Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Report: Blindsight, by Peter Watts


This was a hard book to review. There's a significant amount of buzz about this book (Charlie Stross, Elizabeth Bear, Jeremy Lassen, Starlog, Interzone,), and I would say, by and large, it's mostly deserved. Mostly.

Blindsight is the story of a small four man crew (with a few back up popsicles in cryosleep) who go out to meet up with an alien ship that's entering our solar system. It's a scientific exploration of philosophy dressed up as a First Contact story.

The term I heard the most in reviews is "tour de force". And it was. Blindsight was a tour de force of everything Peter Watts. Or, at least, it certainly felt like it (especially in reading the end notes where the personality and "voice" of the author carried across from the fiction). It's a flashy book with slick prose and ideas flying around like fists in a bar brawl (I hate it when reviewers get figurative). And it was a problematic read.

There were a number of reasons for the difficulty, not the least of which was choosing a main character who literally had no empathy (severe childhood epilepsy led to radical surgery that removed part of his brain). This lack of empathy made the protag (Siri) a perfect observer, a "Synthesist", one who had a seriously good Theory of Mind and can read people's topology, sorta a complete personality and body language simulation running in his head.

Peter Watts, from his blog and his writing, comes across as a very intentioned guy, so I'm sure he had a solid theoretical reason for why a non-empath would be a great observer, however it was not apparent to me how a person with no emotions could predict the feelings and emotions of others. I know some people who have empathy problems and they tend to be socially awkward and many times cannot understand other peoples' actions and have a hard time anticipating social responses. This doesn't kill the book by any means, but it does make Watts' job that much harder and I don't understand the utility of it.

Yes, there are times later on when discussion of the Chinese Room comes up and the protag suggests he is a Chinese Room, responding to words as stimuli with programmed responses. (Illustrated by remembrances of a failed relationship that seemed to me chock full of emotion. I also wondered if Siri had absolutely no emotions or interests why he would be dating in the first place and why he would be straight or any sexual orientation for that matter.) There was also a comparison of psychopathology, xenopsychology, Theory of Mind, and the protag's lack of empathy, but these topics were inevitable and the protag's situation did not shine further light on the issues.

Also, Siri somehow gets his empathy back at the end. At least I guess he did. This was part of his character arc and I don't get how this all went down. I mean, physically it was beaten into him by the captain, but I don't get why that would work.

At the heart of it, Blindsight is a scientific exploration of self, identity, consciousness, and intelligence. Watts questions the role of consciousness in intelligence and makes an argument that perhaps there's no real correlation between the two. The aliens in Blindsight have no sense of self but have a superior Theory of Mind, are supergeniouses, and seem to be able to spawn pretty sophisticated Chinese Room chat-bots. This brings up two questions:

A- Why would the aliens care? Why would they come in the first place? Yes, there is a two-page explanation, when the protag simulates the topology of a non-sentient intelligence. The aliens liken sentience to a virus, an aberration they must destroy. But I still don't get why they think we're infectious. They're not infected by us. The virus analogy only goes so far and if anything, since they presumably have come to destroy us, they are the aggressive invading force. I just couldn't buy why a non-sentient intelligence would expend so much energy and resources to destroy consciousness, especially since the implication towards the end of the book is that we have pretty much done ourselves in already. There's plenty of non-sentient intelligence on planet Earth and none of it seems to be actively trying to destroy humanity. (Besides the Tea Party Movement. Boom! [I know, doesn't count, I was talking about intelligence. Double BOOM! Sorry]).

B- If these aliens are so smart and have such a superior Theory of Mind, then why do they spin up a Chinese Room when they could have just spun up an actual working human mind (they can read our neurology, they've got complete working maps and scans) and negotiate? I mean, I guess they don't want to negotiate, and perhaps such a creation is a perversion to them, or as close to a perversion as an unempathetic non-sentient intelligence can get.

There's a lot of intra-group politicking that goes on while the four-man team goes out to explore and contact the alien ship/machine/artifact. It's pretty interesting, but much of it is inexplicable until the end, though I was still scratching my head as to why it had to be such a mystery.

There's also a lot of development of this biological vampire, Sarasti. Watts has the whole history of a nonhuman hominid predator, one that fed off humans like a keystone predator. It's very well worked out and pretty interesting, but I still don't understand why he put it in the book. It's like he made this cool little toy and just had to stick it in the novel somehow. The vampire is autistic and super smart and for some reason in control of the mission (there's this throwaway line towards the end of the book where we're told that the reason they didn't put the ship's quantum computing AI in charge was that humans don't like to take orders from machines. Right, so the alternative that Watts came up with was to put a predatory biological psychopathic autistic supersmart vampire in charge of a bunch of humans that it regards as cattle. Makes total sense). It is a very cool concept and I'm fairly certain we will be reading about it in a sequel at some point.

So, if this review comes off as negative you'd be wrong. This is a terribly ambitious book that dealt with a host of thorny scientific and philosophical issues. Could Watts have chosen fewer and made a cleaner book? Sure, of course he could have, but that would have been a different book. Some of the action scenes are a bit hard to follow and some of the jargon he uses is made up (Oasa Objects, Gray's syndrome), which infuriated me as they were key issues that I googled and found no definitions. (Note: Mr. Watts, if you're reading this, please explain your made up terminology sooner rather than later, especially when its key to the plot, like the Oasa object. How can I picture it when you don't define it?) But these are just technical issues. The truth is this book took serious risks and I wish there were more like it.

Note: Watts released this book for free on his website under a Creative Commons license. It comes in PDF, HTML, and other formats and is available here. Along with the book, his website also contains some additional content, like a half-hour video presentation about the vampires. His site is a bit old and a bit buggy, but there's a lot of cool stuff in there. Check it out.

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