Why Blindsight isn't all that great a story

Peter Watt's grimdark nihilism mixes the best of SF speculation with unlikeable people and a depressing message

Why Blindsight isn't all that great a story
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski / Unsplash

You wake up one day to discover that your family lives in a computer and a race of hyper-intelligent vampires hunts the survivors

I'm talking about Peter Watts' much-remarked book Blindsight.

There's a lot for the sci-fi geek to like here.

Mind uploads into a shared VR reality which is more fun than living out in the real world.

Biologically realistic vampires revived from extinction by genetic cloning tech.

The selling point of the story is the wildest aliens like you'll never see on Star Trek. They don't even have mushy foreheads.

Even the human crew of the starship Theseus (a prophetic name if there ever was one) isn't quite normal.

Not surprising. The central conceit of Watts' existential SF horror story is that normal ain't what it used to be.

The headline of this post might give the impression that I don't like the book.

Not true.

There are things I like about it. There's things I don't like about it.

The discussions of consciousness and evolution are some of the most interesting parts of the book.

What I don't like is how one-sided it all is. The deep thinking is put out there in the service of an agenda.

And that agenda? Nihilistic grimdark fatalism.

Nothing matters woe-is-me I forgot my Zanax today.

C'mon.

If nothing matters then why'd you wake up and create this beautiful piece of art for the readers to enjoy?

Existential nihilism is so boring because it's so clearly the author's own psychological hang-ups intruding into the writing.

If the author coughed up a wad of black phlegm all over the page it would be less of a heavy-handed intrusion into the story.

The philosophical story about consciousness as an evolutionary dead-end sounds plausible enough.

As a story premise, it's fantastic. What we have here is a tantalizing tale that wraps up reflections about mind, life in a purposeless world, Fermi's paradox, the hard problems of space travel, and more themes I'm certainly forgetting.

I don't agree with any of Watts's conclusions, by the by, but my philosophical disagreement is less important than the broaching of the subject, or its use as a dramatic core.

In story terms, what the crew of doomed Theseus discovers at that rogue planet beyond the edge of the solar system explains a whole lot about the haunting silence of the stars.

The difficulties of space travel for warm, wet Earth-adapted beings like ourselves hit home hard.

That stuff is the best part of the book. The problem's different.

The story itself is ultimately unsatisfying, like all nihilistic stories. Who cares what happens to any of these people if nothing, nothing done by any human ever, matters?

Horrific dread and terror have a place in all kinds of fantastic fiction. The depressive nihilism of the story runs well past that. We cross the line beyond unsettling to the point where you have to wonder what's the point of reading stories.

We get it, the world sucks and everything sucks and nothing matters and I forgot to take my SSRIs today.

Here's a dirty secret about philosophy. Very few abstract ideas are motivated by rigorous argument and supporting reasons alone. Many of the deepest problems about knowledge, ethics, and What Exists could be better explained as psychological scruples.

It is frequently difficult in philosophy to tell whether one is saying something reasonably public and objective, or whether one is merely erecting a barrier, special to one’s own temperament, against one’s own personal fears. (It is always a significant question to ask about any philosopher: what is he afraid of?)
- Iris Murdoch

Worried about free will? Think ethics are just somebody's opinions? Believe that nobody can know anything?

It won't surprise you to learn that the people who believe these things almost always fall into a certain psychological profile.

You'll know it when you meet them because they are by temperament jaded, cynical, pessimistic people.

Around here at RP we love to dabble in the bleak side of things.

The empty black void of space. The inevitable impact of technology on the human condition. Synthesizer music. Cultural wastelands. Existential terror. All that and more.

But Your Host also recognizes the other side. Bleak for bleak's sake isn't satisfying.

If you want to look at the ugly, you have to contrast it with beauty.

Ditto for the contrast of good and evil.

It's the contrast that makes the meaning. Get rid of that and all you've got is a boring wasteland of grey-scale junk.

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