Peter Watts’ Blindsight is my favorite novel. It’s the novel I’ve given as a gift more times than any other. Many good things can be said about Blindsight through many different lenses of critical analysis, but I like to focus on one of the key questions that every reader of fiction struggles with over the course of their life: “Why do you read?”
It’s safe to say each person can be a reader for many different reasons, but it’s clear to me that one of my favorite things about the experience of reading, one of the main reasons I read, is this: To have my mind blown.
And Blindsight will blow your mind. I still recall vividly the moment in 2011 when it blew mine. When I reached the relevant part of the story – let’s call it the “big reveal” – I had to stand up and walk around my house to calm down. That page of text contained all the punch of a The Sixth Sense-level plot twist combined with a perspective-shifting philosophical idea that changed my thinking forever. I couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks.
There are lots of Sci-Fi novels that have great ideas, and there are lots of Sci-Fi novels that have great drama and entertainment value, but there are few that are both wildly fun experiences and wildly transformative expositions. The vast majority of Sci-Fi authors are either good at making you feel things, or else skilled at making you think about things, but rarely both. It’s usually the latter – Sci-Fi attracts the aspirant writer with big ideas, while folks with a talent for plot and character find better starting materials in other genres. Peter Watts is good at both making you think and making you feel.
For (counter)example, let’s look at another superficially similar story: Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. For some reason it’s typical for stories set in space in the near-future to feature as main characters the “intrepid explorer” archetype, and Rama is no exception. Imagine an astronaut from the Apollo program, and you’ve got the type. Highly competent, mission-focused, flawless. Has a wife and kids but never mentions them. Clarke’s novel, viewed as a classic of the “weird-thing-found-in-space-in-the-near-future” subgenre – of which Blindsight is also a member – spotlights such bland characters that I cannot remember a single thing about them. In contrast, the characters of Blindsight are somehow simultaneously weird and fascinating, and yet totally relatable. Thus, it captures the pathos inherent in the dramatic situation – the story forces you to imagine how you, personally would deal with getting tossed into an experimental spaceship and blasted out past Pluto with only a crash-course of mission training and a total mystery waiting for you in deep space. I don’t think I’d deal, frankly. In Clarke’s book, the titular space-object Rama is the focus; in Watts’ book, the struggle of the protagonist Siri Keeton is unquestionably the core of the story.
Concerning style: This is a Hard Sci-Fi reader’s Hard Sci-Fi novel. The prose expects you to know science – the author, after all, was a marine biologist for many years before he tried his hand at writing novels. When one character expresses concern that the movement of nearby asteroids might be under the influence of an unseen and malevolent force, and another character dismisses the concern by offhandedly stating, “Normal distribution,” you’re expected to get what he means instantly. He’s saying basically “the behavior of the asteroids does not deviate from what one would expect from random processes, therefore there is probably no unseen force.” A real technical person really would just mutter “normal distribution,” because it’s more concise and he knows his colleagues will know what he means, so it works for me. But, you may be annoyed if this isn’t your milieu.
This is how everybody talks, really – you, me, your grandma. We all rely on shorthand and shared knowledge. When you walk into your buddy’s office on Monday and say, without preamble, “Did you see that interception?” you expect him to know what you’re talking about. You don’t need to say, “Were you watching the televised American football game between the NFL teams known as the Giants and the Packers in which the quarterback of the Packers attempted to throw a pass to a running back but the football was intercepted in mid-flight by one of the defending Giants players resulting in possession of the ball changing hands?” For some reason, lots of Sci-Fi gets bogged down with characters going into a level of detail that would earn them weird looks in real life. Inevitably some people will criticize this novel’s prose for being too opaque, but if it were more wordy, a different set of people would criticize it for devoting too much space to explication. Pick your poison – I prefer Watts’ dense style.
If Blindsight sounds like your kind of thing, I have good news: you can read it right here, online, for free. I loved it so much that I ordered three paper copies from Amazon – one for myself, two to give as gifts. Blindsight was originally published as a book, you know, a paper book, but its release was botched and nobody bought it. Watts released it online for free; it gained a cult following; then it became a critical success. This means Blindsight is yet another example of the Internet bringing us something great that the publishing industry has failed to deliver.