Firefall presents, in one rather splendid and substantial volume, two science fiction novels by Peter Watts – Blindsight (first published in 2006) and Echopraxia (published just this year in the US). As I’m new to both, I thought I’d treat each novel separately, although both are related, and so here is the review of Blindsight. The review of Echopraxia will follow next month (I’m on holiday backpacking round southern Spain next week and it’s playing havoc with my reading schedule…).
Late into the 21st century, Earth is showered by tens of thousands of bright fireflies, a shower of shooting stars, except there is nothing natural about these objects, their grid pattern suggesting that they are performing a comprehensive survey of the planet. But for what purpose? The objects burn to ash in the atmosphere and then Earth must endure years of uneasy silence. Nothing happens. A first contact that leads to nowhere. But years later, grabbing the initiative, Earth launches Theseus to investigate the source of the objects in the distant Kuiper Belt. And there they find Rorschach, an extraordinary alien vessel, hidden from view but ready to be found and attempting to communicate. But whatever lies on this alien vessel cannot be any stranger than the crew aboard Theseus. The years of fear and uncertainty have wrought a change in the development and evolution of humanity. There is horror here but it is debatable how much of it has been brought from Earth and how much lies in wait in this dark ship, full of alien shadows.
At its heart, Blindsight is a deeply psychological novel, making efforts to explore and understand the human occupants of Theseus every bit as much as the inhabitants of Rorschach. The captain of Theseus is an artificial intelligence but it is bound body and mind to Sarasti who speaks and acts for the ship. But Sarasti is no mere mortal. He is a vampire, part of a species brought back to life as part of the redevelopment of humanity to cope with an unspecifie alien threat. But although we’re talking vampires, Sarasti is no typical vampire He is the epitome of menace and yet all aboard must serve him, like obedient chunks of meat. He is a horrifying presence aboard the ship but he is fascinating.
Otherwise amongst the crew, we have the Gang – one character split into four separate and co-operative identities, there is a reconstructed biologist – more technology than human, an enigmatic and traumatised warrior, and our main voice, Siri Keaton. Siri is a man with half a brain, the other half removed when a child to cure his extreme epilepsy. As a result, Siri is now the perfect observer. More zombie than human, Siri is unable to feel and yet, as he and we explore further into the expanding walls and tunnels of Rorschach, Siri is beginning to learn a lesson about himself.
Blindsight is much more than a First Contact novel. The alien vessel and the creatures aboard are deeply disturbing but throughout everything has the feel about it of a psychological experiment, rats trapped in a game, observing while being observed, altered humans trying to understand the aliens travelling beside them in the distant reaches of the solar system. Moving from communication to physical interaction and then violence and torture, it all feels like a clinical test, albeit one that has a habit of going wrong. And it’s all the more sinister for that. Heightening the effect is Siri. Throughout the novel, in a series of asides, our observer thinks back on his life and his relationships with his parents and his damaged marriage. Everything affects the present. And then there are the aliens…
I was fascinated and chilled by Blindsight in equal measure. This is a frightening, menacing novel, reminiscent of Aliens, Event Horizon and other tales of horror in space. Yet, because the novel feels so much like an experiment in danger of going wrong, it is difficult to draw close to the characters and Siri, by his very nature, manages to keep us at a distance. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t as engaged with Blindsight as much as I had hoped but, nevertheless, it has some moments and characters that made me catch my breath, not least the terrifying Sarasti and the times through the novel when a crew member captures a glimpse of something in the corner of his or her (or their) eye that just shouldn’t be there.