Do you like your sci fi hard science space opera with an intellectual upgrade? Yeah, me, too. This astounding work was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, a John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel,and a Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Yowser.
It is about a crew of enhanced humans off to a distant space place to see if they can make first contact with whatever it was that inundated the earth with ummm a kind of grid, like they were taking pictures, then disappeared. I mean, holy patoly, what WAS that, eh?
The exploration of consciousness is the central theme element of Blindsight. The title of the novel refers to the condition blindsight, in which vision is non-functional in the conscious brain but remains useful to non-conscious action.
I loved the characters. Our principle character is Siri, who has had half of his brain removed and replaced with stuff, computer kind of stuff, I guess, enabling him to sense what people are thinking by their body topology – their body movements, etc. His job is to observe and report. He is not to participate.
Then there is the Gang of Four. A woman had her brain separated into four parts, each part with a different specialty. Split personality with a hey nonny. Can you say The Three Faces of Eve, boys and girls? There were some other specialists, but the best was….. are you sitting down?….. a VAMPIRE. No, really. It seems like vampires died out way back when, but actually they are superior beings, with brains that can not only process info faster in a way we don’t understand, they have that supposedly impossible ability of holding two separate and conflicting thoughts in their minds at the same time. He was the captain of this expedition. The downside to vampires, however, is that they are predators, and their prey is humans. It is thought that they died out because they decimated their food source. Humans could not reproduce fast enough to constantly replenish the supply. So vampires went extinct. This one was brought back to life specifically to deal with the extraterrestrial problem, and has to take special infusions to reduce his need to prey on his fellow crew members. He makes everybody on the ship nervous. Ya think?
They finally come to the source of the alien problem out in the back of beyond, and it is a structure, huge in size, which somewhat resembles a crown of thorns. They find some beings, creatures, with a lot of arms and legs, and capture a couple. The ship’s biologist or whatever he is discovers that they have no brain, and no circulatory system. It would seem that the artifact (that would be the alien structure) is the body and these are …. well, I don’t know what they are. Before actually sighting the artifact, the ship is contacted by the aliens. One of the Gang of Four’s persons is a linguist, and finds a pattern in the communication which she can turn into understandable language. Turns out the artifact speaks English. Say, there’s a coinky-dink. After a number of days of talking back and forth, the linguist is coming to the conclusion that it is an AI she is talking to, not having a real conversation but one made possible by the techniques of the Chinese Room puzzle. The question throughout the book is one of the necessity of consciousness for communication, yes? or no?
Lots of action, lots of innovative ideas about space, time, creation, and just what makes us us. It is less space opera than space rumination, and I really really liked it. As Wiki says, the novel explores questions of identity, consciousness, free will, artificial intelligence, neurology, game theory as well as evolution and biology. The writing….. oh the writing. So good.
And almost the best part? It is free under Creative Commons, as well as its sequel, Echopraxia.
Oh, yeah. The Chinese Room puzzle. The Chinese room is a thought experiment presented by the philosopher John Searle to challenge the claim that it is possible for a computer running a program to have a “mind” and “consciousness” in the same sense that people do, simply by virtue of running the right program.
“Suppose that I’m locked in a room and … that I know no Chinese, either written or spoken”. He further supposes that he has a set of rules in English that “enable me to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols”, that is, the Chinese characters. These rules allow him to respond, in written Chinese, to questions, also written in Chinese, in such a way that the posers of the questions – who do understand Chinese – are convinced that Searle can actually understand the Chinese conversation too, even though he cannot. Similarly, he argues that if there is a computer program that allows a computer to carry on an intelligent conversation in a written language, the computer executing the program would not understand the conversation either.
Come for the cool space stuff, stay for the cool intellectual exercise, and stand around in stupified awe as you watch the transhuman society at work and at play.