Blindsight (2006) by Peter Watts

Don't miss out on other works in the series:
Echopraxia (2014) Book Review
Available works by Peter Watts


Blindsight is set in 2082 onboard the spaceship Theseus, heading for the Solar System’s outer regions, chasing down radio transmissions from what is thought to be of extraterrestrial origin. The work is a multi-layered investigation into the nature and evolutionary purpose of consciousness, both human and alien. It is the first book in Peter Watts’ ongoing Blindsight series (2006-2014?).

The story is told by Theseus’ observer Siri Keeton, who  is constitutionally incapable of empathy, the result of a childhood surgery to cure his epilepsy. Siri is basically autistic and thus perfectly suited, it is thought, to be an impartial observer of his fellow crewmates, all transhuman hyper-specialists. After a wild goose chase to the Kuiper Belt, the expedition eventually manages to chase down the radio signals to a dwarf planet named Big Ben deep within the Oort Cloud. From the get-go they are able to communicate with the aliens (called Crawlers), but they soon discover that the nine-legged creatures not only are far more intelligent than themselves, but they also seem to lack consciousness.

Advanced computers perform most jobs in Watt’s world of 2082. Humans who insist on staying true to the human baseline, refusing all forms of enhancement, are basically obsolete. Theseus’ five crew veer very far from the baseline, not least the captain, a vampire – a long extinct Terran species recently resurrected from recovered DNA – whose vastly superior intelligence and lack of affect never fail to send chills down the spine of his fellow crewmembers, a literal monstrous take on the psychopathic CEO. He is capable of parallel processing, working with multiple worldviews simultaneously, and much like a narrow AI, excels at pattern recognition. As for the remaining crew’s brains, the linguist’s is partitioned into four with added-on unconscious semiotic modules, the biologist’s is crammed with so many implants that he feels that his ‘self’ reside outside of his body, while the military officer’s nervous system is optimised for warfare. At the price of different degrees of autism or sociopathy, they have evolved into highly efficient, task-specific automata.

As the crew interact with the Crawlers they begin to suspect that, while these entities show clear signs of language and intelligence, they are also devoid of sentience or consciousness, a form of zombie existence. The encounter raises a series of questions about the fundamental nature consciousness: is consciousness, as is generally thought, sentience or awareness of internal and external existence, or can beings be said to be conscious if they display traits of consciousness, even if they don’t inwardly experience it as such? The novel takes its title from the known neurological disorder of blindsight. Patients with blindsight will claim that they are blind, and yet they are still able to respond to visual stimuli, even if they do not consciously register them, not least in forced situations where a quick reaction is needed. Conceptually, the condition of blindsight is similar to the Crawlers’ ‘condition’: they are vastly more intelligent than humans, including the enhanced crewmembers, yet they do not know that – they respond to their environment without inwardly processing it. By the same token, the captain vampire is blind to many human traits and, as is supposed in the novel, is all the more efficient for it, an idea that is not dissimilar to the efficiency of the sociopathic CEO, who is blind to other people’s feelings and emotions, yet is perfectly adapted for cutthroat corporate culture.

Watt’s work begs the question whether consciousness might be a stumbling block in our struggle for survival. The Crawlers, displaying all the behaviour of advanced, but not sentient AI, certainly have developed beyond humanity, at least in technological terms, and they do pose a threat to humanity. The encounter between an advanced technological race devoid of consciousness, and a number of people whose humanness is under attack in different ways, suggests that humanity’s ultimate survival in the Universe demands a surgical removal of consciousness.