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Blindsight    by Peter Watts order for
by Peter Watts
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

How do you communicate with all powerful aliens who've strayed into the solar system, but whose intent is unknown, and must be assumed to be hostile? In Peter Watts' Blindsight, Earth's 2082 government assembles a team of extreme misfits for the job and sends them out into space on the Theseus, under command of the ship's machine intelligence and of a vampire, Jukka Sarasti, one of an extinct race of predators '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.'

The story is narrated by Siri Keeton. As a child, his brain was cut into to cure viral epilepsy and, subsequently lacking any empathy, he's had to learn to impersonate humanity. As a Synthesist, he stands 'between the Wizard of Oz and the man behind the curtain', and is on board Theseus as an observor, and to report back to Earth. In addition to Keeton, Sarasti, and spares still in deep sleep, crew members include Isaac Szpindel, 'massively interfaced with machinery' who 'heard X-rays and saw in shades of ultrasound'; Susan James, whose deliberately induced multiple personalities combine into extreme linguistic talents; and Major Amanda Bates who knows how to fight - and when not to.

These odd representatives - 'four optimized hybrids somewhere past the threshold of mere humanity' - begin to communicate with the massive (and growing) alien construct which calls itself Rorschach, but James soon concludes that there's no sentience behind the words coming back at them. So Sarasti decides to send teams to explore the highly radioactive innards of the Rorschach, where 'fits and hallucinations and occasional convulsions' become the norm. Despite a problem with invisibility, they manage to bring alien scramblers - both living and dead - back with them. And it turns out that Siri's - and Sarasti's - roles are not what the Synthesist believed them to be.

Watts writes noir SF - he killed off billions in his earlier Behemoth duo. His style in Blindsight reminds me of Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space - rather opaque and filled with future constructs that, while impressive in imaginative scope, are complex and often hard to comprehend. Watts follows the tradition of early SF by inserting a rather nasty, ironical twist in his ending. Though it's not to my taste as a reader, I can still appreciate the talent it took to write Blindsight, which I recommend particularly to Reynolds fans. It will make you think about many things you may have taken for granted - from the meaning of sentience and how our brains filter reality, to mankind's fitness to 'inherit the Earth'.

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