially intelligent and was the real captain the whole time.
- Character Tics: Jukka clicks his sharpened teeth together. Cunningham is noted as frequently smoking.
- Cool Starship: The Theseus.
- Cosmic Horror Story: Blindsight deals extensively with characters that display psychopathic or sociopathic traits, and is set in a future in which the basic human sense of worth is undermined by the social implications of new technologies. But the true cosmic horror is not revealed until near the end of the story, as it's revealed that Watts is portraying a universe in which sapience (that is, self-awareness, sentience, and the empathy that goes with it) is unnecessary for advanced intelligence and creative thinking. In fact, it's a inefficient, tending to lead to solipsism and wasting resources on pointless endeavours like art. Apparently most other species in the Blindsight universe may not be sentient at all, despite posessing vast intelligence and the ability to travel the distances between stars.
- Crapsack World: The short version is that mankind hit The Singularity...and it didn't really take. If the bastardized technological world doesn't kill us, the superintelligent sociopath vampires we brought back to life with our genetic prowess and put in charge of everything will. And if they don't...well, the novel is about how we just met an intelligent alien life vastly superior to our own single planet existence and it very may well want to wipe us out.
- Cybernetics Dull Your Senses: Isaac Szpindel's mechanical augments let him interface directly with the ship's labs - giving him all the senses that implies - but his own normal senses have been so numbed that he has to wear force-feedback gloves just to give him a sense of touch. Cunningham, Isaac's replacement, gets around this by using the neurons that control his face instead.
- Death Is Cheap: This is what allows the crew to explore Rorschach. Body riddled with tumours? The Theseus has the facilities to let you sleep that off. Unfortunately for Szpindel, you can't sleep off a gaping head wound.
- Doing in the Wizard: Vampires, in the novel, are explained as an extinct subspecies of humans that evolved to prey on normal humans in ancient times. This explains the persistent myths and stories about them: these are a kind of racial memory. Many of the qualities of Vampires are given logical, scientific explanations as well. See Our Vampires Are Different below.
- Downer Ending: Nearly all the characters in the novel end up dead or soon to be dead, and it's implied that humanity back home on Earth is doomed by a vampire uprising. In a more general sense, we've discovered that humanity is an abberation in a cold, uncaring universe.
- Eldritch Abomination: Rorschach is an intelligent, city-sized, incredibly scary vessel, filled with an unbreathable toxic atmosphere. Merely going aboard will drive you temporarily insane.
- Closer to home, vampires cause a predation PTSD in humans that dates from long before recorded history, and is apparently so hardwired that simply being face-to-face with one induces fear, if not outright panic.
- First Contact: The reason behind the manning of the Theseus which would otherwise operate unmanned.
- Five-Man Band: In a twisted, highly unusual way, but it's there.
- Fridge Horror: The Backups. Cunningham got woken up, but there was another Gang of linguists, a military officer, and a synthesist in the crypt who weren't disturbed, presumably the contextual second-best in their fields. From their point of view they would have lain in their coffins in earth orbit, expecting to be brought back from the dead, and never woke up again
- Genetic Memory: Most normal people - that is, baseline humans - are naturally, automatically, and helplessly freaked out when they encounter a Vampire in the flesh, to the degree that it's akin to having PTSD flashbacks. On an instinctual level the human brain sense that the Vampire is a predator and can't help but fear it. This is due to the fact that, in antiquity, Vampires used to hunt prehistoric humans as prey.
- Heroic Sacrifice: The entire crew of the Theseus, except for Siri.
- Inside a Computer System: The aptly named "Heaven".
- Love Potion: Not exactly a Love Potion, but after Siri has half of his brain removed, his mother secretly gives him stimulants to promote mother/child bonding.
- Manchurian Agent: Susan's fifth personality.
- My Beloved Smother: Helen's relationship with Sirri.
- Not So Stoic: Sirri quickly loses his detached demeanor following Jukka torturing him.
- Our Vampires Are Different: A human sub-species adapted to prey on us. As such, they have superior pattern-matching skills (all the tricks of autistic savants plus more) and general intelligence, better night-vision and the ability to put themselves into suspended animation. Unfortunately, their superintelligence came at the cost of having fatal epileptic seizures if intersecting right-angles take up too much of their visual field, meaning that when humans invented architecture the vampires all died out. The resurrected vampires have to take "anti-euclidean" drugs to enable them to survive.
- Posthumous Character: Siri's girlfriend Chelsea.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The Theseus' crew.
- Red Herring: There are several, both in-universe and as a narrative device. For example, there is the issue of Amanda Bates' mutiny against Jukka Sarasti, the messages from Rorschach, the Burns-Caulfield comet, and the very nature of the Unreliable Narrator.
- Science Marches On: The research Watts got a lot of his ideas from are almost all from Nature and Science, which are journals specifically designed to get out new, controversial research into the scientific community. As such, some of the cutting-edge ideas that Watts based the science of the novel on have now been disproven.
- Shown Their Work: The back of the book has a lengthy "Notes and References" section explaining the various Real Life science items that inspired Watts to write the story.
- Sociopathic Hero: The protagonist, Siri, has shades of this, since he doesn't actually feel emotion. Also, Jukka Sarasti, the commander of the crew. He is the one somewhat-reassuring ace-up-the-sleeve the crew seems to have in the face of the incomprehensible Eldritch Abomination referenced above. He is even somewhat superficially considerate, apparently wearing sunglasses to protect the crew from the primal fear of looking into his predator eyes. In fact, towards the end of the novel we learn of the supreme irony - the true captain of the ships is the AI 'Captain', whose creators assumed that the human crew would prefer to take orders from the inhuman, sociopathic Sarasti.
- Split Personality: Played with by the Gang of Four. Susan is the core personality, and the others were surgically induced to allow them to translate languages at incredible speed.
- Starfish Aliens: The Scramblers are among the best examples of this trope. It's implied that their alien way of thinking is actually the status-quo in the universe and that human self-awareness is an abberation. The Scramblers picked up our various transmissions from Earth and, after decrypting the signals, get incomprehensible (to them) statements about "feelings" and "identity". From their perspective, since they lack sentience, they assume the only reason to broadcast things like that to somebody is to waste their time; they see this as tying up vital processing power. As such, this appears to them as a kind of attack by us. So the aliens decide to strike back. Self-awareness itself - that which makes us human - is seen by the aliens as a dangerous virus to be stamped out.
- In a more literal sense, they actually resemble starfish, considering their distributed eyespot array. Peter Watts, after all, is a marine biologist.
- Taking You with Me: Jukka Sarasti/Theseus' final strategy against Rorschach.
- Title Drop: "Blindsight" is a real-life phenonemon where blind people whose eyes are not actually physically damaged can sometimes avoid obstacles in their path, despite not being able to consciously see them; their brain processes visual input despite the normal vision part of the brain being damaged so that they are not consciously aware of their vision. In the novel, this is used as a fundamental metaphor for the distinction between conscious and unconscious mental processing; the characters experience a variety of forms of Blindsight when their cognition is impaired by Rorschachs magnetic fields, the Scramblers are suspected to be non-sentient beings for whom all sensation is blindsight, Vampires are implied to be similarly evolving toward non-sentience, and the fundamental horror of the novel rests in the final implication that non-sentient, unconscious cognition is evolutionary superior and will dominate in the universe. Human awareness is portrayed as inherently self-destructive in the creation ofHeaven and the Singularity.
- Too Dumb to Live: All of humanity. Why don't we bring back the predators and put them in charge of everything?
- Unreliable Narrator: Siri does not have any sort of doctorate, and also has serious problems empathizing with people for backstory reasons. As such, his perceptions of the world and how other characters think and feel is often suspect and sometimes proven outright wrong.
- Verbal Tic: Szpindel ends every other sentence with 'eh?'.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: But the uneducated reader forcing themselves through it will learn many interesting things, guaranteed. With this expectation, Watts includes a lengthy citation section that references the most bleeding-edge theorists and scientists in many fields, for follow-up if you've recovered from the book itself.
- Weaksauce Weakness: The vampire's classic weakness against crosses is discovered to be a weakness against anything with intersecting right angles. See Our Vampires Are Different.
- We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future: Averted.
- Write What You Know: Watts' Starfish Aliens are starfishy-er than usual, due in large part to his expertise in marine biology. The premise for the book comes from some of the more out-there theories on how intelligent marine life could differ from intelligence as we know it.