Peter Watts' Blindsight is one of the most pessimistic books I have read, and still I am fascinated by it. It's not just its conceptual density, where you can find more ideas in a chapter than you can find on entire other books. Or that setting, theme, and events are so intertwined you couldn't just pull one out and have the construction remain. Or that its topical range is so broad that it's the first novel I'm happy I read in a digital format, so I could easily look up concepts of biology and linguistics I wasn't familiar with.
What fascinates me about Blindsight is that it's a trojan horse of a book. Blindsight is neo-cyberpunk transhumanism disguised as a first contact novel.
It's not postcyberpunk. Postcyberpunk is characterized by an optimism, a willingness to find a middle ground between tech progress and how we handle it. It doesn't fear the mega-corps, expects that things will balance out.
That's not what Blindsight is. Blindsight is neo-cyberpunk as in neo-nazis.
Neither has any illusions about the original philosophy they are basing themselves on. They are aware of the nastiness. They embrace it, double-down on it, hone it. To them it's not a bug, it's a feature.
What else could you call a post-scarcity future where humanity lost? You have everything you could want, so the work that would have defined you has become obsolete. You have to mutilate and dehumanize yourself just to remain useful and relevant. You can't even fight the government anymore – they can make you believe you crave doing the things they want you to do. You end up becoming something other than a human. No, not “more”. It's not a power fantasy with cybernetic implants.
What you are is something else.
You are that other that the Luddites were so worried the bleeding edge would turn us into after we let it cut us up.
Yet you still have the personal disadvantages that characters in cyberpunk stories had. The unease with your new body. The social conflict from those that would rather things remain as they were. Overspecialization, knowing your specialty might soon become vestigial.
Meanwhile, most of the world has just traded a future of oppression by mega-corps for one of ennui, people reveling in their own irrelevance.
That's not even the book's point. That's just background scenery seen through the window as a few characters go on humanity's worst interplanetary road trip. Going to a place that will confirm the evolutionary cul-de-sac we've drunkenly walled ourselves into. To talk to something which will highlight that if at this point we want to get anywhere as a race, we better start grafting shit onto our brainstems.
Smart narrative choice, as it helps the characters retain some humanity. It stops them from turning into whining cybernetically-enhanced teenagers. They're not bitching about their lot in life – “woe is me, I can taste infrared”. They're showing you how they deal with it. Why they chose it.
Which doesn't stop the characters from being alien to each other. Watts doesn't need to come up with some new lingo for them to speak to make his future feel remote. These people are so strange, even humans back in their own time need Siri (the narrator) as a translator. Crew members all “subtitle” each other as they go to understand what the rest of the crew is talking about.
That they were expected to establish functional communication with the actual others they are sent to find is baffling, when they can barely talk amongst themselves.
And if it wasn't evident, it's also a transhumanist book. Not the “we'll live forever and be omnipotent by bringing nanotech to heel” masturbatory fiction we get so much of. It's transhumanism of the type we're likely to get: dirty, imperfect, full of ragged bits and things that don't quite fit together, but things we'll take anyway because maybe they'll make us more than what we were before. If nothing else, they'll make us different. When all around you humanity is collapsing into the uniform complacency of obsolescence, different is good.
(Image by Dan Ghiordanescu)