Hugo review: Blindsight

July 9th, 2007

The final entry in my Hugo best novel review series for this year is Blindsight by Peter Watts.

In the late 21st century humanity has reached almost incomprehensible levels of achievement. Those on the bleeding edge may be stable multiple personalities, or have mechanical prosthetics replacing almost their entire body. To help the majority of humanity understand the bleeding edge, a new speciality of jargonaut has arisen, who can interpret (almost subconsciously) what is going on. Siri Keeton is a psychonaut, and is part of the crew travelling to the far reaches of the Solar System to discover the source of a recent alien incursion of Earth.

This novel (the entire text of which is available online) is quite simply stunning. It takes some fairly conventional tropes in Science Fiction (the mysterious object first contact, as in Rendezvous with Rama, and the ideas of transformed humanity are in Neuromancer and Rainbows End, to name just a couple of examples), but what it does with those ideas is new, unique and interesting.

The plot and tone of the novel are very well paced. The subliminal sense of horror, so easy to achieve on film and so hard in words, is well created. There’s a perpetual feeling of unease and discomfort throughout. The author also admirably avoids the temptation to lay too much of his extensive world building out in the text, saving his efforts for a technical appendix.

Any novel with only a small handful of characters (less than 10) has to rely on characterisation strongly, and the book delivers. Each of the characters is well drawn, with all of them feeling real and developed. This is doubly important because the viewpoint character is supposed to be a superb observer, and if the other characters were ciphers this would diminish the credibility of that point.

I have to admit to having some serious problems with one element of the book for a long time, the introduction of a vampire human sub-species with a biological explanation for their aversion to crucifixes. But even that grew on me as the book went on, and by the end I was completely comfortable. If I’d skipped ahead and read the technical appendix bit (which dealt with a few of my scientific qualms) as soon as the vampires entered the plot I suspect I’d have been comfortable sooner.

Overall, this is a superb novel which I highly recommend.