Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Peter Watts' "Blindsight" (novel, science fiction): Second rate first-contact story

Quote from the novel titled Blindsight by Peter WattsA stranger knocks at your door. What do you you do? You hit him with a rod - because he might be hostile! That, in a nutshell, is the message of this story!

I have an instinctive dislike of stories & people who use too much techno-babble. With rare exceptions, experience says they usually have no clue to what they are talking about. I did not really count, but I think about two-thirds of all sentences in this book contain jargon!

I have a third reason to dislike this book. "Gutter language" is the term we use in India for describing the language used in this book. I am aware different countries & communities have different tolerances - so your mileage on this count might differ from mine.

The only reason I read the whole book was its publicity & claims that it provides new insights into first contact possibilities. It doesn't.

In fact, author gives a cue - in a different context - that also applies to interpretation of this book: "something has coded nonsense in a way that poses as a useful message; only after wasting time and effort does the deception becomes apparent. The signal functions to consume the resources of a recipient for zero payoff and reduced fitness. The signal is a virus. Viruses do not arise from kin, symbionts, or other allies. The signal is an attack."

Title of the story comes from a form of hallucination where your mind says you are seeing something, but your eye is not really seeing the thing. This is an effect some human adventurers in the story experience.
Note: Aug 4, 2007: I guess I did not quite get the meaning of "blindsight" right. Comments #1 & #2 below clarify. Sorry. And my thanks to commentators.

In spite of all the negatives, there are some observations in the story that made me ponder. I collect them here.

This book is available both in paper form, & as a web download.

Story summary.
Feb 13, 2082. Earth received an easily visible & extensive meteor shower. Event got dubbed Fireflies - sometimes shortened to Flies. Investigations reveal they mostly consisted of iron.

We are later told they were actually 65,536 probes of alien origin. They took scientific measurements & then burned up in atmosphere. They formed a pattern in the skies, & said something - though no one knew what.

We are not told how, but those in authority have figured out a long period comet as a possible alien target. So a ship is made in record 18 months, & a crew is assembled to make first contact.

Now this crew cast is curious, to put it mildly:

1. Siri Keeton aka Cygnus, the narrator. He had half his brain removed surgically when he was a child - to cure "some kind of viral epilepsy". He is now a "freelance synthesist" - a job described as someone who explains "the Incomprehensible to the Indifferent", or someone who bridges "the gap between the people who make the breakthroughs and the people who take the credit for them". Most crew mates think of him as a spy of Mission Control on earth, though they generally tolerate him. He is an expert at reading body language, & also has some telepathic ability.

2. Jukka Sarasti - commander of the mission, & an - hold your breath - authentic vampire! Genetically engineered. Since he is by nature a predator, we are told he is far smarter than us. In particular, he can simultaneously look at a problem from multiple perspectives. He also likes violence, though he controls it well - for the most part, at least, where humans are concerned; but not where aliens are concerned. He also directly interfaces with the ship - his brain can be directly connected to an interface port on ship via a cable (I could not understand how his end plugs into his head).

3. Susan James - a woman with 4 independent personalities, each really a different person. I didn't quite catch how this was achieved. She is the communications expert; different personalities will presumably come in handy when talking to aliens about whom we know nothing.

4. Major Amanda Bates - the fighter. She commands an impressive armory & a contingent of fighter robots. Just to be prepared, if violence becomes necessary.

5. Isaac Szpindel - some kind of a medical expert. Not only is he available for any medical contingencies for the crew, he is supposed to be able to study the alien life. Assuming they will present themselves for dissection! He is very good at using prosthetic extensions of his senses.

6. Robert Cunningham - a standby for Isaac Szpindel.

There are three more unnamed crew member who remains in stasis all through the story. For a total of 9 member crew.

The ship they will be traveling in is called Theseus. This is a very competent & smart ship. Ship can also increase its size, & can assemble pretty much anything by collecting material from interplanetary space. Ship is so smart, everyone refers to it as the Captain.

They travel in stasis - hibernation - "sleep apnea". Because it's a long journey.

When the narrator wakes up, he realizes he has overslept by 5 years! And he is not where he should be in space. Apparently, somewhere beyond Neptune, the ship received signals from a bearing that confused it; current chase began after ship sought clarifications from earth & tracked the source.

They are now somewhere in Kuiper belt - chasing this object "200 km diameter" & "transmitting to a target not familiar to Man."

This target is dubbed Burns-Caulfield. I have an impression Theseus is one of the 3 human ships out to investigate it - not sure. Anyway, Our guys sneak up to it, & find that it is a comet - with an ice covering & some kind of structure underneath. As soon as Theseus turns its radar on it, it goes momentarily blind. When it recovers, Burns-Caulfield has vanished!

Through arguments I did not follow, it is concluded that Burns-Caulfield was an alien decoy to mislead humans. Their real ship is elsewhere. And decoy has been discovered before aliens wanted discovery.

OK - so our friends head for the real thing. I am not clear how they found the new target location - probably by tracking direction of Burns-Caulfield's radio transmissions (without coming in the radio field!). Anyway, after another long journey, they see a supermassive gas giant in the outer reaches of the solar system - 7 light months from earth; they dub it "Big Ben" or Ben. Ben weighs "over ten Jupiters" & is "measured twenty percent wider at the belly". We are told Ben is "a dismembered remnant of some long-lost galaxy that had drifted into ours and ended up as road kill, uncounted billions of years ago ... something from outside the Milky Way"!

They go in orbit around it, & observe curious things. Looks like somebody is using Ben as an agricultural field - growing things - seeding, harvesting, etc. Again, I was at a loss to follow arguments leading to this conclusion.

Then they accidentally detect something even more curious - a dark object orbiting Ben with a 40 hour period - "almost low enough to graze the atmosphere". It's a 30 km wide, hiding itself from human ship, & tracking human ship - I could not follow how humans determined it was tracking them.

As soon as the object figures it has been detected, it begins communicating in English. Our friends talk. Just hello, & trivialities. Dark object identifies itself as Rorschach, & humans determine it is some kind of a ship. They also observe that it is growing.

After a while, humans figure it is a "Chinese Room" - an entity that appears to carry out an apparently reasonable conversation without the least idea of what it is talking about! This is where humans figure they can do some violent & forced investigation.

Hence begins the tale of forced human landing on alien ship, in spite of their warnings to the contrary. Over several landings (using the shuttle Scylla), humans cut through alien ship's hull at more than one places, face some hallucinations & injuries inside ship, kill some creatures inside, & kidnap two for investigation! These alien creatures are dubbed "Scramblers".

Kidnapped ones, dubbed Stretch & Clench, are put in cages, & treated to all kinds of abuse. But extreme comes when the humans want to figure out a way of communicating with aliens. Reminded me of laboratory animals. Use torture to make them learn! Here is the enlightenment:

"Start with two beings ... that ... know how to talk among themselves.

Separate them. Let them see each other... Let them practice the art of conversation in their own chosen way...

Hurt them...

when you discover just the right stimulus, the optimum balance between pain and injury, you must inflict it without the remorse...

give one of your subjects the means to end the pain, but give the other the information required to use it. To one you might present a single shape, while showing the other a whole selection. The pain will stop when the being with the menu chooses the item its partner has seen...

This is how you communicate with a fellow intelligence: you
hurt it, and keep on hurting it, until you can distinguish the speech
from the screams."

Hence begins the Inquisition to learn their competence (way beyond humans) & their way of talking that ultimately results in the death of both subjects!

Naturally there is a reaction from alien ship. End is escape of a live Siri & a dead Jukka in a shuttle Charybdis towards earth. All other occupants of both Theseus & Rorschach die, along with destruction of both ships.

Fact sheet.
"Blindsight", novel, review
Rating: C
First published: October 2006
Nominated for Hugo Award 2007 in novel category.

See also.

  1. Eric Donovan in Larry Niven's stories is a cyborg much more deeply integrated with the spaceship via prosthetic aids, when compared with Jukka Sarasti or Isaac Szpindel.
  2. An alternative & non-violent way of learning the language to communicate with very cooperative aliens is found in Ted Chiang's "Story Of Your Life".


IlyaT said...

Title of the story comes from a form of hallucination where your mind says you are seeing something, but your eye is not really seeing the thing. This is an effect some human adventurers in the story experience.

While human adventurers in the story experience a lot of hallucinations, the term "Blindsight" means exactly opposite. It is a situation when the eye IS seeing something, and subconscious mind may react to it if "something" is dangerous, but the conscious mind is unaware of it.

Anonymous said...

What does Blindsight mean? Dialog fragment below may clarify -

"When did your sight come back?"
"Soon as we came inside."
"Sooner. You saw the battery."
"Fumbled it." He grunted. "Not that I'm much less of a spaz
even when I'm not blind, eh?"
"You reached for it. You almost caught it. That wasn't blind
"Not blind chance. Blindsight."
"Nothing wrong with the receptors," he said distractedly. "Brain
processes the image but it can't access it. Brain stem takes over."
"Your brainstem can see but you can't?"
"Something like that."

Marius said...

Just finished Blindsight (it's available on the web under a free creative commons licence). There are some slight inaccuracies in your summary:

We're told how the comet is chosen as a target for investigation: an old probe intercepts a radio signal originating from the comet.

Siri Keeton did not have telephatic abilities.

The ship Theseus never reached Burns-Caulfield. The three automated probes (called "the second wave") reached it first, and the comet self-destructed as soon as the probes attempted to map it via radar. Theseus was then diverted (without waking its crew) to another target -- a very weak infrared source in the Oort cloud that was anomalous in some way.

Tinkoo said...

Responding to comment #3 above:

1. "an old probe intercepts a radio signal originating from the comet": If I recall correctly, this happens when our friends are well on their way. But it has been a while since I read it - you may be right. Thanks.

2. "Siri Keeton did not have telephatic abilities": He could not telepathically talk to other humans. But he could sense alien intelligence at a good distance! In my book, that qualifies as telepathy.

3. "The ship Theseus never reached Burns-Caulfield": It did reach. It could never land on it - they went near it - "near" as in astronomical probes. I recall some observations Kiri made regarding the surface features etc. Then, in response to their radar probe - while they were preparing to land, it vanished after momentarily blinding their instruments. They, in fact, also took some measurements of its radiation before its disappearance - that is how they figured the new target's location.

Anonymous said...

I recommend you google every "technobabble" you found, because 80% of them are real terms and the rest, really good extrapolations. You missed the mark on so many levels, but the most important was that you didn't even pay attention to half of what was happening. The old probe found Burns-Caulfield, the comet, before Earth launched the ship. They sent three "waves" of ships, two of them were more probes and the third was Theseus itself. Te probes discovered the comet was a decoy and Theseus changed course. They found the real target because of its Oasa radiation, a term explained at the end of the book. They discovered Big Ben was being used because it had an enormous quantity of unnatural objects orbiting it. I could go on and on, but bottom line is...if you want to understand it, you need to read it again. Slowly.

James said...

I delayed reading this book for quite a while due to this review, which was unfortunate since it's actually a very good book. There are very few first contact stories that present a radically different alien society for the simple reason that few humans are clever enough to imagine something radically non-human. This story succeeds admirably at this goal. I especially liked the philosophical discussion of the relation between intelligence and consciousness, which is in the end the whole point of the novel.

And regarding "techno-babble," as others have noted most of it is correct scientific terminology. For the most part, precise explanations of what the terminology means is worked into the narrative. And there's a list of 144 references at the end. Clearly the author has a good idea what he's talking about.

Tinkoo said...

James: While tastes are bound to vary - I might myself react to it a little different today. I'd read it when I was just about a year into reading science fiction; I'm now probably a bit more tolerant of some tropes styles.

But I doubt I still see jargon sympathetically, whether real or invented, particularly when excessive. For me, it's distraction, & I've rarely liked stories that have too much of it. But well - tastes vary. And it's good to hear contrary opinions. Thank you.

Karl said...

Fuck you.

Karl said...

Fuck you.

Karl said...

Fuck you, subhuman little shit. The book's not bad, you just have no taste.