Peter Watts


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

March 25, 2007

his is a terrific book; maybe I should have given it five stars. It is the creepiest, scariest science fiction novel I have read since Richard Paul Russo's book Ship of Fools. But unlike Russo's book, which is really just a horror story set in space, Watts writes a tale with believable aliens and an abundance of ideas, this is a real science fiction story. It is also one of the best first contact novels I have read, it reminded me a little of of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Rendevous with Rama - which are quite different novels, but like Blindsight, the story narrative features alien intelligences that are totally different from humans. These are not bipeds in a rubber mask, these aliens are STRANGE.

A couple of centuries in our future, aliens send a burst of 60,000 probes over the planet Earth. These probes flare over the globe and then burn out. But they have "taken our picture". Humanity traces the probes back to their origins and discovers they come from a distant dark object, a dwarf star beyond the fringes of the solar system. A space ship is constructed to make the long voyage, it is staffed with an unlikely crew that represent the strange diveregent paths that humans might take to the 22nd century. There are five crew members, each one is wildly different. The narrator is Siri Keeton, a man with only half of a brain - to cure his child hood epilepsy, he had radical surgery which removed half his brain. Siri can think, but he can not empathize. His condition has made him a keen observer, because all the social skills that normal humans instinctively know, Siri has had to learn by watching and imitating. Siri is on the mission to observe the aliens, and to observe how humans react to them.

The leader of the expedition, Sarasti, is a vampire. Watts does a great job explaining how vampires once existed in the stone age, preying on our distant ancestors. Vampires were a splinter branch of humanity, but they were exterminated when civilization started. In the 22nd century, humans have discovered the remains of this human species and using DNA technology, revived their line. Vampires are incredibly smart and remorseless, ideal creatures for leading a perilous mission against unknown aliens.

Also on board is a doctor/biologist. He is part cyborg - there are machines grafted onto him. The fourth crew member is a linguist, James is a multiple-personality schizophrenic - there are four main characters inside one body, each with a unique name and personality (this confused me for a bit, as one personality would recede and another one would become dominant, Watts changes the name of the person doing to the talking. I didn't realize at first what was happening.) The last crew member is an ideal soldier, Bates is skilled at thinking outside the box, she is actually a pacifist, as well as a brillant strategist.

Watts must spend a lot of time researching before writing a novel, his book is stuffed with speculations on how humans will control their evolution - each character represents a potential future human - super smart, near immortal vampire, a cyborg, a multiple-personality linguist, and ultra competent soldier. But Watts doesn't bury the reader with info-dumps from all his research, he just puts them on display in a high stress environment, confronting the terrifying unknown.

The encounter with the aliens at the brown dwarf star is terrific. Watts also seems to have spent a lot of time researching perception, consciousness, and reality. What if aliens could alter our perceptions by distorting our brainwaves, or fooling our primitive eyeballs and primate brains? What if aliens were intelligent, but not conscious? Can a piece of an alien be intelligent, or is just the equivalent of a nerve cell? There is a LOT going on this scary novel.

I withheld the coveted 5 star rating because I thought the pace flagged about 2/3 through. There is so much going on that Watts has to take his foot off the terror/explore throttle in order to explain what everything means. He does a pretty good job, a lot of his speculations are fascinating. There is enough material here for a trilogy of novels. This book is wholly original, it is a terrific achievement. I recommend it highly. Should be a classic of science fiction for years to come. This novel only finished fifth on best books of the year on the sfsite.com list for 2006. I haven't read any of the books that were voted higher, but they must be good books indeed. Click here for sfsite best books of 2006.