Let’s talk a little bit about thinking. It’s a wildly abstract concept that we spend a lot of time contemplating. If we say something ‘makes us think’ we usually mean that we have been introduced to a concept that we haven’t previously contemplated; whether or not we actually do anything with that is, well, up to us. Thinking is an active process, the phrase ‘makes you think’ implies something, to my mind, a little more passive. We’re doing it in response to a thing rather than engaging directly in a thing because we have chosen to. In some cases, it’s just a lie; people will tell me something ‘makes you think’ when it does not. I’m distrustful of the phrase. You can lead a brain to a proposition, but you can’t make it think.
Science Fiction has to be careful with this, in particular. By its nature, it asks us to contemplate a reality different from the one we presently inhabit. It tries to make us think. At its worst, it succeeds in getting people to think about dumb garbage that people argue endlessly about on the internet. It’s possible to create ideas without inviting us to engage in them— at its most extreme, there are series who’s ‘cannon’ becomes so complicated that following it is an impossibility; sometimes this even gets reset or dropped.
Like Horror, Sci-Fi gets a fair amount of shit. It’s sometimes perceived as a ‘lesser’ genre, but occasionally ‘serious’ writers dip into it— Margret Atwood and Paul Theroux both have taken a stab at it, for example. Also like horror, ‘serious’ writers do their best to insist their non Sci-Fi novels are not Sci-Fi. And, as the linked article points out, some obviously Sci-Fi books are labeled ‘not Sci-Fi’ by readers who don’t want to admit they’re enjoying Science Fiction, perhaps because it’s seen as the domain of nerds, or the perception it’s just monsters, spaceships, and lasers. And sometimes, even the best of it can contain moments that clang— “Blindsight”, which I am concerning myself with here, contains the sentence “Their marriage decayed with the exponential determinism of a radioactive isotope…” And honestly I don’t know what to do with that. It’s a sentence so transcendently Sci-Fi that it makes me wince.
“Blindsight” is also incredibly dense. Peter Watts, the author, has a PhD. in biology, and boy howdy he expects you to know quite a bit. He also introduces a fuckton of concepts. Transhumanism, the nature of consciousness, the idea that vampires are somehow real (vampires have rapidly become a leitmotiv of this blog), aliens, spooky spaceships, and philosophical concepts bump up against each other into an overbaked loaf. It’s the smart person’s fuckin’ br00tal, and for the first 1/3 of the book I was not here for it. Characters are introduced rapidly, all of whom have differing abilities, which are sometimes explained, sometimes not, the book shifts perspectives quite a lot for reasons that are not made clear until later, and Watts’ style can be like… this:
“Like everyone else, I bore witness to lurid speculations and talking heads. I visited blathernodes, soaked myself in other people’s opinions. That was nothing new, as far as it went; I’d spent my whole life as a sort of alien ethologist in my own right, watching the world behave, gleaning patterns and protocols, learning the rules that allowed me to infiltrate human society. It had always worked before. Somehow, though, the presence of real aliens had changed the dynamics of the equation. Mere observation didn’t satisfy any more. It was as though the presence of this new outgroup had forced me back into the clade whether I liked it or not; the distance between myself and the world suddenly seemed forced and faintly ridiculous.”
Maybe you read that and thought “fuck yeah”, but I read it and thought “this reads like a combination of science fiction and a dissertation”. Dude is erudite, sure, but…
However, he does generate enough interest in the overarching plot to keep moving forward, and oddly, the overarching plot itself is fairly simple— aliens probe earth, people figure out where the probes originate from, and send a team out to investigate. Once said people encounter the aliens, there’s still more philosophizing; and ultimately we learn that the aliens are intelligent, but appear to lack consciousness. At the end of the book, there’s a notion, curiously spelled out in a book that does not spend a lot of time spelling things out, that instinct is what sustains us.
“Every dancer and acrobat knows enough to let the mind go, let the body run itself. Every driver of any manual vehicle arrives at destinations with no recollection of the stops and turns and roads traveled in getting there. You are all sleepwalkers, whether climbing creative peaks or slogging through some mundane routine for the thousandth time. You are all sleepwalkers.”
“Do you want to know what consciousness is for? Do you want to know the only real purpose it serves? Training wheels. You can’t see both aspects of the Necker Cube at once, so it lets you focus on one and dismiss the other. That’s a pretty half-assed way to parse reality. You’re always better off looking at more than one side of anything. Go on, try. Defocus. It’s the next logical step.”
Back to thinking. I started a re-read of “Moby Dick” recently, with a friend who’s never read it, and have perhaps convinced a second to join. I’ve read it a number of times before. I’ve got a big Moby Dick tattoo. I’ve seen the opera. I’m a fan. And I’m a fan because nearly every time I read it, there’s something new waiting for me there; some unexplored territory, some further understanding, and some sentence or phrase that will stand out to me in a different way. In a genuine way, it makes me think. Its abstractions, its maps, its overall strangeness (and Moby Dick is a deeply weird book, in a way not a lot of people seem to want to point out) are things that get me contemplating. Getting explanations from the ConSensus (a sort of universal instant computer explainer of things which serves both as a handy means of communication amongst the team and a way to explain things to a reader) about what a Chinese Wall is doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that the concept of a Chinese Wall isn’t interesting, or worth knowing about— it’s a different kind of engagement. It’s the kind of learning that Watts seems to believe are ‘training wheels’.
I mean this sincerely: that’s not always a bad thing. I’d hate for every tool in the literary toolbox to be a hammer. “Blindsight” has quite a bit to say, and uses different tools to do so. The latter two thirds of the book picks up the pace quite effectively— the encounters with the aliens are very tense, and genuinely frightening. And once you’re into last third, everything seemed to be improved somehow; it’s better written, more ordered. Arguably, one just gets used to Watts’ style, but I think there’s more to it than that. Once Watts has created the world, and placed you in it, he gains the confidence to shift it all around. When we get there, we’re also more connected to the narrator, who is really the only character we have any real connection to, and learn that he’s ultimately unreliable, not because he wishes to be, but because the things he’s dealing with are incomprehensible, but also because of what he ultimately is. To paraphrase the book, in order to fully understand, you will have to imagine you are him.
As for what that actually means, and if it’s valuable; that’s another question entirely. The book concludes with it’s protagonist heading towards an earth which is likely forever changed, one in which the vampires have likely taken over:
“Because we humans were never meant to inherit the Earth. Vampires were. They must have been sentient to some degree, but that semi-aware dream state would have been a rudimentary thing next to our own self-obsession. They were weeding it out. It was just a phase. They were on their way.”
There’s a Thomas Ligotti-esque regard of consciousness, at least as we understand it, as a mistake. And the vampires, who have been brought back by humans from some distant past via genetic sequencing, are so intelligent that they realize that. It’s quite a bit to unpack. There’s a reoccurring belief in certain pockets of the internet that the confusion and disorientation from the book’s denseness is one of its takeaways— a metamessage of sorts. “Of course you don’t get it all, that’s the point.” There’s another point of view which says it simply doesn’t pander to its audience, and Watts isn’t going to explain anything to you he absolutely does not have to. Don’t know what a Klein Bottle is? Look it up, chumply. I tend to think the latter is more true than the former.
Ultimately, the tension from what the book wanted to communicate vs. the manner in which is did so left me in a curious place. I wanted to engage with the ideas in here; and to some extent I did. I certainly spent a day or two turning the story and concepts over in my head after it all concluded. And I’ll even say I learned a thing or two. Watts spends a lot of time drawing a map, but the map is not the territory.
The territory… well, that makes you think.