A review of Peter Watts’ Blindsight (Tor, 2006)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Life itself is strange, odd, and unordinary. We try to create ideas of normalcy to impose order on the world around us and end up limiting our perception and understanding of that world. We categorise, we cut things that we don’t think should belong, and we butcher reality to make it somehow easier for us to understand. In Blindsight, Peter Watts challenges ideas of normalcy, warps our understanding and questions the privilege we give to certain bodies, certain modes of interpreting and thinking, and the limitations we impose on categories around us.
Watts presents us with truly alien aliens, not stereotypes of Earth civilisations with miniscule differences in behaviour and appearance. He explores what a diverse universe could be like – so different from human understanding that their biology defies our understanding and the aliens themselves see our cultural modes of behaviour as almost viral, as so foreign that we can’t be anything but a threat. He questions our privileging of self awareness, consciousness, and our assumption that this is necessary for intelligent thought.
Instead of presenting the dichotomy of “normal” people facing the “abnormal” alien, Watts assembles a group of human outsiders, because who is better suited to understand the alien than those who have been alienated on our world? People embedded in and performing ideas of normalcy would be too invested in seeing that normalcy to really understand the experience of the “other”. The crew of the exploratory ship Theseus is made up of a man who has been partially lobotomised as a way of “correcting” his seizures and has lost the ability to really empathise, a woman with compartmentalised consciousnesses, a group mind that we would have labelled “Multiple Personality Disorder” (but is recognised in the future as a form of multiple intelligences), two men who are spliced with technological prosthetics allowing them an expanded view of the world and an interrelationship with a mechanical sensory network, and… a vampire, a figure from human history who was extinct but was brought back to existence through bio-technology and has a sensory and interpretive framework so different that he sees things that human beings could not, and yet is harmed by images like the cross because of the intersection of 90 degree angles. These characters are so completely different than the human “base norm” that they require interpreters to relay the complexity of their speech and behavioural patterns to the general public, a majority that cannot understand them and is content in their lack of understanding.
Siri, the interpreter, trained to be separate from the events occurring and to present a non-biased interpretation/translation of the behaviour of his colleagues for the majority back on Earth, is himself an outsider, and this leads to his ability to interpret since he sees all of humanity (including those who would consider themselves “normal”) to be foreign and difficult to understand. He serves as the gateway between his crew of outsiders and the people back at home, waiting from some insights into the aliens that the crew is seeking to encounter. His sociopathic characteristics mean that he is able to look at the people around him with an outsider’s understanding, lacking empathy and the ability to collude or feel akin to those around him. He sees himself as a vessel of translation facilitating communication between his crew of outsiders that seem foreign to him and a foreign and odd humanity that although considering themselves “normal” are equally odd to him.
The crew of the Theseus has been sent to find out about a new alien life form that has disrupted the human notion that we are probably alone in the universe. These beings, encountered for the first time when they showed up in our atmosphere and photographed the Earth, present a puzzle to humanity, and, of course, are considered a potential threat. When the Theseus first encounters the alien ship, it calls itself Rorschach, reminding the reader of Rorschach blots used in psychological procedures to allow the patient to project their understanding onto the image in order to get at a greater understanding of the patient, their motivations, and their understanding of the world. Watts points out that this is precisely what we do with the image of the alien, we project our own understandings onto it, our own insecurities, our own ideas, and ultimately shape aliens in ways that reveal more about us, the viewers, than they do about the alien itself. Rorschach becomes a vessel for all of the projections of the crew’s understanding of the world. It’s foreignness, and the foreignness of the “Scramblers” that occupy the inside of Rorschach become a way for the crew to debate the nature of human consciousness, ideas of normalcy, and the privilege we place on our modes of interpretation.
You can explore more of Peter Watt’s work at his website http://www.rifters.com/real/author.htm . To find out more about Blindsight, visit Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/blindsight/PeterWatts