Friday, February 26, 2016


Peter Watts' Blindsight is a novel set ~75 years in the future, when advances in neurology and computing have merged to reshape all of human civilization into something only distantly recognizable from the present day. Many people semi-upload themselves and live entirely in a simultated "Heaven", enabled by post-scarcity redundancy of human labor. AIs and AI-like bio-machine hybrids exist, as well as quantum computers and engineering projects on the scale of "seat an energy collector just above the sun and shoot a beam of energy anywhere in the solar system."

So when the entire planet gets paparazzi-ed by alien probes, of course a ship of computer-augmented humans are shot off to see if they can make first contact with whatever's floating out there. Humans, and one genetically-reconstructed "vampire", a formerly-extinct humanoid predator who hunts humans and is allergic to right angles. The book is full of flavorful tidbits like this, keeping the reader off-balance: there's a sense of the riotous diversity of an actual future Earth hovering in the novel's background, weird and akilter and intellectually tempting and forever out of reach. (I went back over my highlighted sections and they seem spoilery or like punchline-giveaways, so

We readers are helped to bootstrap by the fact that the main character, Siri Keaton, is recognizably somewhere on the Autism spectrum (although I don't think it's ever put in those words), and spends a lot of time figuring out what people mean and putting them inside a meaningful context. Also, this is his job --- he is a professional interpreter-and-explainer of complicated ideas.

And there are a lot of very cool, complicated ideas.

The characters and plot are great but Watts' science background shines through the novel, piercing it with incandescent rays of awesome descriptions of how the brain works to build the experience of consciousness. Magnetism, evolution, genetics --- this book s a post-Halloween intellectual goodie bag. I don't want to spoil any bits, but I give it my wholehearted recommendation. The ending was so outrageously magnificent, so transcendently thought-provoking, that I completely forgot all the awesome bits at the beginning of the book. On rereading, the details surprised me and slid into place in the larger picture, invoking a level of delight that was missing on my first pass. (There were also some parts that sounded like dangerously stressed-to-breaking metaphors for science and complicated ideas, which on rereading are not actually being abused in the way I initially thought.)

I've started in on the sequel, Echopraxia.

This post's theme word is xerophyte, "a plant adapted to growing in a very dry or desert environment." Whales might have trouble understanding xerophytes, but they apply for research grants anyway.


G said...

I really didn't enjoy it. I wanted to like it, but it bothered me a lot.

Lila is a complex system. said...

What bothered you?

The first time I read it I found some parts irritating and it just didn't "click" for me. But on a very strong recommendation I read it a second time, which really improved it. (And now I'm reading Echopraxia, whereas before I saw there was a sequel and thought "meh" and didn't pick it up.)

Jeff B. said...

Hey, Lila! I'm a friend of yacht club Jerry (which now, I'm thinking is a good nickname for him), & met you a few years ago prior to your emigration. Wanted to drop a note for a while, but the 'Comments' section seems to be the only option. Loving the blog! Thanks for all the book recos, too; along with my book club, and other recommendations from friends, I've estimated I need to live until approximately 2132 to get through the backlog.

Lila is a complex system. said...

Hello, Jeff B.! It's nice to hear from a lurker. Usually I think of my blog readership as consisting of my parents and Google crawler robots only, so it's nice to hear from others. (If you are actually a Google robot: welcome! I appreciate your traffic.)

Is this an oblique reference to Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312? (Or typo reference?)

Jeff B. said...

That's what I get for not having breakfast prior to writing a note. It makes me sloppy with my oblique references...I forget how I stumbled onto your blog, but it not only reminds me that I don't write often enough, it also makes me reassess the cleverness of my own writing. :P

Book-wise, I just finished 'Station Eleven' by Emily St. John Mandel for one of my book clubs, and am currently flipping between between Chandler's 'The Long Goodbye', Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell', and a 2004 collection of SF short stories. Am debating picking up 'Touch' by Claire North (you reco'd in a blog a couple of months ago).

Lila is a complex system. said...

"Station Eleven" is near the top of my stack (or front of my queue? top of my heap? it's not a well-ordered data structure).

"Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" is excellent, I highly recommend, and Susanna Clarke's "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" (a collection of short stories in the same world) was fun, wry, clever, and could be more appealing if you prefer short stories to the giant tome that is Strange & Norrell. I like words --- the more the better --- so I devoured Strange & Norrell, but in retrospect (and when fitting books onto the shelf) I realize it's quite lengthy.

Claire North's "The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August" is also terrific.

I haven't read any Raymond Chandler, but his name pops up from time to time so he's down in my stack somewhere. Let me know how it is!