Thursday, 11 August 2016

Blindsight by Peter Watts

*Spoilers Below*

I really really tried with this book, but it was always a book that required that I slog through, trying to find snippets of enjoyment. Unfortunately, they were few and far between. I wanted to like this book a great deal more than I did, but I ended up stubbing my toe on the distance between the author and his readers, the lack of exploration on the themes I did find interesting, and something that happened near the end that both baffled and upset me.

As far as science fiction goes, Watts is trying to pack a whole lot of changes in human society into a fairly small number of pages. That's cool, and I generally like it when authors are ambitious, but in this case, it means that he mentions what seem like really interesting ideas, enough for their own entire book, that are just thrown out there and left.

We get some of the digital nirvana that people are uploading their bodies to, which is not particularly new, but then Watts layers on terrorists who are attacking targets both virtual and actual, and that is not developed. It's pretty much too good of an idea to just throw out and then not develop. It could have been its own book.

But then, I wasn't particularly happy with what this book did with its main plot either. Alien somethings appear in space, and a crew is sent to meet them. Due to the exigencies of the project, most of them qualify as "barely human anymore," with perhaps the exception of the marine. (Who keeps being referred to as a pacifist, even though we see her fight all the time, and I...what? If there was any in-depth discussion of her "pacifism," I missed it.)

And this is a problem with a lot of the prose. I frequently ended up with utter "huh?" moments, when the text would assert something that I totally hadn't gotten from an earlier scene, and I'd either have to go back and search, baffled, or just give up and assume.

The others are a...god, I even forget their specialties already, which gives you a good idea that they aren't much in obvious use in the book. The...linguist? has partitioned her brain to create four personalities that time-share in an artificially-induced MPD. Interesting, but other than the assertion that one of the personalities is having an affair with another crew member, how that works is not really explored in depth. ("Is not really explored in depth" could be my catch phrase for why I found this book disappointing.)

Another, a...biologist? has been so cybernetically altered that everything he senses is through artificial senses, giving him a weird kind of synaesthesia. Okay, cool, what? The captain is a vampire, resurrected from old samples and sent out as an apex predator in case those aliens need some preying upon. Which, putting him in charge shows a rather specific assumption of how we're going to handle first contact, doesn't it?

And then there's the narrator, who suffered from extreme epilepsy as a child, and the only way to cure it seems to have been to utterly sever his emotions from his mind. It's not that he doesn't have them, although sometimes it seems like he doesn't. He's there because apparently he can take in huge amounts of information and synthesize them, because you need someone who is outside being human to do so. I am also a little skeptical of this, and found the character really frustrating. As in, I think Watts got across what he wanted, but that doesn't make him a lot of fun to spend time with. Particularly his devout belief in evolutionary psychology, which just always makes me annoyed.

The big problem here is that there are, as you can see, all these nuggets of ideas, but they aren't fully addressed. And as for the main plot, it feels like an exercise in keep-away from the reader - it's all so oblique that I was baffled at the end when the main character says that by the time he reaches the planet, he might be the last human left alive. I have NO IDEA why he says that, and by then I was frustrated enough not to want to go back and reread the last three chapters multiple times to see if I'd missed the part where these aliens they've just blown up are going to eradicate the planet. In fact, I thought he'd argued the opposite at the time - what we were doing that was inadvertently attacking the aliens was about to cease, giving them no more cause.

Which brings me to the other thing I found really frustrating. I know I've been saying over and over how sick I am of running into rapes in something between a quarter and a third of all the books I read. Now that I've started to notice how frequent it is, it's impossible to stop. Imagine how sick I am of coming across it as a plot device. I read three books a week, on average, and this means I'm getting to read about a rape roughly once a week. Imagine how little fun that is.

So, when reading this, with all the obliqueness, I got that the vampire attacked the main character. Then, a few chapters later, it's referred to as a rape. So, either it's a bad analogy, or the attack was described so obliquely that I couldn't tell it was a rape, and then it was brought up later. Either way, I'm not happy. If it's a bad analogy, it's a bad analogy. If it's an actual rape, I just have to sigh and start banging my head against the wall again.

Particularly, if it was an actual rape, it would fall into that thankfully small number of rapes I've read in science fiction that try to argue that they were done altruistically. As you might guess, I reject altruistic rape out of hand and get very, very angry with authors who try that shit. Whether they are male or female. (If this was a rape, that would make one male author and one female author where I've run across this.)

So just...stop. Stop with the rapes. Stop with bringing them into my world once a fucking week. If you have one in your book, have a damned good reason for why you can't tell this story without it. Do not use it as a way to make sure I know that the bad guy is a bad guy, or as motivation for a male character, or to show why the women characters had to get tough, or just...just don't.

I'm not even someone who is particularly triggered by sexual violence, above and beyond being a woman in our society and not wanting it to intrude into my leisure reading quite so fucking often. Think about all the women in your audience (and hopefully some of the men too) who will find that this makes your book unpleasant to read. FIND SOMETHING LESS LAZY.

God. And this book might not even have contained a rape, but that's a symptom of a problem I had with the writing. I was not about to go back and spend half an hour of my time investigating.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees


  1. Peter Watts does not like joy or happiness. From that angle, you may also want to avoid his partner Caitlin Sweet, who wrote one of the most depressingly bleak fantasy novels I have ever read (Pattern Scars).

    Watts is fairly consistent with overloading ideas into his settings; there's a lot of that in his Rifter's trilogy.

    The reason he's that last human is that by the time he gets back, everyone has either uploaded or gone through brain modifications to the point of no longer being human, or, indeed, conscious. Everyone on Earth is an unconscious actor, just like the starfish.

    The followup book, Echopraxia, is even more dense and bleak. It does explain what happens on Earth while Siri is out meeting aliens. What happens is not pleasant.

    I still like his stuff, but it's something I have to gird myself for.

    1. Yeah, I don't think I'll be reading more of his. And ah - I was just under the impression near the end that after the mass terrorist attacks on the uploads that people were leaving them in droves, which is why the "no more humans" things baffled me. That's also a pretty bleak view of computer uploads.