Blindsightby Peter Watts
Space vampires and a whole lot more, when Peter Watts moves into the future in space. Canadian writer Watts is on the cutting edge of hard SF, especially in characterization. His satirical resurrecting-the-vampire film ought to help promote this dark, pow
Space vampires and a whole lot more, when Peter Watts moves into the future in space. Canadian writer Watts is on the cutting edge of hard SF, especially in characterization. His satirical resurrecting-the-vampire film ought to help promote this dark, pow
“Watts explores the nature of consciousness in this stimulating hard SF novel, which combines riveting action with a fascinating alien environment. Watts puts a terrifying and original spin on the familiar alien contact story. ” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A brilliant piece of work, one that will delight fans of hard science fiction, but will also demonstrate to literary fans that contemporary science fiction is dynamic and fascinating literature that demands to be read.” The Edmonton Journal
“Astonishingly readable book. . . . [Watts is] one of the two or three best hard SF writers around, and this is his finest book to date.” Interzone
"Blindsight is fearless: a magnificent, darkly gleaming jewel of a book that hurdles the contradictions inherent in biochemistry, consciousness, and human hearts without breaking stride. Imagine you are Siri Keeton. Imagine you are nothing at all. You don't have to; Peter Watts has done it for you.” Elizabeth Bear, author of Hammered
“Peter Watts has taken the core myths of the First Contact story and shaken them to pieces. The result is a shocking and mesmerizing performance, a tour-de-force of provocative and often alarming ideas. It is a rare novel that has the potential to set science fiction on an entirely new course. Blindsight is such a book.” Karl Schroeder
“Blindsight is a tour de force, redefining the First Contact story for good. Peter Watts' aliens are neither humans in funny make-up nor incomprehensible monoliths beyond human comprehension -- they're something new and infinitely more disturbing, forcing us to confront unpalatable possibilities about the nature of consciousness. It's good, and it'll make your skin crawl when you stop to think about it. Strongly recommended: this may be the best hard SF read of 2006.” Charles Stross
“Blindsight is excellent. It's state-of-the-art science fiction: smart, dark and it grabs you by the throat from page one. Like a C J Cherryh book it makes you feel the danger of the hostile environment (or lack of one) out there. And unlike many books it plays with some fascinating possibilities in human development (I like the idea of some disabilities becoming advantages here) and some disconcerting ideas about human consciousness (understanding what action preceding though actually means). What else can I say? Thanks for giving me the privilege of reading this.” Neal Asher
“It seems clear that every second Peter Watts is not actually writing must be spent reading, out at the cutting edge of all the sciences and all the arts at once. Only that can't be so, because he obviously spends fully as much time thinking about everything he's read, before he sits down to turn it into story. His latest starts by proving that there are circumstances in which half a brain is better than one, or even a dozen-and then builds steadily in strangeness and wonder with every page. If Samuel R. Delany, Greg Egan and Vernor Vinge had collaborated to update Algis Budrys's classic Rogue Moon for the new millenium, they might have produced a novel as powerful and as uniquely beautiful as Blindsight. Its narrator is one of the most unforgettable characters I have ever encountered in fiction.” Spider Robinson, co-author of Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson
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By Watts, Peter
Tor BooksCopyright © 2006 Watts, Peter
All right reserved.
Blood makes noise.
Imagine you are Siri Keeton.
You wake in an agony of resurrection, gasping after a record-shattering bout of sleep apnea spanning one hundred forty days. You can feel your blood, syrupy with dobutamine and leuenkephalin, forcing its way through arteries shriveled by months on standby. The body inflates in painful increments: blood vessels dilate, flesh peels apart from flesh, ribs crack in your ears with sudden unaccustomed flexion. Your joints have seized up through disuse. You're a stick man, frozen in some perverse rigor vitae.
You'd scream if you had the breath.
Vampires did this all the time, you remember. It was normal for them, it was their own unique take on resource conservation. They could have taught your kind a few things about restraint, if that absurd aversion to right angles hadn't done them in at the dawn of civilization. Maybe they still can. They're back now, after all--raised from the grave with the voodoo of paleogenetics, stitched together from junk genes and fossil marrow steeped in the blood of sociopaths and high-functioning autistics. One of them commands this very mission. A handful of his genes live on in your own body so it too can rise from the dead, here at the edge of interstellar space. Nobody getspast Jupiter without becoming part vampire.
The pain begins, just slightly, to recede. You fire up your inlays and access your own vitals. It'll be long minutes before your body responds fully to motor commands, hours before it stops hurting. The pain's an unavoidable side effect. That's just what happens when you splice vampire subroutines into Human code. You asked about painkillers once, but nerve blocks of any kind compromise metabolic reactivation. Suck it up, soldier.
You wonder if this was how it felt for Chelsea, before the end. But that evokes a whole other kind of pain, so you block it out and concentrate on the life pushing its way back into your extremities. Suffering in silence, you check the logs for fresh telemetry.
You think: That can't be right.
Because if it is, you're in the wrong part of the universe. You're not in the Kuiper Belt where you belong: you're high above the ecliptic and deep into the Oort, the realm of long-period comets that only grace the sun every million years or so. You've gone interstellar, which means (you bring up the system clock) you've been undead for eighteen hundred days.
You've overslept by almost five years.
The lid of your coffin slides away. Your own cadaverous body reflects from the mirrored bulkhead opposite, a desiccated lungfish waiting for the rains. Bladders of isotonic saline cling to its limbs like engorged antiparasites, like the opposite of leeches. You remember the needles going in just before you shut down, way back when your veins were more than dry twisted filaments of beef jerky.
Szpindel's reflection stares back from his own pod to your immediate right. His face is as bloodless and skeletal as yours. His wide sunken eyes jiggle in their sockets as he reacquires his own links, sensory interfaces so massive that your own off-the-shelf inlays amount to shadow puppetry in comparison.
You hear coughing and the rustling of limbs just past line of sight, catch glimpses of reflected motion where the others stir at the edge of vision.
"Wha . . . " your voice is barely more than a hoarse whisper, ". . . happ . . . ?"
Szpindel works his jaw. Bone cracks audibly.
". . . Sssuckered," he hisses.
You haven't even met the aliens yet, and already they're running rings around you.
So we dragged ourselves back from the dead: five part-time cadavers, naked, emaciated, barely able to move even in zero g. We emerged from our coffins like premature moths ripped from their cocoons, still half-grub. We were alone and off course and utterly helpless, and it took a conscious effort to remember: They would never have risked our lives if we hadn't been essential.
"Morning, commissar." Isaac Szpindel reached one trembling, insensate hand for the feedback gloves at the base of his pod. Just past him, Susan James was curled into a loose fetal ball, murmuring to herselves. Only Amanda Bates, already dressed and cycling through a sequence of bone-cracking isometrics, possessed anything approaching mobility. Every now and then she tried bouncing a rubber ball off the bulkhead; but not even she was up to catching it on the rebound yet.
The journey had melted us down to a common archetype. James's round cheeks and hips; Szpindel's high forehead and lumpy, lanky chassis--even the enhanced carboplatinum brick shit house that Bates used for a body--all had shriveled to the same desiccated collection of sticks and bones. Even our hair seemed to have become strangely discolored during the voyage, although I knew that was impossible. More likely it was just filtering the pallor of the skin beneath. Still. The pre-dead James had been dirty blond, Szpindel's hair had been almost dark enough to call black, but the stuff floating from their scalps looked the same dull kelpy brown to me now. Bates kept her head shaved, but even her eyebrows weren't as rusty as I remembered them.
We'd revert to our old selves soon enough. Just add water. For now, though, the old slur was freshly relevant: The Undead really did all look the same, if you didn't know how to look.
If you did, of course--if you forgot appearance and watched for motion, ignored meat and studied topology--you'd never mistake one for another. Every facial tic was a data point, every conversational pause spoke volumes more than the words to either side. I could see James's personae shatter and coalesce in the flutter of an eyelash. Szpindel's unspoken distrust of Amanda Bates shouted from the corner of his smile. Every twitch of the phenotype cried aloud to anyone who knew the language.
"Where's--" James croaked, coughed, waved one spindly arm at Sarasti's empty coffin gaping at the end of the row.
Szpindel's lips cracked in a small rictus. "Gone back to Fab, eh? Getting the ship to build some dirt to lie on."
"Probably communing with the Captain." Bates breathed louder than she spoke, a dry rustle from pipes still getting reacquainted with the idea of respiration.
James again: "Could do that up here."
"Could take a dump up here, too," Szpindel rasped. "Some things you do by yourself, eh?"
And some things you kept to yourself. Not many baselines felt comfortable locking stares with a vampire--Sarasti, ever courteous, tended to avoid eye contact for exactly that reason--but there were other surfaces to his topology, just as mammalian and just as readable. If he had withdrawn from public view, maybe I was the reason. Maybe he was keeping secrets.
After all, Theseus damn well was.
She'd taken us a good fifteen AUs toward our destination before something scared her off course. Then she'd skidded north like a startled cat and started climbing: a wild high three-g burn off the ecliptic, thirteen hundred tonnes of momentum bucking against Newton's first. She'd emptied her Penn tanks, bled dry her substrate mass, squandered a hundred forty days' of fuel in hours. Then a long cold coast through the abyss, years of stingy accounting, the thrust of every antiproton weighed against the drag of sieving it from the void. Teleportation isn't magic: the Icarus stream couldn't send us the actual antimatter it made, only the quantum specs. Theseus had to filterfeed the raw material from space, one ion at a time. For long dark years she'd made do on pure inertia, hording every swallowed atom. Then a flip; ionizing lasers strafing the space ahead; a ramscoop thrown wide in a hard brake. The weight of a trillion trillion protons slowed her down and refilled her gut and flattened us all over again. Theseus had burned relentlessly until almost the moment of our resurrection.
It was easy enough to retrace those steps; our course was there in ConSensus for anyone to see. Exactly why the ship had blazed that trail was another matter. Doubtless it would all come out during the post-rez briefing. We were hardly the first vessel to travel under the cloak of sealed orders, and if there'd been a pressing need to know by now we'd have known by now. Still, I wondered who had locked out the Comm logs. Mission Control, maybe. Or Sarasti. Or Theseus herself, for that matter. It was easy to forget the Quantical AI at the heart of our ship. It stayed so discreetly in the background, nurtured and carried us and permeated our existence like an unobtrusive god; but like God, it never took your calls.
Sarasti was the official intermediary. When the ship did speak, it spoke to him--and Sarasti called it Captain.
So did we all.
He'd given us four hours to come back. It took more than three just to get me out of the crypt. By then my brain was at least firing on most of its synapses, although my body--still sucking fluids like a thirsty sponge--continued to ache with every movement. I swapped out drained electrolyte bags for fresh ones and headed aft.
Fifteen minutes to spin-up. Fifty to the post-resurrection briefing. Just enough time for those who preferred gravity-bound sleep to haul their personal effects into the drum and stake out their allotted 4.4 square meters of floor space.
Gravity--or any centripetal facsimile thereof--did not appeal to me. I set up my own tent in zero g and as far to stern as possible, nuzzling the forward wall of the starboard shuttle tube. The tent inflated like an abscess on Theseus's spine, a little climate-controlled bubble of atmosphere in the dark cavernous vacuum beneath the ship's carapace. My own effects were minimal; it took all of thirty seconds to stick them to the wall, and another thirty to program the tent's environment.
Afterward I went for a hike. After five years, I needed the exercise.
Stern was closest, so I started there, at the shielding that separated payload from propulsion. A single sealed hatch blistered the aft bulkhead dead center. Behind it, a service tunnel wormed back through machinery best left untouched by Human hands. The fat superconducting torus of the ramscoop ring; the antennae fan behind it, unwound now into an indestructible soap bubble big enough to shroud a city, its face turned sunward to catch the faint quantum sparkle of the Icarus antimatter stream. More shielding behind that; then the telematter reactor, where raw hydrogen and refined information conjured fire three hundred times hotter than the sun's. I knew the incantations, of course--antimatter cracking and deconstruction, the teleportation of quantum serial numbers--but it was still magic to me, how we'd come so far so fast. It would have been magic to anyone.
Except Sarasti, maybe.
Around me, the same magic worked at cooler temperatures and to less volatile ends: a small riot of chutes and dispensers crowded the bulkhead on all sides. A few of those openings would choke on my fist: one or two could swallow me whole. Theseus's fabrication plant could build everything from cutlery to cockpits. Give it a big enough matter stockpile and it could have even built another Theseus, albeit in many small pieces and over a very long time. Some wondered if it could build another crew as well, although we'd all been assured that was impossible. Not even these machines had fine enough fingers to reconstruct a few trillion synapses in the space of a human skull. Not yet, anyway.
I believed it. They would never have shipped us out fully assembled if there'd been a cheaper alternative.
I faced forward. Putting the back of my head against that sealed hatch I could see almost to Theseus's bow, an uninterrupted line of sight extending to a tiny dark bull's-eye thirty meters ahead. It was like staring at a great textured target in shades of white and gray: concentric circles, hatches centered within bulkheads one behind another, perfectly aligned. Every one stood open, in nonchalant defiance of a previous generation's safety codes. We could keep them closed if we wanted to, if it made us feel safer. That was all it would do, though; it wouldn't improve our empirical odds one whit. In the event of trouble those hatches would slam shut long milliseconds before Human senses could even make sense of an alarm. They weren't even computer-controlled. Theseus's body parts had reflexes.
I pushed off against the stern plating--wincing at the tug and stretch of disused tendons--and coasted forward, leaving Fab behind. The shuttle-access hatches to Scylla and Charybdis briefly constricted my passage to either side. Past them the spine widened into a corrugated extensible cylinder two meters across and--at the moment--maybe fifteen long. A pair of ladders ran opposite each other along its length; raised portholes the size of manhole covers stippled the bulkhead to either side. Most of those just looked into the hold. A couple served as general-purpose airlocks, should anyone want to take a stroll beneath the carapace. One opened into my tent. Another, four meters farther forward, opened into Bates's.
From a third, just short of the forward bulkhead, Jukka Sarasti climbed into view like a long white spider.
If he'd been Human I'd have known instantly what I saw there, I'd have smelled murderer all over his topology. And I wouldn't have been able to even guess at the number of his victims, because his affect was so utterly without remorse. The killing of a hundred would leave no more stain on Sarasti's surfaces than the swatting of an insect; guilt beaded and rolled off this creature like water on wax.
But Sarasti wasn't Human. Sarasti was a whole different animal, and coming from him all those homicidal refractions meant nothing more than predator. He had the inclination, was born to it; whether he had ever acted on it was between him and Mission Control.
Maybe they cut you some slack, I didn't say to him. Maybe it's just a cost of doing business. You're mission-critical, after all. For all I know you cut a deal. You're so very smart, you know we wouldn't have brought you back in the first place if we hadn't needed you. From the day they cracked the vat you knew you had leverage.
Is that how it works, Jukka? You save the world, and the folks who hold your leash agree to look the other way?
As a child I'd read tales about jungle predators transfixing their prey with a stare. Only after I'd met Jukka Sarasti did I know how it felt. But he wasn't looking at me now. He was focused on installing his own tent, and even if he had looked me in the eye there'd have been nothing to see but the dark wraparound visor he wore in deference to Human skittishness. He ignored me as I grabbed a nearby rung and squeezed past.
I could have sworn I smelled raw meat on his breath.
Into the drum (drums, technically; the BioMed hoop at the back spun on its own bearings). I flew through the center of a cylinder sixteen meters across. Theseus's spinal nerves ran along its axis, the exposed plexii and piping bundled against the ladders on either side. Past them, Szpindel's and James's freshly erected tents rose from nooks on opposite sides of the world. Szpindel himself floated off my shoulder, still naked but for his gloves, and I could tell from the way his fingers moved that his favorite color was green. He anchored himself to one of three stairways to nowhere arrayed around the drum: steep narrow steps rising five vertical meters from the deck into empty air.
The next hatch gaped dead-center of the drum's forward wall; pipes and conduits plunged into the bulkhead on each side. I grabbed a convenient rung to slow myself--biting down once more on the pain--and floated through.
T-junction. The spinal corridor continued forward, a smaller diverticulum branched off to an EVA cubby and the forward airlock. I stayed the course and found myself back in the crypt, mirror-bright and less than two meters deep. Empty pods gaped to the left; sealed ones huddled to the right. We were so irreplaceable we'd come with replacements. They slept on, oblivious. I'd met three of them back in training. Hopefully none of us would be getting reacquainted any time soon.
Only four pods to starboard, though. No backup for Sarasti.
Another hatchway. Smaller this time. I squeezed through into the bridge. Dim light there, a silent shifting mosaic of icons and alphanumerics iterating across dark glassy surfaces. Not so much bridge as cockpit, and a cramped one at that. I'd emerged between two acceleration couches, each surrounded by a horseshoe array of controls and readouts. Nobody expected to ever use this compartment. Theseus was perfectly capable of running herself, and if she wasn't we were capable of running her from our inlays, and if we weren't the odds were overwhelming that we were all dead anyway. Still, against that astronomically off-the-wall chance, this was where one or two intrepid survivors could pilot the ship home again after everything else had failed.
Between the footwells the engineers had crammed one last hatch and one last passageway: to the observation blister on Theseus's prow. I hunched my shoulders (tendons cracked and complained) and pushed through--
--into darkness. Clamshell shielding covered the outside of the dome like a pair of eyelids squeezed tight. A single icon glowed softly from a touchpad to my left; faint stray light followed me through from the spine, brushed dim fingers across the concave enclosure. The dome resolved in faint shades of blue and gray as my eyes adjusted. A stale draft stirred the webbing floating from the rear bulkhead, mixed oil and machinery at the back of my throat. Buckles clicked faintly in the breeze like impoverished wind chimes.
I reached out and touched the crystal: the innermost layer of two, warm air piped through the gap between to cut the cold. Not completely, though. My fingertips chilled instantly.
Space out there.
Perhaps, en route to our original destination, Theseus had seen something that scared her clear out of the solar system. More likely she hadn't been running away from anything but to something else, something that hadn't been discovered until we'd already died and gone from Heaven. In which case . . .
I reached back and tapped the touchpad. I half-expected nothing to happen; Theseus's windows could be as easily locked as her Comm logs. But the dome split instantly before me, a crack then a crescent then a wide-eyed lidless stare as the shielding slid smoothly back into the hull. My fingers clenched reflexively into a fistful of webbing. The sudden void stretched empty and unforgiving in all directions, and there was nothing to cling to but a metal disk barely four meters across.
Stars, everywhere. So many stars that I could not for the life of me understand how the sky could contain them all yet be so black. Stars, and--
What did you expect? I chided myself. An alien mothership hanging off the starboard bow?
Well, why not? We were out here for something.
The others were, anyway. They'd be essential no matter where we'd ended up. But my own situation was a bit different, I realized. My usefulness degraded with distance.
And we were over half a light-year from home.
Copyright © 2006 by Peter Watts
Excerpted from Blindsight by Watts, Peter Copyright © 2006 by Watts, Peter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Peter Watts is a former marine biologist and the Hugo and Nebula nominated author of novels such as Starfish, Maelstrom and Behemoth, and numerous short stories. He has been called "a hard science fiction writer through and through and one of the very best alive" by The Globe and Mail and whose work the New York Times called "seriously paranoid."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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As the twenty-first century nears its ending, Fireflies light up the sky. Scientists realize this strange phenomenon is sending signals back to something just outside the edge of our solar system. To learn more and to make first contact, the earth sends the spaceship Theseus captained by an AI, but the leader of the quest is genetically engineered vampire Jukka Sarasti. The chosen motley crew consists of biologist Isaac Szpindel, who has more machine parts than human parts and acts accordingly more machine than human, the Gang of Four,, a multiple personality disorder linguist disorder Major Amanda Bates, a soldier who hates war and Siri Keeton, whose half of a brain enables him to predict one hundred per cent accurately almost instantly what others will do in different situations though he has no idea why people do what they do.-------------- The team makes it to the rim of the solar system where they are met by an English speaking species on board some sort of odd vessel dubbed Rorschach. They cannot determine whether the newcomers are hostile so team leader Sarasti arranges to abduct two of them to study them close-up, but neither has a brain yet are capable of processing information leading to the earth crew to debate whether these are living intelligence as they fail to even recognize the basic I think therefore I am.------------- This is a deep science fiction thriller that uses first contact to turn Descartes statement upside down into a question of what is intelligent life. The cast is solid especially the two abducted aliens Stretch and Clench, who will lead readers to ponder existence just like the earth characters do. The story line contains much more complexities than described above so the audience who prefer ET to go home may want to pass on BLINDSIGHT however those fans who prefer deep thought provoking philosophical entreaties will want to read Peter Watts strong tale.------- Harriet Klausner
How far will the author guide you down the rabbit hole? I will never tell. I found this story to be refreshing and a break from standard science fiction. The scene that the author paints when the characters awaken from space travel by itself is worth the read alone. This is not a fluff work and will keep your mind on the edge of a razor. Is it science fiction, thriller, horror, tragedy, or fantasy? It has all the elements. I recomend this for higher thinker readers that can appreciate and enjoy going beyond the surface of Flatland.
The science in Peter Watts' science fiction is really good. You actually find yourself learning stuff while he alternately entertains and horrifies you. "Blindsight" explores the premise that self-awareness is not just unnecessary for intelligence; it actively gets in the way of rapid problem solving. As original a story as you will find anywhere, and brilliantly written. I can't recommend it enough.
A thought experiment on conciousness with some interesting science.
this is not your typical work of science fiction and i mean that in a good way. watts has a unique style of writing and if you are patient you will find yourself quickly addicted and wanting more. a great read no doubt.
The science is interesting. The characters are intriqueing. The author tries to write from the perspective of someone that's different mentally. However, the story is almost incomprehensible. The author has promise, but wait for something better in the future.
Read it twice, the first time you won't pick up everything.
One of the best hard SF books of the last decade and most original first-contact stories you're likely to encounter. You've never met aliens like these before. It many ways, it's a mediation on consciousness and different ways of perceiving reality, using a post-human crew on a first-contact mission as a way of delving into these issues. It can be a bit of a hard read, but it's more than worth it. And it's got one of the most original, biologically sound (scientifically) vampires you'll ever meet in fiction. I've read it twice now and it was even better the second time.