Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Firefall #1


Rate this book
Two months since the stars fell...

Two months since sixty-five thousand alien objects clenched around the Earth like a luminous fist, screaming to the heavens as the atmosphere burned them to ash. Two months since that moment of brief, bright surveillance by agents unknown.

Two months of silence, while a world holds its breath.

Now some half-derelict space probe, sparking fitfully past Neptune's orbit, hears a whisper from the edge of the solar system: a faint signal sweeping the cosmos like a lighthouse beam. Whatever's out there isn't talking to us. It's talking to some distant star, perhaps. Or perhaps to something closer, something en route.

So who do you send to force introductions on an intelligence with motives unknown, maybe unknowable? Who do you send to meet the alien when the alien doesn't want to meet?

You send a linguist with multiple personalities, her brain surgically partitioned into separate, sentient processing cores. You send a biologist so radically interfaced with machinery that he sees x-rays and tastes ultrasound, so compromised by grafts and splices he no longer feels his own flesh. You send a pacifist warrior in the faint hope she won't be needed, and the fainter one she'll do any good if she is. You send a monster to command them all, an extinct hominid predator once called vampire, recalled from the grave with the voodoo of recombinant genetics and the blood of sociopaths. And you send a synthesist--an informational topologist with half his mind gone--as an interface between here and there, a conduit through which the Dead Center might hope to understand the Bleeding Edge.

You send them all to the edge of interstellar space, praying you can trust such freaks and retrofits with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find.

But you'd give anything for that to be true, if you only knew what was waiting for them...

384 pages, Hardcover

First published October 3, 2006

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Peter Watts

181 books2,943 followers

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
15,130 (38%)
4 stars
13,608 (34%)
3 stars
7,372 (18%)
2 stars
2,317 (5%)
1 star
875 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,684 reviews
Profile Image for carol..
1,572 reviews8,224 followers
March 26, 2021
This is a very dense book, packed with ideas. Although Watts mentions he's a biologist by training, you wouldn't know it: between all the astronomical events, the neurological side effects of radiation and methane exposure, and the philosophy of consciousness, it feels like half a college curriculum in here. It also is not an easy book. I ended up waiting to finish it on a free day, where the book and I could spend as much time as we needed. In this way, it reminded me a great deal of Miéville's Embassytown.

The narrative is fragmented into pieces, alternating between a linear description of a sort of first-contact event, and fragments of Siri's life, primarily from his youth and from his only romantic relationship. This is a future Earth where most people have been genetically engineered before birth. As they age, more and more people are choosing to join Heaven, a type of virtual reality for their consciousness, allowing their bodies to be stored elsewhere once they commit. Siri was an epileptic, and had half his brain removed to prevent further seizures. It left him with a curious sense of distance, which he developed into a skill, becoming a professional Synthesete. When an alien invention surveys Earth, a group of people are sent to the most likely place the aliens are lurking. Siri is part of that team as a professional observer.

It's a complicated story, and while Watts does eventually provide many of the explanations (details on Heaven, details on vampires), it a faceted kind of story; you have to hold all these images in your mind and hope that they'll coalesce at some point. They mostly do, although there's a few spots when I think Watts has a few too many puzzle pieces to make into a coherent pattern. I was hoping for some sense of 'ah-ha,' but am instead left with a sense of both stretchy-ness and 'hmm.' The biggest idea is surrounds the idea of the brainstem, of function without consciousness.

"'You think Rorschach grows them on some kind of assembly line. You can't find any genes. Maybe they are just biochemical machines.'
'That's what life is, Keeton. That's what you are.' Another hit of nicotine, another storm of numbers, another sample. 'Life isn't either/or. It's a matter of degree."

I will say that the first contact bits turned out to be absolutely fascinating, as well as the ideas of magnetic atmosphere and methane gases causing issues of health and perception. His discussions on game theory and first contact are depressing as hell and would probably be a real strategy by some people.

Writing is occasionally transcendent. All in all, I'm going to have to bump it up after my second read. While I may not like every one, and certainly hope that humanity will do better, I have to say that this was one of the most stunning first contact stories I've ever read.

Their marriage decayed with the exponential determinism of a radioactive isotope and still he sought her out, and accepted her conditions.

The weakest spot for both me and my co-readers on my second read was the inclusion of the vampire species. It felt somewhat weak, and like there were other mechanisms Watts could have used to accomplish those same goals. Nonetheless, I think it's quite an amazing book, with a lot of food for thought.

Of the Goodreads reviews, I would point you towards mark monday's, who addresses the philosophical angle Watts seemed to be heading toward. Lightreads also has an uncharacteristically long, but characteristically brilliant, review that includes a nice note of what the reader is in for, as well as a long segment of Watt's writing. I happen to agree with Lightreads, that I'm guessing it would read best if one is conversant with some of the -ologies in the book. Off the top of my head, linguistics, astronomy, philosophy, evolution, neurology, biology, and physics all play parts in the story.

My edition included a series of mini-essays by Watts about the philosophical foundations of the book. I particularly enjoyed 'Sleight of Mind' (hacking the brain), 'Are We There Yet' (the space travel insight), alien anatomy and physiology, and 'Sentience/Intelligence,' all of which are heavily footnoted, usually with articles or journals. I laughed at footnote #130: "This validates me, and I wish it happened more often. ¹³°

130: I am by nature insecure. I blame bad parenting."

Note for later--short film Watts consulted on (5 minutes) for re-read (thanks, Caro!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkR2h...

Read again March 2021, with a lovely group of people: Nataliya, Stephen, Phil and David. Thank you all for your additional insights.
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,678 reviews5,253 followers
August 7, 2012
what is Consciousness? how did the silly human race evolve beyond the herd instinct, beyond our reptile brain? how, and why? what is the purpose of our individuality, what is the need for our sense of self, what use is Human Connection, why are we even equipped with Empathy? for some naive, kinda-sorta spiritual folks (like myself), these things may explain the existence of God. but that's rather besides the point of the question. does empathy help us in the long run, does the ability of humans to connect with each other truly offer anything besides constant discomfort and potential danger? is a psychopath who does not experience empathy somehow less than human? how would a highly developed species that has somehow evolved without empathy or individuality react to a species like ours - one that is contantly talking to itself, connecting, empathizing, exploring, throwing itself and its messages out into the void, to seek, to find, to understand, to know?

exploring all of those questions is the purpose of Peter Watts' superb Blindsight. the novel is about one of those Ambiguous Threats Appearing in the Outskirts of Known Space. future Earth is a fucked-up Earth, no surprise there. humans regularly 'ascend' into a fake-sounding cyberheaven. vampires - apparently an extremely predatory offshoot of the homo sapien, complete with an anti-Euclidean mental bias that explains their phobia of crosses - have been revived and now serve the human race (the inclusion of vampires may sound cheesy, but believe me, it is one of more absorbing things about the novel). there is some deadly construct called the Icarus Array located somewhere near the sun, stationed there to "protect" us. sex is an outdated activity (perhaps the sole unconvincing part of the novel). genuine human contact rarely takes place face-to-face. your usual Cold Techno-Dystopia. the Ambiguous Threat is noted shortly after a startling "Firefly" effect occurs over the earth - an effect that appears to be the Ambiguous Threat's way of taking long-distance pictures of human shenanigans.

so the silly humans decide to fling a crew of misfits out into the void to engage with said Ambiguous Threat. there's a woman who has compartmentalized herself into 4 different and distinctly individualistic personalities. there's a military type armed with slaved drones whose biggest flaw/greatest attribute is her ability to empathize with her enemies. there are a couple guys who project their consciousness through machinery, all inputs mediated by that machinery - all the better to study the world around them. there is the ship's captain, a sociopathic vampire mentally bonded to his ship's computer brain. and then there is our hero - a sort of minister of information, missing half a brain, trained to avoid all forms of true connection, unwilling to engage in basic empathy. this fascinating crew finds much to be fascinated with when confronting the Ambiguous Threat. for one, a spaceship that looks like it's from Dante's Inferno. aliens from, well, the Alien films, with some upsetting Predator type invisibility to boot. hallucinations and corresonding loss of self within those hallucinations. strange communications that sound full of villainous bravado - except those communications feel oversimplified, threatening in the most obvious of ways, purposely dumbed-down...to what end? the Ambiguous Threat appears capable of automatically healing its own hull, controlling thousands of asteroids at once, and harnessing the power of a gas giant... yet seems oddly powerless, even uncaring. things don't add up. despite all the crew sees and analyzes, the Ambiguous Threat has a rather terrifying lack of signifiers.

the author is clearly a highly intelligent sort, PhD and everything, and the novel is full of Exra Hard Science Action. but i think folks are really mislabeling Blindsight if they consider it to be genuine Hard Science Fiction. to put it in the corniest of terms: this is a novel about the human condition. look at the dystopic details of this future Earth, review the cast of characters... Blindsight is built on examining all of the different options for humans and nonhumans to connect or not to connect, all the ways that individuals can reach across their individual sense of self to connect with another person's reality. the nature of the Ambiguous Threat and the root of our protagonist's problems are disconcertingly connected: a rejection of individuality; an inability to connect with others. the novel is elegantly constructed so that form follows meaning rather than narrative. this may be frustrating to folks who eschew literary novels in favor of genre fiction. that's understandable... "narrative tension" is definitely lost by the constant switching back and forth between parallel storylines. on the one hand, the protagonist's past life of non-communication and deliberate avoidance of empathy (shades of Dying Inside); on the other hand, the mission into the void (which itself is rife with pointed character flashblacks). but for Watts to have structured Blindsight in any other way would have been to lose the point of it all. the novel is not really about a dark space adventure. it is about the importance of empathetic connection, its value and its dangers, how it condemns us with one hand and lifts us up to a higher place with the other.

oh, and one last thing... if that last sentence makes you think that this is one of those enriching spiritual journey type of books, think again. this awesome novel is about as bleak and pessimistic as they come. an important warning to keep in mind before approaching: this dog bites!
Profile Image for Nataliya.
783 reviews12.5k followers
April 24, 2021
This book was absolutely nothing like I expected. Little did I know that for my hard SF adventure I needed to be comfortable not only with astronomy and physics and biology but also a hefty dose of philosophy and neuroscience and evolution — and a mind-boggling exploration not even into the nature of conscience but in its utility or complete lack thereof. There are enough abstract concepts for my mind not just to grapple with but to grudgingly admit defeat against.

What is it about? Well, on a surface it’s a First Contact story involving a crew of mentally and biologically augmented humans - or rather posthumans - on the “bleeding edge” of science, one resurrected apex predator (a scientifically plausible vampire with a Right Angle Glitch) and one advanced ship AI — all coming from the world of genetic engineering and virtual reality — tasked with exploration of an unknowable alien entity that takes them deep into the Oort Cloud.
“And so we waited: four optimized hybrids somewhere past the threshold of mere humanity, one extinct predator who'd opted to command us instead of eating us alive.”

And while they indeed find something very much alien in every imaginable way, this stops being your typical science fiction story and becomes a mind-breaking exploration of consciousness and hackable subjectivity of perception and torture and the inherent cruelty of game theory.
“Imagine a crown of thorns, twisted, dark and unreflective, grown too thickly tangled to ever rest on any human head. Put it in orbit around a failed star whose own reflected half-light does little more than throw its satellites into silhouette. Occasional bloody highlights glinted like dim embers from its twists and crannies; they only emphasized the darkness everywhere else.

Imagine an artefact that embodies the very notion of torture, something so wrenched and disfigured that even across uncounted lightyears and unimaginable differences in biology and outlook, you can't help but feel that somehow, the structure itself is in pain.

Now make it the size of a city.”

It’s very dense and technical and really requires your full focus, and rereading the passages a few times, and sometimes just staring at the wall while the cogs in the brain try to grind.

And it’s an unexpected ode to brainstem, that ancient reptilian brain that does all the work while the self-satisfied neocortex rests on its laurels, basking in the glory of that - possibly overrated - consciousness.

It’s beyond my comprehension, really, to imagine a superbly intelligent creature that yet does not possess that seeming pinnacle of creation, that self-satisfied self-awareness, that crown jewel that gives us humans the tremendous satisfaction and perception of being infinitely better than all those poor non-sentient creatures. After all, if we have it and we are successful, then it’s the ultimate goal and a prerequisite for success, for *being*. Even our smartest machines would hypothetically need to pass that Turing test for us to award them with true recognition — the “being-ness” itself.
“Point being you can use basic pattern-matching algorithms to participate in a conversation without having any idea what you're saying. Depending on how good your rules are, you can pass a Turing test.”

But what if all that is little but training wheels which are an impediment, really, if you forget to take the, off at some point? And is there any objective difference between feeling empathy and acting as though you feel empathy? And given how fragile it all is, what’s the point of putting it on the pedestal?
“What's the survival value of obsessing on a sunset?”

And then the ever-present dilemma of what to do when a new spacefaring intelligence is found. How do we go about friendliness or hostility? Do we assume the same competition approach, that damn zero sum game that served the winners throughout our history? At which point do you decide on the preventive strikes (that fragging euphemism for attack that nevertheless allows us to remain “the good guys”) and when do you justify torture itself?
“Killing innocents is the least of the risks you're running; you're gambling with the fate of worlds, provoking conflict with a star faring technology whose sole offense was to take your picture without permission.”

“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.”

“She'd just fallen back on the oldest trick in the Torturer's Handbook, the one that lets you go home to your family after work, and play with your children, and sleep at night: never humanize your victims.”

Oh, and it’s so pessimistic and bleak that you’ll end up blankly staring at a wall for a while after it all ends. That fragging elusive “human condition” that would not have been a problem had we allowed our reptilian brain to truly run the show.

Every theme addressed can sprout volumes upon volumes of frantic writing. But it’s that concept of consciousness as opposed to intelligence, and the survival / fitness value of those that made it hard for me. Electromagnetic radiation and its effects on the brain? Sure. Alien biology? No problem. Walking corpse syndrome? Alrighty. Spacefaring without consciousness, advanced math without self-awareness? Ummmm, huh???
“Because if Sarasti was right, scramblers were the norm: evolution across the universe was nothing but the endless proliferation of automatic, organized complexity, a vast arid Turing machine full of self-replicating machinery forever unaware of its own existence. And we—we were the flukes and the fossils. We were the flightless birds lauding our own mastery over some remote island while serpents and carnivores washed up on our shores.”

“There's no such things as survival of the fittest. Survival of the most adequate, maybe. It doesn't matter whether a solution's optimal. All that matters is whether it beats the alternative.”

It’s a difficult, dense book - but of the kind that makes you think long and hard about the validity of the concepts it discusses, the book that is not going for patting you on the back for putting in the effort but instead throws more challenges at you. It’s the book that demands concentration and focus and occasional looking up things to make sure you’re getting it right. It’s a challenge, and one that I found to be worth the time and investment. It’s not quite enjoyable in the way I’m used to, but rather uncomfortably fascinating and definitely not one for mass appeal. And I’m quite alright with that.

But damn, do I wish it was just a bit less bleak.

4 stars.
“I shook my head. "I just observe, that's all. I watch what people do, and then I imagine what would make them do that."
"Sounds like empathy to me."
"It's not. Empathy's not so much about imagining how the other guy feels. It's more about imagining how you'd feel in the same place, right?"
Pag frowned. "So?"
"So what if you don't know how you'd feel?”


Buddy read with carol., Stephen, Phil and David.

A link to a 5-minute short film that’s basically a trailer for this book (shamelessly stolen from carol’s review): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkR2h...

My much less enthusiastic review of the sequel, Echopraxia: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Terry .
402 reviews2,148 followers
April 5, 2013
Wow. This was a tough one. It was a very good hard sf book that I don't think I'll be coming back to anytime soon. As others have said: "abandon all hope ye who enter here." A well written, excruciating exploration of the human "problem" where it turns out that it really is a problem. How do you take a book whose central premise seems to be that the development of self-awareness in human evolution was a wrong turn that wasn't meant to happen at all? That it was in fact contrary to the entire development of intelligence throughout the rest of the universe that only occurred due to a fluke in the evolution of a competing species? Talk about being alone in an uncaring reality. Watts manages to take Lovecraft's primary hobby horse and make it work in a way that is truly frightening in its utter nihilism. This isn't a scary universe because Watts tells us so (as it would have been had Lovecraft wrote the tale), it's scary because he shows us so.

Our primary filter for information is Siri Keeton, a man with literally only half a brain. Due to a childhood trauma he was essentially lobotomized and given computer processors to make up for what was removed. Siri obviously lost a lot during the process, but "gained" the ability to be the ultimate "Chinese Room" for humanity...for all that was worth. His whole life he has been trying to understand even 'baseline' humans and his facility with doing so, with looking at the human enigma on the surface and from the outside, and parsing it correctly has led him to become a professional conduit between these baseline humans and the posthuman entities they have created and made to work for them. He is a uniquely appropriate narrator for this tale as his very mode of existence showcases Watts' entire argument in microcosm; and interestingly his entire development as a character is the reverse of the development of the story and even of the universe itself. Siri's story starts and ends as a very lonely one, but for very different reasons.

Another fascinating element of the tale is the fairly unique use of vampires as an off-shoot sub-species of humanity originally destroyed due to humanity's self-awareness and then brought back by high science to be our servants. These are probably the most frightening vampires I've yet come across in fiction, not only because of the pseudo-scientific "plausibility", but primarily because of what we eventually discover about them in the story's conclusion.

I will say very little about "Rorschach", the alien entity with whom humanity attempts to communicate in this tale of first contact, except to say that the Lovecraftian enigma of its seeming indifference to human existence is truly chilling in its implications. Far more than any dreaming Cthulhu, Rorschach is an entity whose strangeness is truly to be feared.

All in all this was a rewarding, though deeply uncomfortable, read.

Also posted on Shelf Inflicted
Profile Image for Jenne.
1,086 reviews675 followers
June 4, 2007
Okay, I gave this book TWO second chances because I had heard great things about it, but I eventually gave up.

It's certainly a gutsy choice to have a person with no empathy as your main character, but it's pretty hard to get readers to care about someone who has only a vaguely intellectual interest in other people. Especially if the story is told in the first person by this character.
So as a result, we know that one guy is a vampire, and another guy has some kind of prosthetic senses, and there's a military woman and another woman with a multiple personality. We don't really get to know much else about them, or at least not by page 183.

The other problem I had with this book was that it was hard to picture exactly where everyone was and what they were doing in whatever scene. Most of the action takes place in a spaceship, and you never get a clear idea of how it's set up, plus there are all these sort of virtual-reality things going on at the same time, and the vampire guy tends to hide out in his room and you don't really know where that is, and I think there are supposed to be some kind of tents that the people live in? On a spaceship? I don't know.

Anyway, it's not that a book has to be easy to read; I like books that are complicated, but I think it's the mark of a good writer that you shouldn't have to be wondering where the aft thruster maintenance room is instead of just being engrossed in the story.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,102 followers
September 19, 2015
This is one of those novels that make me feel like it's a wonder to be alive. Of course, that's a subjective statement implying consciousness, and therefore I am an evolutionary throwback who is spinning his wheels. And because I read this book and feel that the logic is unassailable, I still happen to think this novel makes me feel like it's a wonder to be alive.

Notice, of course, that this is the inverse of a depressive reasoning, and this is intentional, because this novel makes me feel like it's a wonder to be alive.

If I were a computer, I might call this a halting state. If I were a man with half a brain, I might never have had this problem to begin with.

I think that's rather the point. I love this novel. It goes way beyond a simple entertainment factor and pushes me hard into the abyss of philosophy, and as I laugh and flail my arms about, thinking about the lovecraftian horror that's building an artifact ten times larger than jupiter in our solar system, I wonder if I'll ever leave this book again.

Indeed, I'm thinking about rereading it right away.

All of the characters are beyond fascinating. Check out anyone's review for this book and you'll see what I mean. Was I skeptical about a vampire captain of a spacecraft? You better believe it. On the other hand, Watts pulled this off with so much panache that the bloodsucker is now living in my brain. How did this happen? I've read way more than my fair share of vampire novels. This is almost the diametrical opposite of all of those. It's not only the evolutionary standpoint. It's the way he's given the vampire truly superhuman mentation a-la quantum computer AI's allowing for massive superposition computations. I laughed for ten minutes when I discovered why intersecting right angles tended to blow vampire minds.

Of course, it's not that cut and dried, either. His character was well rounded and as alien as everyone else. It's kind of the point. Only the most alien among us are the most qualified to parley with the truly alien. It's reasonable in context and execution.

I can't say that the real alien was more fascinating that the narrator or the vampire, and that's actually something because the alien was freaking awesome.

I absolutely love the ongoing discussion about consciousness, as it relates to the characters, and how it relates to the planet-busting sociopathic alien. It's treatment was probably the best I've ever read, in any format. It was certainly a lot more entertaining than any other.

The only other sci-fi novel to come close to the philosophical bent of this one was Anathem by Stephenson, but that's about as close to a comparison as I can get. Neither novel intersects much, whether by tone, action, or subject.

I can't believe I hadn't read this Hugo runner up of 2007 until now. Sometimes I feel as if I've been living under a rock. This novel is and will be an ongoing classic of literature. It should be on your real bookshelf if you say you love science fiction.

Profile Image for Becky.
1,384 reviews1,650 followers
August 10, 2014

Yeeeaahhh... I'm kinda not sure what I just read or how I should feel about this book. So, I'm going to revert to my usual fallback position of "random typing to see what words show up" and call it a review.

Look ma, no consciousness! O_o

So, one the one hand, I can see how certain types of readers would think this book is brilliant and love it. This is smart, hard sci-fi, dealing with matters of humanity (as most SF does) and asking some really interesting questions about what sentience is and what makes human consciousness and intelligence unique. On that level, I think this book was great. Smarter than me, for sure, but I can appreciate that. I ain't mad atcha, book!

Unfortunately, on just about every OTHER level, for me, this was a big letdown. I think that a lot of that is due to my expectations. This is one of the reasons why I like to go in to a book without knowing anything about it. Blind, if you will. (See what I did there?) But with this one... I was at the point of giving up on it and so I broke down and got some perspective on the book from others reading it. That didn't work out for me either, though.

Based on the discussion (and the genres on the book page, to be fair), I really thought that this was going to be a SF Horror book, complete with a comparison to the movie Event Horizon - a comparison that I don't see at all. I kept waiting for the book to get super depraved and horrorish... and I waited in vain. There was a tiny portion of the book where it seemed that it could go that way, but I blinked and almost missed it.

So, my expectations for what this book actually was definitely hurt my enjoyment, but having no expectations at all wasn't any better because I was bored and confused and really struggling with understanding the narrative and structure and what was actually being relayed.

I don't think that I'm a stupid person, nor a lazy reader. I do read mostly for enjoyment, but I also read to learn and experience new ideas, etc. I am willing to work to earn a payoff. But for me, this book was all work, and no payoff. I came out of this book thinking that it could have been much cleaner and much more structured and would have been a better book for it. I don't mind the multiple storylines or flashbacks or the characters who don't use pronouns or anything other than present verb tenses. I'm fine with those things, though the dialogue is super technical and confusing before adding those quirks in. Just sayin'. What I'm referring to regarding the structure is mainly the beginning, where every little mini-chapter gives us a little drop-you-in-the-moment snippet of infodump, some in first person, some in second person, all in faith that the reader will be a patient one and stick with it despite having no idea what the hell any of it means.

But, you know, as I type this, I kinda think that I'm actually starting to appreciate it a little more because I'm realizing that all of what I just said about the confusion really just puts the reader that much more into the story directly. BUT- it's one of those books that you'd likely have to read at least twice to really fully appreciate.

It really did require almost insane levels of patience for me to complete it. So much of the book is just info and tech specs and observation, and try as I might to find it interesting, it bored me for a huge chunk of the book. The last 10% or so brought it all together, and looking at the WHOLE, it's a much more cohesive story than it seemed to be as I was reading it.

*Sigh* So I've come full circle. It's brilliant, but damn frustrating. Yup. That about sums it up, so I'm giving it 2 stars for the frustration and one additional for the retrospective brilliance.
Profile Image for Luna. ✨.
92 reviews1,234 followers
April 27, 2017

**So this review will be extremely short**

“He wasn't just grasping at the limb, I realized as I joined them. He was tugging at it. He was trying to pull it off.
Something laughed hysterically, right inside my helmet.”

Okay so I have decided hardcore sci-fi isn't my thing, I get confused with all the descriptions and literally had to google half the words in this book. The writing was a little tedious, 100 pages in and I still didn't have a clue what was going on and nearly put down as DNF. However this book turned amazing at the half way point & I literally couldn't put it down, it was fascinating, creepy, warped, wonderful & extremely different. When people talk about horror in sci-fi, I imagine something pretty cheesy. This book had no cheese what so ever and was actually pretty creepy. I had goosebumps and had to check my wardrobe for aliens, before bed. So if you like shitting your pants, this book is for you.

So overall I enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it to all fans of sci-fi & horror.

Ps it had the most badass space vampires ever.

Buddy read with my fellow Katie Perry fanboy;Sir Twerks
Profile Image for Greg.
92 reviews157 followers
February 23, 2010
You know you're in for trouble when the dedication of the book says:

"If we're not in pain, we're not alive."

One of the quotes before the novel starts is:

"you will die like a dog for no good reason"

And the quote that starts the first chapter is one by Ted Bundy!

But still, it's a sci-fi book about consciousness...how could I not love it?


I've always loved Science Fiction, and not just because books about the future are inherently cool. The reason I've always loved science fiction is because I've always loved philosophy. From a young age I enjoyed thinking about what makes us human, what is the nature of "self", what is the nature of reality, and a host of other questions along those lines. Science fiction stories are able to take philosophical thought experiments and put them into a literal environment. This type of setting might not serve to replace an in-depth philosophical or scientific analysis, but it will certainly serve to prompt your mind into a continued exploration of these ideas, with the benefit of telling the story in a far more interesting way than can be done in 1800s London! (sorry Dickens)

Blindsight might be one of the most superb books I've ever read at this type of story telling. In part because every aspect of this book is infused with it, from the nature of the characters themselves, to the dialog, to the plot. Whether you want your philosophy just beneath the surface or knocking you over the head, this book will deliver...as long as you want both.

On the surface Blindsight is your classic first contact story, with a special team sent to the edge of the solar system to make contact with an alien intelligence. But in this not to distant future humanity has modified itself to the point where none of the characters involved are recognizably human. While this might not be the newest plot device ever, it's not in the realm of physical differences that sets these characters apart, but in mental differences. In the nature of their consciousness. And it is when they finally make contact with the aliens, who, paradoxically, may be intelligent but not sentient, and who further, are not particularly happy to see them, that the story really grabs you by the balls (or whatever you prefer to be grabbed by). Watts was seamlessly able to mix action, terror, and philosophy into one engaging narrative. Something I didn't think could be easily done.

A few of the more interesting questions (to me) in regards to consciousness have to do with why consciousness would ever have evolved. What were its benefits? What were the mechanisms that allowed it to evolve? What function did it serve? Blindsight doesn't attempt to answer any of these questions specifically. But what it does do, and do brilliantly, is pose a whole bunch of related questions that make those questions I asked even more important. Anyone familiar with neurological conditions such as agnosia, neglect, and yes, blindsight, knows that the brain can go wrong in countless ways, radically altering our conscious experience. Anyone who has excelled at a sport or a musical instrument knows that thinking too consciously about something just interferes with your ability to do it well. By pointing out the drawbacks and limitations of consciousness, Watts forces us ask ourselves, "what IS consciousness good for?"

I found something that I wrote some years back, it was just a passing thought that I never explored, but it was this:

Consciousness almost seems like a bad adaptive trait. It almost gets in the way sometimes. Limits our focus. Why do we have a brain that can store so much data, but this consciousness that has a limit of the awareness of the data.

If any of these questions interest you, and you enjoy science fiction, and don't mind a bit of a darker bend to you reading material, do yourself a favor and check out this book.

It's also one of the only fiction books I've ever read that actually had a whole section of notes and references after the last chapter, briefly explaining all the legitimate scientific sources the ideas in the book were taken from. Kudos Watts.
Profile Image for Doyle.
218 reviews5 followers
July 15, 2020
I spent a majority of this book being lost. Not so lost in the ludicrous amounts of science jargon as I was confused by the "who/what is this?" Though the author sacrifices story and pacing at every convenience to flex his brain and show off all the cutting edge science theory he reviewed to prepare for writing this, my main bitch is simply not being able to follow even basic conversations held between characters. Every character/space ship/astral body in this book has a name, and possibly an additional nickname. You better set the brief description associated with that name in stone the first time through because there are almost NO context clues to help you figure out what type of object the author is referring to afterwards. I'm glad that the cover of this book has a picture of what the main space ship looks like, otherwise I would have never known how the main setting was laid out. I'm sure the ship was described at some point, but the author probably referred to it's nickname, and shoved in tedious minutia details to really bore me into not remembering. Here is a list my further bitching that I'm not going to elaborate on:

1. The main human character is largely un-relatable and has zero emotion at any point.
2. Secondary characters are all the same character (personality-wise), save the vampire.
3. There is a vampire in this book for no god damn reason.
4. The first chapter starts out suspiciously like the first chapter of Ender's Game.
5. Secondary character introductions are made 100 pages too late.
6. Seemingly inconsequential plot points are glossed over, then revealed to be incredibly important in the last chapter. The last chapter? I can't believe I made it to the last chapter.
Profile Image for Rachel (TheShadesofOrange).
2,206 reviews3,214 followers
May 1, 2021
4.5 Stars 
This was a brilliantly unique alien contact story that was like nothing I had ever read (or watched) before. Blending together science fiction and horror, this novel was dark and creepy in a rather innovative way. This narrative was very dense in terms of plot and scientific theory. Admittedly, some of it went over my head, but what I did understand, I absolutely loved. This story was incredibly thought provoking and often mind bending as it discussed topics such communication, intelligence and consciousness. I would highly recommend this fascinating hard scifi novel to any seasoned reader of the genre.

Also, be sure to read the notes at the end, which explained the scientific ideas behind this fictional future. I love it more with a second reread.
Profile Image for Jokoloyo.
449 reviews273 followers
January 1, 2019
This is not an easy read. The book is a hard science fiction with a lot of ideas, maybe too much for some people that has no special interest in one or two of the science that mentioned in this book. It sure gave me some things to check in internet, like blindsight (it is a real life phenomena), and other science stuff appeared in this book. This book is also discuss about behavioral and consciousness, oh just read other reviews for details, I am not good discussing heavy subjects.

My only concern is the ending, not satisfying enough for me. I felt like read a novel that will have a direct sequel/continuation. I was ready to give this book a five star, then when the (supposedly) climax part hit me, I changed my mind and rated this book a four star.
Profile Image for Lightreads.
641 reviews534 followers
December 28, 2008
Yes, it is not quite as good as I’d been told, but orders of magnitude more brilliant than anyone had conveyed. Which statement will be very puzzling to anyone who hasn’t read the book, but just take my word for it: it makes perfect sense. And yes, this book will deservedly win this year’s Hugo, if the rumblings are right. Sorry, Temeraire, you’ll have another shot, I’m sure.

So. The actual review. Summarizing this book is quite difficult without being far too parsimonious or far too verbose. It’s SF, and there ain’t much squishy here. It’s told by Siri Keeton, informational synthesist, professional observer, member of a tiny human expedition sent out to meet an unknown alien presence at the outskirts of the solar system. Mostly human – it’s hard to classify people living on the “bleeding edge” of the future, with edited brains and altered bodies. They meet the Scramblers, an alien race more frighteningly alien than anything I’ve ever seen in any other science fiction. There they are reminded of the eminent hackability of the human brain, what a fragile machine it really is, and that’s just the start.

It’s hard, because I want everyone to read this book, though I know the majority of people won’t get past the first fifty pages. It’s not just the hard SF elements, not the dense but oddly beautiful prose. This book just requires a lot. It’s packed tight with theory, and I don’t know what it would be like going in without at least a conversant background in biology, psychology, neurology, a bit of physics. It’s just that, when the boom swings around about three-quarters of the way in and smacks you on the forehead, you really should be leaning forward eagerly into it. And I don’t think that’ll work if you’re struggling to keep up with the ologies. The science isn’t background here, it’s not ambiance, and the unprepared reader would probably be very puzzled by an obscure and strangely technical alien encounter book.

Because you’ve got to do the work to get the payoff. It’s one of those arguments which is reduced out of all reasonableness by reduction at all – that’s why it’s not made often. Watts called this book a “thought experiment.” It’s about intelligence existing in the absence of sentience, of that conscious I first person narrator. About the brilliance of our brainstems; they are faster than us, smarter than us, perfectly capable of surviving just fine without upper management – that’s what the brainstem is for, after all, surviving. Blindsight starts there, and then bypasses the perennial bottleneck of what consciousness is, and goes straight on to what it’s for. Evolutionarily. Biologically. I think its conclusions are wrong. Well, I hope its conclusions are wrong. But it’s brilliant none the less.

"You invest so much in it, don't you? It's what elevates you above the beasts of the field, it's what makes you special. Homo sapiens, you call yourself.
Wise Man. Do you even know what it is, this consciousness you cite in your own exaltation? Do you even know what it's for?

Maybe you think it gives you free will. Maybe you've forgotten that sleepwalkers converse, drive vehicles, commit crimes and clean up afterwards, unconscious
the whole time. Maybe nobody's told you that even waking souls are only slaves in denial.

Make a conscious choice. Decide to move your index finger. Too late! The electricity's already halfway down your arm. Your body began to act a full half-second
before your conscious self 'chose' to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary—almost an afterthought—
to the homunculus behind your eyes. That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality:
it reads the summary and it sees the hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other.

But it's not in charge. You're not in charge. If free will even exists, it doesn't share living space with the likes of you.

Insight, then. Wisdom. The quest for knowledge, the derivation of theorems, science and technology and all those exclusively human pursuits that must surely
rest on a conscious foundation. Maybe that's what sentience would be for— if scientific breakthroughs didn't spring fully-formed from the subconscious
mind, manifest themselves in dreams, as full-blown insights after a deep night's sleep. It's the most basic rule of the stymied researcher: stop thinking
about the problem. Do something else. It will come to you if you just stop being conscious of it."

A fascinating, difficult book. I was right there all the way, but then again I took a lot less convincing than many readers probably will. That, and I was highly entertained by the quick and dirty tour of some of the stranger stops in the DSM-IV (oh right, there’s Cotard’s Syndrome. Love that one). Not for everyone by its very nature, and also by necessity populated with strange, uncuddly people and stranger situations, so that a casual, surface read of a typical hard SF story may or may not be enjoyable. I don’t know, and the inaccessibility is not a flaw, it’s a necessity. I do know that I admire the single-mindedness required to write so narrowly, so smartly, and that it's definitely worth the work, if you're positioned for it.
Profile Image for Alex.
36 reviews5 followers
July 31, 2007
I'm still having a hard time figuring out what I think about this book. I don't believe that it is well written, but I also don't believe that it is a bad book. Let's start with the first one. I've had a brief note up here for a while about this book that pretty much defines why I don't think it's well written. Take a look at this quote:

"There have always been those tasked with the rotation of informational topologies, but throughout most of history they had little to do with increasing its clarity."

Italics his. Oh, the irony of the italics. His problem is that he really relies on jargon an awful lot to make his descriptions, and for people who don't use that same terminology, it can be like slogging through mud to understand what he's saying. In the first third of the book, I thought this was going to be the worst of the nominees, just because I couldn't understand half of what he was saying. In the rest of the book, once he's done with setup and back story, it gets better. But it never fully goes away, and the fact that the setup and back story are so unreadable - and yet so important - is a pretty huge problem.

Now on to my second point. I believe this is actually a good book. The characters are distinct and interesting, the world he created is believable, even if the "vampire" concept is a little out there. But most importantly, he did science fiction with aliens and he did it right. This is something that he even cites in the acknowledgments, but when you're doing aliens, you need to make them unrecognizable. This is a huge challenge, but you have to conceive of a species that evolved in a completely different environment, coming up a completely different path and becoming something completely unlike humanity. Or anything else on Earth for that matter. Talking cats don't count.

His aliens are the most plausibly non-human I have ever seen. I'm giving this book it's score largely based on that. I want to give it four stars just because of that, but the poor writing and the fact that it feels a little unfinished at the end make it hard to do that. It has a great second act, one that doesn't quite live up to its potential for me, but a worthy hugo nominee all the same.

Even though I'm giving this book a lower score than the others, this may be the winner in my opinion. The aliens may not make it rise above other books in terms of the writing, but in a science fiction contest, I believe they do.

NOTE: After reading Glasshouse, my personal award goes to that novel and not this one. Stross managed to do everything right in that one.

Profile Image for Twerking To Beethoven.
391 reviews67 followers
April 30, 2017
BR with Pizza, spaghetti, mandolino, Luciano Pavarotti and you can't even sing who happens to be a way quicker reader than ole Twerk.

I learned an awful lot of new words while going through this book, mostly because I found myself being forced to in order to even follow its most basic level of dialogue. Hands up, you bastids, who knows what "malapropism" means? Ha! Gotcha. I do now, but that's because I googled that shit along with heaps of funny words that I have now forgotten.

In the really technical sections of the story it was a challenge, at times, to even follow the plot. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I read "Blindsight", but... mostly for how much it makes appreciate all the more the other works that make hard science fiction look so much more elegant and seamless. Rendezvous with Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey come to mind. It works, but it's likely going to make you work a bit as well.

Three stars.
Profile Image for Caro the Helmet Lady.
773 reviews349 followers
March 11, 2021
When I occasionally for a longer period of time drift closer to the shores of mainstream literature, books like Blindsight remind me in the form of the hard kick in the ass why I like sci-fi.

The many ideas that Watts stuffed into it are at least very interesting, if not mindblowing. Lets not forget that the book was written some 15 years ago, but to me it didn't feel outdated at all, never mind that since then many authors and screenwriters made use of many concepts. But trust me, nobody else since then put a damn vampire on the spaceship together with MPD linguist, cybernetic biologist and someone who has half of his brain out and some microchips instead in his head and is an actual narrator of the whole story. Now, reliable or not is a completely different song.
By our everyday standards these folks need to get some help instead of going to deep space. But it turns out only crazy can be genius. And vampires.

You read the blurb - some alien objects fall on Earth, blah blah, signals are found blah blah. Our crew goes to check a signal out of space - yeah, we know that trope - and happen to find some aliens. And I'm not spoiling. Because it's not about what happens actually, nothing that much happens at all in this book, mind me. It's about HOW it happens. It's about how the crew is discussing and treating the First Contact, and in meantime - themselves and each other. It's about "me, me, me" again - a human condition, intelligence and sentience.

Nothing is optimistic in this books, everything is dark and darker. And while I didn't necessarily agree with everything the author said in it, I loved this gloomy shit. I just got a bit confused by the sudden but not unexpected ending. I wanted it to last. Also didn't like Siri's relationship line and while I know why author used it, I was feeling force fed.

Feelz - just the feelz - as for movies Event Horizon comes to my mind and of course, Alien, for the obvious reasons, also Blade Runner. As for the books - some parts of Leviathan Wakes and some The Three-Body Problem. Also Broken Angels. So only the good things, babes.

When I finished the book I was immediately feeling like rereading it. I don't have a heart to give it less that 5 stars, even if it wasn't perfect.

And for the dessert have this awesome fan made short film that I watched n-times since finding it. If you won't feel like reading the book straight away after watching it, then who are you and what are you doing on my page???

Profile Image for Adam.
558 reviews360 followers
October 4, 2008
Crank up some Xenakis and Penderecki and abandon hope all ye who enter here. A book as monolithic and labyrinthine as the alien artifact at the heart of it. A grim yet psychedelic book which probably earns Watts place as the new James W. Campbell. A dystopia and a first contact story bent into odd shapes like a bristling metal sculpture. Disturbingly, as hallucinatory as most sections of this book are, Watts seemed to have scientific rational for most of it. A stunning look at consciousness, identity, reality, extraterrestrial life, technology, evolution, psychology, this is very difficult but mind altering experience if you let it. A future as weird and baroque as those pictured by Greg Egan and Charles Stross, scientifically plausible vampires (a branch of lost evolution), people turning to stone, a person with multiple personalities call The Gang of Four, truly alien aliens, and bleak a view of the universe as Lovecraft or Alastair Reynolds. Wow! The notes and references are worth price of entry alone.
September 15, 2022
Something about Peter Watts writing style doesn't interface well with my gray matter. The story and ideas were interesting enough. Consciousness and sentience from the perspective of the neurodiverse-tronauts and first contact aliens pounded home the only really interesting question - Is sentience an asset or liability? But reading this book felt like trying to run underwater. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood for this book. I'll give it a 3.5 rounded up.
Profile Image for Dirk Grobbelaar.
554 reviews1,093 followers
December 22, 2021

I half-expected nothing to happen.
But the dome split instantly before me, a crack then a crescent then a wide-eyed lidless stare as the shielding slid smoothly back into the hull. My fingers clenched reflexively into a fistful of webbing. The sudden void stretched empty and unforgiving in all directions, and there was nothing to cling to but a metal disk barely four meters across.
Stars, everywhere. So many stars that I could not for the life me understand how the sky could contain them all yet be so black. Stars,
—nothing else.

Space, the final frontier, where no-one can hear you scream, and so on and so forth.

Blindsight is what you might call a cosmic horror hard science fiction novel, or something such (some of the other reviews here have already mentioned the Lovecraftian themes). It is also a novel about first contact… and the exploration of an artifact….

…however, it probably isn’t what you expect at all.

“Predators run for their dinner. Prey run for their lives.”—Old Ecologist’s Proverb

Blindsight created a bit of a stir when it came out, and was nominated for a number of awards (notably the Hugo award for best novel). And now, I can finally see why.

There are many reviews here, most of them pretty much mirroring my own sentiments. As such, I don’t have much more than two cents to chuck into the mix.

“Not blind chance. Blind sight.

At its heart this is a novel that wants you to rethink the way you perceive yourself and the world around you. It may be wrapped up in a story about space exploration on the darkest edges of the solar system, but it touches on themes like the nature of reality and how we perceive it (as filtered through the reality inside our minds), the nature of the sub conscious, and “Intelligence” vs “Sentience”. The latter is prominent to the story being told, and the author raises some hairy questions. Blindsight is a challenging read, not just because of the hard science or the fact that the author doesn’t hold our hand or ease us into the future he envisions, but because he wants to show us just how insignificant and meaningless existence possibly is, when viewed from certain angles. Is self-awareness the anomaly or the evolutionary dead end in a Universe that is basically inhospitable? Are we the losers after all?

Now, before you throw your hands in the air and say “well, that’s certainly not for me”, I should tell you that this also a novel that lets you interpret, or take from it, what you can. And it’s not a boring philosophical handbook or anything such, it is still a Science Fiction novel with creepy aliens and dangerous environments and all the other trimmings you have come to expect. See, it’s clever like that.

We fell. Ridged spires and gnarled limbs sectioned the sky wherever I looked, cut the distant starscape and the imminent superJovian into a jagged mosaic veined in black. Three kilometers away or thirty, the tip of some swollen extremity burst in a silent explosion of charged particles, a distant fog of ruptured, freezing atmosphere. Even as it faded I could make out wisps and streamers swirling into complex spirals: Rorschach‘s magnetic field, sculpting the artefact’s very breath into radioactive sleet.
I’d never seen it with naked eyes before. I felt like an insect on a starry midwinter’s night, falling through the aftermath of a forest fire.

If you have read the novel check out the faux trailer on youtube for a “Blindsight SciFi Short Film”, beware though it does contain spoilers.

The abstract nature(s) of the great reveal(s) and what the first-person narrator reveals about himself (at crucial moments of the novel), intentionally muddies the water. It is already a challenging book to read, but it may be an even bigger challenge walking away from it. The ending is designed in such a fashion that you are not quite sure whether you, well….

And to prove this point: I wasn’t going to give this novel 5 stars, I was thinking maybe 3.5 rounded up or down, depending. But it has been niggling at my brain ever since I finished it. Pieces clicking into place long after the last page was read. And there you have it.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,583 followers
August 8, 2014
This is not an easy-reading book. It is complex, uses realistic technical jargon, and some rather esoteric psychological concepts. I enjoyed this book because of the wide range of interesting concepts that Peter Watts introduces in the story. The aspect of blindsight--the ability to sense one's environment without conscious awareness--is central to the story. Sometimes the human characters are subject to blindsight, but more importantly, the aliens they investigate act completely in blindsight. The aliens have no conscious awareness--they lack a brain--but they act as if they do.

Each crew member has some freakish aspect to his/her personality. The captain is a "vampire". He has to control his urges to refrain from assaulting the fellow crew members on the spacecraft, of which he is the captain. He is the captain because he is incredibly intelligent. It is sort of strange to have a "vampire" in a pure science-fiction novel. The main character had half of his brain removed when he was a child. He is subject to schizophrenic episodes. The biologist on board is half organic, half machine. One of the women on board is the warrior, and is also a pacifist.

It is obvious that the author is a scientist. Who, but a scientist would write, "... respective trajectories were known parabolas, our relative positions infinitely predictable at any time t." But he does get a few technical details wrong. He refers to the "Kaddish" prayer as being in Hebrew. It is not--it is actually Aramaic. And when a signal is lowered in pitch to help understand it, he writes, "Dopplered down near absolute zero." However, this is not a Doppler process because there is no motion involved--the proper jargon is "basebanded".

But this is just the perfectionist in me, giving vent to a few minor issues. This is an excellent book for those who don't just want to read a sci-fi adventure story, but are hungry for some intellectual meat.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Oscar.
1,974 reviews489 followers
February 4, 2013
Póngase una buena cantidad de H.P. Lovecraft. A continuación, añádase un buen chorro de Alastair Reynolds, y una pizca de Greg Egan. Y como ingrediente secreto, un chorrito de H.R. Giger. Agítese bien y ya tenemos el resultado: 'Visión ciega', de Peter Watts. Sírvase con precaución, ya que este cocktail no es para cualquier paladar.

Esta es una novela de primer contacto, pero maneja ideas tan complejas y poco comunes, que la alejan de cualquier otra novela que haya tratado este tema anteriormente. Es oscura, muy oscura; está ambientada en una atmósfera sumamente claustrofóbica y temible.

Decir que es ciencia ficción hard es quedarse corto. De hecho, al final del libro hay un apéndice con cantidad de notas explicativas y bibliografía utilizadas por Watts durante la concepción de su obra.

Pequeña sinopsis: en el año 2082, aparecieron en el cielo más de 65.000 sondas que rodearon la Tierra por completo. Tras un destello, se desintegraron. El resultado: acababan de hacernos una foto. Era una prueba de la existencia de vida extraterrestre, pero ¿hostil o pacífica? Se decidió mandar una misión tripulada formada por: Jukka Sarasti, un vampiro y jefe de la misión (sí amigos, se han encontrado pruebas científicas de hace más de 500.000 años que atestiguan la existencia del Homo sapiens vampiris, una subespecie humana, que en la novela ha sido traída de nuevo a la vida genéticamente); Isaac Szpindel, biólogo, para estudiar a los alienígenas; Amanda Bates, mayor del ejército, por si hay que luchar; la Banda de los Cuatro, que posee cuatro personalidades diferentes al tener el cerebro dividido, especialista en lingüística, para hablar con ellos; y Siri Keeton, sinteticista o jergonauta, para observar, debido a su capacidad de análisis de subtextos y topologías.

El narrador y protagonista es Siri, a través del cual iremos conociendo los sucesos que están pasando; al mismo tiempo, irá recordando episodios de su pasado anteriores a la misión.

Hay partes verdaderamente escalofriantes y memorables, como el Big Ben, una masa joviana de magnitudes gigantescas, o la nave alienígena, de verdadera pesadilla.

Recomendaría este libro sólo a aquellos lectores con un cierto bagaje en el género de la ciencia ficción, en especial en la ciencia ficción hard, más dura, ya que, aunque no es una novela de Greg Egan, sí hay ciertos pasajes algo áridos para el neófito.
Profile Image for Stuart.
722 reviews270 followers
May 1, 2016
Blindsight: Mind-blowing hard SF about first contact, consciousness
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
This is ‘hard SF’ in the truest sense of the term - hard science concepts, hard to understand writing at times, and hard-edged philosophy of mind and consciousness. It aggressively tackles weighty subjects like artificial intelligence, evolutionary biology, genetic modification, sentience vs intelligence, first contact with aliens utterly different from humanity, and a dystopian future where humans are almost superfluous and would rather retreat into VR. It’s also a tightly-told story of an exploration vessel manned by five heavily-modified posthumans commanded by a super-intelligent vampire, and a very tense and claustrophobic narrative that demands a lot from readers. If that sounds like your kind of book, you’ll find this is one of the best hard SF books in the last 10 years.

I try to avoid using the term ‘mind-blowing’ when it comes to hard SF. After all, the phrase is over-used by readers and publishers alike, but once in a while a book comes along and just knocks you off your feet, leaving you struggling to get your head around it. There are plenty of hard SF books that throw dozens of complex scientific and philosophic ideas at you, trying to show how smart the author is, but I haven’t encountered many SF books in which the characters, backstory and first contact are all different iterations of the same central argument: human sentience is a fluke of evolution that is not indispensable for survival, and could be a hindrance in the grand scheme of things, i.e. humanity could be a lone aberration in a cold and unsympathetic universe.

The First Contact plot is familiar - a shower of mysterious probes (later dubbed ‘fireflies’) enter Earth’s atmosphere, send out a flood of electro-magnetic info, and burn up. Clearly an alien intelligence has scanned the planet, but why? Several years pass without any further developments. However, when an alien signal is detected from a distant comet, humanity scrambles to put together an exploratory team that will be able to investigate and perhaps initiate First Contact, one of the most fundamental SF tropes in the genre. The twist is that ‘baseline’ humanity has lost its taste for adventure, and would rather send highly-specialized transhumans instead.

The new Millennium changed all that. We've surpassed ourselves now, we're exploring terrain beyond the limits of merely human understanding. Sometimes its contours, even in conventional space, are just too intricate for our brains to track; other times its very axes extend into dimensions inconceivable to minds built to fuck and fight on some prehistoric grassland. So many things constrain us, from so many directions.The most altruistic and sustainable philosophies fail before the brute brain-stem imperative of self-interest. Subtle and elegant equations predict the behavior of the quantum world, but none can explain it. After four thousand years we can't even prove that reality exists beyond the mind of the first-person dreamer. We have such need of intellects greater than our own.

The crew of the Theseus consists of five transhumans, an AI ship captain, and a cold-blooded genetically-engineered vampire leader (and it doesn’t sparkle in sunlight or brood in the high school cafeteria either). They are Siri Keaton, a ‘Synthesist’ assigned to observe the mission and report to ‘baseline’ humanity back home; Amanda Bates, a combat expert hardwired to control robot grunts; Isaac Szpindel, a biologist and doctor keen to examine xenobiology if the opportunity arises; his backup Robert Cunningham; Susan James, a linguist with 3 other distinct personalities known collectively as The Gang; and Jukka Sarasti, a hyper-intelligent vampire cloned from DNA of a long-extinct offshoot of humanity from the Pliocene era.

Our narrator Siri is very unusual, as is the rest of the crew: he’s had half his brain removed in favor of implanted technology that allows him to read the minute physical movements (‘topology’) of people and analyze behavioral patterns based on this. He describes himself thus:

In formal settings you'd call me Synthesist. On the street you call me jargonaut or poppy. If you're one of those savants whose hard-won truths are being bastardized and lobotomized for powerful know-nothings interested only in market share, you might call me a mole or a chaperone.
We won't admit that our creations are beyond us; they may speak in tongues, but our priests can read those signs. Gods leave their algorithms carved into the mountainside but it's just li'l ol' me bringing the tablets down to the masses, and I don't threaten anyone. Maybe the Singularity happened years ago. We just don’t want to admit we were left behind.

Peter Watts excels at describing things from the perspective of being so far advanced and modified by technology and gene-therapy that old-fashioned ‘baseline’ humans cannot understand them. It’s always a challenge to write hard SF that purports to describe a complex future that is, by definition, impossible for current readers to understand. Sometimes this comes off as pure scientific ‘hand-wavery’ that is merely fantasy hidden behind layers of technical-sounding jargon. And unless you actually are an evolutionary biologist with a PhD in particle physics and quantum theory, it’s basically impossible for the vast majority of SF readers to know whether a ‘hard SF’ book is plausible or complete nonsense. Therefore, if it makes you feel like you are in an incredibly advanced and complex future, I think its done its job well, and Blindsight certainly achieved this for me.

Speaking of which, the title refers to the real phenomenon of blindsight, defined online as: “The ability to respond to visual stimuli without consciously perceiving them, a condition which can occur after certain types of brain damage.” As the story progresses, Watts introduces more examples of this in the natural world and neurobiology - what it comes down to is that we rely on the chemical messages sent by our nervous system to create our picture of the physical world around us. We are not actually ‘seeing’ it directly at all. So if an external force can manipulate the signals our brains receive, we would be at their mercy. It’s a fascinating and scary concept, and it gets plenty of book time.

Going back to the central plot, things get interesting when the Theseus crew actually encounters a giant alien spacecraft near the comet in question and investigate it. I’m sure we’ve all read so many similar setups that it may sound completely familiar territory, but when Peter Watts throws his super-intelligent transhumans at the problem, their responses and actions are very different indeed.

Any further details would spoil your enjoyment as things gets fast and furious as things go wrong very quickly. Yet there is a heavy interweaving of discussions on the nature of perception, humanity, consciousness, sentience, and how humanity’s understanding of these things gets turned upside down by the aliens it encounters. Dare I say that the discussions and action are equally mind-blowing? The audiobook is narrated by T. Ryder Smith, and he does a solid job with difficult material.

It’s interesting to read the wide range of responses to a book you enjoyed so much. In the case of Blindsight, readers have said it was brilliant, unreadable, incomprehensible, incredibly pessimistic about humanity, mind-expanding, or a mix of all those things. Your response will depend largely on what type of SF you enjoy most, but if you are hungry for a hard SF story that tackles a classic SF theme with a host of cutting-edge scientific concepts in a fiercely-intelligent way, and expects the reader to work hard to keep up, you will not be disappointed.

Many have strongly disagreed with the central argument of the book, but I don’t think that should detract from appreciating it. I expect SF to challenge me with new and mind-expanding ideas - I don’t have to agree or be convinced, as long as the argument is worth debating. No truly important issues are resolved in the span of any single book or discussion, but I guarantee this book will make you question the value of intelligence and sentience, in which case it has accomplished its goal.
Profile Image for Monica.
621 reviews631 followers
July 22, 2021
A pretty detailed, pretty strange horror novel. My first Watts. Probably not my last...

3.5ish Stars rounded up

Listened to Audible. T Ryder Smith was an excellent narrator!
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,117 reviews112 followers
October 29, 2020
This is one of the strongest hard SF novels of the 21st century (so far). I read is as a part of monthly reading for October 2020 at Hugo & Nebula Awards: Best Novels group for the book was nominated for Hugo in 2007.

On a surface it is a first contact novel: something alien signals late XXI century Earth with thousands of meteorites burning in our sky. The planet by that time has almost reached singularity, so a strange crew is gathered, headed by a vampire. It is not a fantasy as one can guess from the end of the previous sentence but the idea that such mutation has been real in the past and allowed for hibernation among other things.

The narrator is Siri Keeton, a man, who due to serious developmental issues, had half of his brain amputated as a kid that allowed him to develop into a synthesist (”Explaining the Incomprehensible to the Indifferent."... "More like bridging the gap between the people who make the breakthroughs and the people who take the credit for them."). Other members of the team are no less odd.

The story starts in the middle, the first paragraph sounds quite incomprehensible:
It didn't start out here. Not with the scramblers or Rorschach, not with Big Ben or Theseus or the vampires. Most people would say it started with the Fireflies, but they'd be wrong. It ended with all those things.

During the first third of the novel this incomprehensibility doesn’t diminish much, which makes reading it quite a challenge. I actually have read it like a decade ago, so even after recalling in general terms what is “the big idea”, the novel was still full of surprises for me.

The book is filled with ideas from biology, linguistics, psychology and dozen other disciplines to a brim, or even more. Reading it is like eating a soup concentrate, it just too rich to enjoy. And non-linearity of the story doesn’t help. I even thought to lower my final rating of the book because in pure literary ways it is quite weak, but its wealth of ideas overweighed at the end.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,952 reviews1,293 followers
August 26, 2014
I’ve had this book on my to-read list for several years now, and I feel like the me who added this book would have liked it more than the me who ended up reading it. One of the nice things about having Goodreads to help me track my reading, what I’ve read and what I want to read, is that sometimes I can remember why I’ve put something on my list. In this case I can’t, specifically, except maybe that I heard about Peter Watts or Blindsight somewhere, maybe io9, and it seemed like something I could read. Plus, you know, he’s Canadian and a science-fiction author, so that’s something to celebrate.

Three or four years ago was my personal zenith for posthuman SF. As I noted in my review of Postsingular, I’ve become rather fatigued with posthuman SF that is fantasy masquerading as SF so hard that the technology verges upon magic. Greg Egan’s Incandescence and Diaspora contributed to this somewhat as well.

Blindsight, to be fair, is harder SF than the aforementioned novels. Watts restricts himself to the near-future (2088 or so?) and to the confines of our solar system. Some of the technology, such as the telematter-driven Theseus or the cyborgs Szpindel and Cunningham or the vampire (I’ll spend some time on him later) seem more out there and fantastical. Nevertheless, Watts seems intent on honestly interrogating how humans might investigate an alien object lurking at the edges of the solar system.

In many ways this book reminds me of an SF horror movie in the same vein as Alien or perhaps Cube. Watts introduces the scramblers, denizens of the alien object Rorschach that might be parts of a whole or individual entities—it’s hard to tell. I like, however, how he tries to take a fairly original approach to alien biology: no DNA, distributed neural networks, etc. The crew’s initial encounters with the scramblers inside Rorschach feel like a horror movie. Everything is so disjointed; it becomes difficult to follow what’s going on. It feels like a scene from one of those movies where the protagonists are walking down a dark corridor, and you just know something is going to jump out at them. Now picture the dark corridor as the vacuum-interior of a large alien object, and the something involves direct manipulation of the human visual cortex. Yeah.

Bottom line, without spoilers: the theme behind everything (seriously, everything) in Blindsight is one that any transhumanist would acknowledge (and probably celebrate) while the rest of us often deny or conveniently forget—the human brain is easily hacked. We aren’t all that good at hacking it to do specific things at the moment—at least not with any degree of finesse; technically, programming our brains to read and write is a monumental feat of hacking, albeit one that is done much more slowly. But it seems like we are developing technology, and a better understanding of the brain, that would let us manipulate the brain more easily. With this ability would come more questions and issues surrounding what makes us conscious, and whether our consciousness makes us who we are.

Everything in this book is another facet of how Watts explores these issues. Each of the four protagonists manifests consciousness and brain-hacking differently. Siri, the narrator, underwent a hemispherectomy as a child to cure his epilepsy; he now considers himself a Chinese Room more than a functional individual, and we get treated to flashbacks of an awkward relationship as evidence. Contrastedly, Jukka Sarasti is a vampire. It turns out that vampires were a subspecies of humanity from hundreds of thousands of years ago. Never very populous because of their nature as predators, vampires probably would have become the dominant species, except for a weird brain glitch that causes seizures when they see intersecting right angles (“crosses”). But for some reason, a vampire is necessary as the leader of this first contact mission, so scientists used some DNA to recreate one. Cool, huh? I kind of feel like that whole idea could be a plot of a novel by itself.

It would be easy to dismiss Blindsight as a collection of interlinked concepts that don’t quite work together—a precarious house of cards on an unstable foundation. Yet for all the work reading this turned out to be, it’s clear Watts is pursuing a single and comprehensible idea. He has no qualms about forcing the reader to consider how truly alien life outside our solar system could be. He makes us confront the terrifying idea that we could be the anomalies—not in the sense that we are alone, but that other advanced forms of life might not be sentient or might be so different from us, sentient or not, that we could never hope to communicate with them.

Watts is far from the only one who advances such propositions, of course! The antagonist of Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandor’s Star is similarly so alien that it isn’t evil, just different. Yet Watts succeeds in confronting these ideas, in interrogating them, in a compact way that remains fast-paced and, at times, fiendishly difficult to follow. He throws so many curveballs and twists at the reader that keeping up requires careful attention and a willingness to have a little faith. Siri is a somewhat unreliable narrator, as he should be, and even by the end it remains difficult (at least for me) to understand clearly what happened aboard Theseus. Siri is one step up from found-footage when it comes to being informative on such things. I’m not going to pretend I fully grok what happened, and I’m not all that interested in going back and re-reading to clarify things. Fortunately, one of the perks of being human is that we can form snap judgements based on the bigger picture.

The big picture, when it comes to this book at least, is that it is incredibly ambitious, quite clever, but also somewhat boring and unpalatable. I’m probably going to lose my literary snob street cred for saying this, but I’m a big fan of the straightforward narrative, especially in hard SF where the technobabble can make it difficult enough to follow the plot. Blindsight asks a lot of its readers. This is not per se bad. But the return on investment wasn’t there for me. I’m intrigued by the ideas that Watts puts forward, and for that reason I still liked the book despite finding it difficult to get through. Alas, if you don’t already share my fascination with philosophy of mind, then you may find it difficult to perceive the positives of Blindsight.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for Teleseparatist.
1,030 reviews125 followers
July 14, 2016
Moments that deserved four stars scattered among moments that deserved book throwing. Two stars it is.

Two jokes: 1) if free will doesn't exist, does it mean it's not my fault I read this and not Watts's that he wrote it?
2) For a novel that supposedly argues that sentience and self-awareness is not worth the cost, the book does a lot of navel-gazing and self-referentiality. (It even has the narrator berate himself for infodumping in the middle of an infodump.)

I like science fiction and I can even have fun with hard science fiction (as pretentious as that name sounds), but in case of Blindsight there were several obstacles to me deriving enjoyment from the novel. Firstly, it drew precisely on the sort of "science" (cognitive studies and evo psych) that I'm most skeptical about (and the Dawkins fanboy moments... just really didn't work for me). Secondly, instead of using that science as an integral part of the narrative, it combined practical application of theory in thought experiment with massive infodumps, many of which made little sense because the people of the future probably wouldn't need the explanation (and yet some really advanced ideas are namedropped without explanation while some pretty self-explanatory concepts are explained. Go figure). Thirdly, the characters are cliched vehicles for thoughts. I think Sarasti has his moments, as do Amanda and Susan, but the cheap mess of the protagonist's family life... The two fridged women who only exist to attempt to make him feel things and be self-aware. The super special girlfriend and the mother whose abuse is that she wants him to love her. Was this really the best the author could come up with? Fourthly, the worldbuilding feels disjointed and tertiary to the science and philosophy. Is there a reason we should believe humans would be so willing to give up having sex in person but cigarette smoking and coffee drinking would still look pretty much the same (and in space at that)? And for what I suppose is meant to be a post-gender (and default post-racial, although Jewish people seem to exist) future, rape seems to be a common metaphor. (Probably because of evo psych and its perverse fascination with rape.) Animals also seem to have pretty much disappeared. And that ending... I've seen too many iterations of "vampires wage war against humanity" to consider that so completely natural in any way, for a super-intelligent species, without an additional incentive, just because of predator-prey relationship. That can be changed even in less intelligent species and predation is not only genes/biology/instinct, it's a learned behaviour too. (I'm sure a psychologist - or perhaps an animal psychologist - could explain the reason why that makes little sense more convincingly.)

But then, this to me reads like grimdark science fiction. Alas, I'm not a big fan of grimdark for the sake of grimdark and I don't think the more predatory the behavior the more natural it is.

Maybe the fault is mine. I read the description and I expected a book that might be hard science fiction, but that doesn't take itself too seriously. And this book did.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Phil.
1,757 reviews130 followers
March 7, 2021
I finally read this thanks to a buddy read (you know who you are, or do you? Are you conscious of the fact?). Blindsight is one part hard science fiction, one part philosophy, and one part a first contact novel. I guess you could throw in fantasy if you include the vampires. Set in the relatively near future (late 21st century), humanity has undergone some 'changes' so to speak. An entire generation of people have gone 'to heaven'-- living in a simulated reality while their bodies rest in storage in catacombs around the world. Various brain augments are common and in cases extreme, but the world is largely at peace outside of various 'realist' terrorist groups. Then, out of the blue, 'fireflies' happen-- basically, an alien race utilized thousands of cameras to take one massive picture of Earth all at once.

Who are these aliens? What do they want? A neglected satellite picks up traces of radio emissions coming from a comet in the distant reaches of the solar system and hence Earth sends a spacecraft with a crew to investigate it. Watts treats us to some nifty science here, describing how 'Icarus', what I presume to be a huge satellite near the sun, sends out beams of antimatter to fuel the craft, along with a Ram scoop as back up. In any case, the crew are 'corpsicles' until they wake about five years after they left LEO and find themselves way out and nearing a massive Jovian type planet.

I am not going to detail the plot here. The main narrator is Siri, a 'Synthesist', or someone who's job converts the findings/discoveries of majorly brain enhanced humans into language more normal people can understand. He is on the mission to observe and send home 'postcards' of their progress. We get to know Siri fairly well via a series of flashbacks, starting from when he was a small child after a major brain operation on through his life, and in particular, he relationship with Chelsea. Watts paints a rather dystopian view of humanity here, where interpersonal contact is rare, an even sex basically involves mediation with a machine.

The rest of crew of the ship are, to be kind, other misfits, with vast amounts of brain enhancements, and one Vampire, the captain. Why Watts felt the need to bring in vampires into the story is still beyond me, but if you are into that genre, he did a good job with it, explaining how vampires went extinct a long time ago, but 'we' brought them back via DNA. (why? he never tells us really). We also have Susan, or 'the gang', as she contains four personalities in her head and works as a linguist; a biologist and finally, a soldier.

In any case, they soon discover life of a sort at the Jovian, as thousands of ships cruise through the upper atmosphere (robots? Von Neumann machine?). Eventually, contact is made, but the aliens are, well, very alien! This where Watts starts to get very philosophical, exploring issues of epistemology, consciousness, and life itself. He does not do it like a textbook, but rather as a series of conversations among the characters.

Watts really did redefine the First Contact story here, presenting us with 'real' aliens; enigmas to be sure. The prose flows nicely and the story builds up suspense with every page once contact is made. Perhaps to cool the reader down some, Watts introduces numerous flashbacks here, so we learn more about Siri just as things come to a head on the ship.

This was my first Watts book, but it will not be my last. 4.5 stars, and it may have been 5 except for the vampires.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,684 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.