Book Review – Blindsight by Peter Watts

I’ve always loved Science Fiction, and not just because books about the future are inherently cool. The reason I’ve always loved science fiction is because I’ve always loved philosophy. From a young age I enjoyed thinking about what makes us human, what is the nature of “self”, what is the nature of reality, and a host of other questions along those lines. Science fiction stories are able to take philosophical thought experiments and put them into a literal environment. This type of setting might not serve to replace an in-depth philosophical or scientific analysis, but it will at the very least prompt your mind into a continued exploration of these ideas, with the benefit of telling the story in a far more interesting way than can be done in 1800s London! (sorry Dickens)

Blindsight might be one of the most superb books I’ve ever read at this type of story telling. In part because every aspect of this book is infused with it, from the nature of the characters themselves, to the dialog, to the plot. Whether you want your philosophy just beneath the surface or knocking you over the head, this book will deliver…as long as you want both.

On the surface Blindsight is your classic first contact story, with a special team sent to the edge of the solar system to make contact with an alien intelligence. But in this not to distant future humanity has modified itself to the point where none of the characters involved are recognizably human. While this might not be the newest plot device ever, it’s not in the realm of physical differences that sets these characters apart, but in mental differences. In the nature of their consciousness. The crew is made up of a linguist with surgically induced multiple personality disorder, a biologist so biologically altered that he can see x-rays and taste ultrasound, a pacifist warrior, and a narrator with half his brain removed and replaced by machinery, lacking in empathy but able to model  the behavior and thoughts of others, and all of them led by a genetically reconstructed vampire. And it is when they finally make contact with the aliens, who, paradoxically, may be intelligent but not sentient, and who further, are not particularly happy to see them, that the story really grabs you by the balls (or whatever you prefer to be grabbed by). Watts was seamlessly able to mix action, terror, and philosophy into one engaging narrative. Something I didn’t think could be easily done.

A few of the more interesting questions (to me) in regards to consciousness have to do with why consciousness would ever have evolved. What were its benefits? What were the mechanisms that allowed it to evolve? What function did it serve? Blindsight doesn’t attempt to answer any of these questions specifically. But what it does do, and do brilliantly, is pose a whole bunch of related questions that make those questions I asked even more important. Anyone familiar with neurological conditions such as agnosia, neglect, and yes, blindsight, knows that the brain can go wrong in countless ways, radically altering our conscious experience. Anyone who has excelled at a sport or a musical instrument knows that thinking too consciously about something just interferes with your ability to do it well. By pointing out the drawbacks and limitations of consciousness, Watts forces us ask ourselves, “what IS consciousness good for?”

I found something that I wrote some years back, it was just a passing thought that I never explored, but it was this:

Consciousness almost seems like a bad adaptive trait. It almost gets in the way sometimes. Limits our focus. Why do we have a brain that can store so much data, but this consciousness that has a limit of the awareness of that data.

If any of these questions interest you, and you enjoy science fiction, and don’t mind a bit of a darker bend to you reading material, do yourself a favor and check out this book.

Also, kudos to Watts for including a notes and references section (in a fiction book!) explaining all the legitimate scientific sources the ideas in the book were taken from.