If anyone could write a compelling and insightful science fiction treatment of the concept, I thought that it would be Asimov. I was wrong.
Look at me, reading another science fiction book from this century. I’ve seen this billed as a grittier, modern take on HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and I think that’s somewhat apt. So apt, in fact, that if you’re thinking of reading The Accidental Time Machine, I suggest you just go read Wells’ original, instead.
I don’t think this was quite as strong a science fiction story as Rocheworld or Inherit the Stars, but it was nonetheless enjoyable. If you’ve enjoyed the other, similar science fiction that we’ve reviewed here on the site, then I would recommend you consider visiting Heavy Planet. Or, alternatively, sending your favorite, pre-industrial, centipede friend to do it for you.
I like to consider myself open-minded, and I have long argued for the inadequacy of our definition of life and the limiting ways in which we conduct our search for extraterrestrial beings, but even I would not have considered the possibility of life existing on a neutron star. Sometimes, I think the more we know about a thing, the more limited our view of it becomes. It’s not that I had dismissed the possibility of life existing on the surface of a neutron star, but that I had never even considered it. Fortunately, Dragon’s Egg corrected that unfortunate deficit.
Humans have a severe case of societal loneliness. We send signals out into the void in the hopes that someone might answer, we launch spacecraft into the interstellar medium with a record of our civilization, we push the edges of our technology to seek evidence of long-extinct microbial and unicellular life on the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and other bodies in our solar system. On a less evidential level, we seek clues, stories, and anecdotes that could enable us to believe that our species is not alone in the universe: points of light in the sky, a circle painted on a cave wall ten thousand years ago, unexplained happenings all over the world.
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.
Rather than lamenting the decline of science fiction, we should probably spend time talking about how wonderful Rocheworld is, and why you should absolutely go find a copy as soon as possible. Granted, that may be a little difficult, because it's no longer in print. However, I was able to find a lightly used copy without much difficulty, so I imagine you can, too. Just be sure you look for the complete Rocheworld, and not one of the earlier versions, sometimes titled Flight of the Dragonfly. The book is from back in the days when many science fiction novels were published in short, serialized form in magazines, so Flight of the Dragonfly is about a hundred thousand words shorter than the complete Rocheworld.
Every time I pick up one of these classic-style science fiction novel, like Ringworld or Double Star, I find myself saying that a) I should read these sorts of books more often, and b) I wish that books like these were still written today.
Creative writing, or the speculative fiction genre, has long leveraged something called the MICE quotient. I first came across this when I was reading an Orson Scott Card book on how to write science fiction and fantasy (I think it was even titled How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy). The premise is that stories in the speculative fiction genre can be broadly binned as having one or more of four, primary drivers: milieu, idea, character, and event. Although most good stories will incorporate multiple of these components, with different ones emphasized at different times, there is usually one that drives the story forward.
The world is a dangerous place. That's true any time, and at any point in history, but certainly this year the point has been emphasized repeatedly. Although it is often easy to imagine that either it is hubris to think that we live in important times, or alternatively that what is happening right now must be a matter of grave and unprecedented significance, the objective truth is that this year has already seen more uncertainty and tumult than usual. So, naturally, I read a book written to scare people.