Blindsight is…odd. On the one hand, it cleaves closely to many of the traits that I tend to dislike about newer science fiction: gritty, dark, dystopian, pessimistic, character-forward. Largely for those reasons, I spent at least the first half of the book looking forward to what I could read when I finished this torturous journey. By the time that I finished, I was instead confused. Despite all of those traits I mentioned that I find off-putting, this book is also a through-and-through idea story, an extended thought experiment with rigorous science and intriguing arguments. Further confounding the review is that unlike in most cases, I found myself struggling to separate what I thought of the book from what I thought of its central argument, with which I viscerally and intellectually disagree, but we’ll get to that, and I will do my best here to segregate my opinions and thoughts about those ideas from my opinions and thoughts of the writing.
If I had to distill Blindsight down to a single, central theme, it would be that of self. What is the concept of self? How does it relate to the concept of what is human? What is the origin, function, and cost of self-awareness? How does it relate to free will, and does free will exist, or is it merely an illusion? Watts seems to have created the entire novel as a thought experiment to explore these concepts, and he leverages two lenses to accomplish that: the various neuro-atypicalities of his characters, and the distinctively intelligent but unaware aliens. Either of these ideas alone could have easily been the foundation of a compelling novel. Combining them together made this one both more compelling, and more challenging, and is in many ways at the core of my personal dichotomy over Blindsight.
Key to what I enjoy so much about classic, hard science fiction novels like Rocheworld or Ringworld is, perhaps counter-intuitively, the lack of character. By using characters who, while they are perhaps mildly interesting, have little or no arc, the characters become transparent lens through which to examine a particular idea, like a habitable ring wrapping entirely around a star, or an over-contact binary planet system with distributed, silicon based amoebic intelligences. Or, in Blindsight, an alien intruder inimically opposed to humanity because of a fundamental human characteristic. Just exploring the aliens, trying to understand what they are and why they’ve come to the solar system, would have made for a fascinating book, without any need for complex characters.
But Watts did not settle for that model; he populated his pages with a cast deliberately chosen for their complexity. None of them are what we would today describe as fully human, and most of the changes are neurologically focused. On the surface, this book may be about understand an alien species, but it’s core fascination is with human neuroscience and the concept of the self. There is certainly no lack of ground for fertile exploration there, and in another book the characters as their various augmentations, and the peculiar society from which they come, could have made up the entire story. Instead, they are a side plot that is never entirely resolved.
This fusion of what could be two major plots – the alien investigation, and the protagonist’s arc – are related, and Watts does take pains to explain why they are both important and play them off of each other, but in my opinion it detracts from the book’s strength. It makes it too opaque, too perspective driven, to give satisfying conclusions, which for me is the essence of a good idea story. An idea story should be about exploring an idea, asking questions that are, while not necessarily answered, at least somewhat resolved by the conclusion. In Blindsight, the combination of the two plots essentially gives the story an unreliable narrator. It’s probably personal preference, since this book won all kinds of awards (one of my early thoughts on the book was that it was confirming my ongoing hypothesis that only dark, depressing books win awards), but I don’t think that having an unreliable narrator in an idea story is a good choice. That, ultimately, is why those two plots did not work together for me. Had this story been written from a different perspective, they might have worked together for me.
Apparently, there are more books in this series, which I doubt that I will seek out to read – not because I didn’t ultimately enjoy this story, but because I feel it stands well on its own. I find myself doing that more and more often these days, partially because my reading list is already so long. By the time that I did reach Blindsight’s conclusion, I had gone from being greatly skeptical to being cautiously positive about the book, so I guess that’s a strong testament to its strength. Certainly it raised provocative questions about the nature and use of self, and the existence or absence of free will, which would be the arguments with which I disagreed, but that’s another post. In the end, while this was a strange book, and I’m still not entirely certain how I feel about it, I would cautiously recommend that you consider giving Blindsight a try. Just be prepared for it to be weird.