Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Book Review: Blindsight

book cover for BlindsightIt's been two months since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since - until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who to send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn't want to meet? Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder, and a biologist so spliced to machinery he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior, and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find - but you'd give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Siri Keeton, who went through a hemispherectomy as a child to correct his epileptic seizures. While successful, it also rendered him emotionally detached, perfect for a job as a synthesist, a type of observer whose job it is to "integrate traits, attitudes, and impulses to create a total personality." His job here is to observe the crew, a bunch of transhumanist misfits, as they try to figure out the aliens and then translate their findings into something comprehensible for mere mortals back home.

But Siri isn't really a reliable narrator. I wasn't convinced he knew what he was doing or what was going on. The crew didn't trust him, thinking of him as a spy for mission control, despite the fact that the ship was literally over a half a light year from home. We get flashbacks to Siri's time before the mission, showing his emotionally reprehensible behavior towards his ex-girlfriend which only underlines his incompetence towards relating to people. He blames the surgery for his shortcomings, but as it his job to read people, he fails to understand himself and what it means to be human.

The third most egregious offense is the addition of the vampire character. In this series, vampires co-existed with humans in paleolithic times but went extinct. Someone thought it would be a good idea to dig through our junk DNA to genetically engineer them back to life, complete with superhuman capabilities. I can't confirm it, but it seems that Watts—who earned a Ph.D from the University of British Columbia's Department of Zoology and Resource Ecology—got the idea from human bones that showed evidence of cannibalism. To me, that's too much of a stretch.

The second most egregious offense pertains to the aliens themselves. They have a certain ability that literally had me say "bullshit" out loud. It shattered my suspension of disbelief. After burying me in mounds of psychology, physics, and neuroscience, he finally went too far. To delve further into this would be to invoke spoilers, so I'm going to leave it at that. Since I lack the education to debate him on this matter or the existence of paleolithic vampires, I can't possibly win the argument.

This is probably the oddest first contact story that I've ever read. But it really isn't about first contact; it's a debate over intelligence vs. sentience. The characters argued over what the latest discovery about the aliens meant in this debate. Honestly, considering their behavior and the stakes involved, I felt it was a moot point. I didn't particularly care for how the crew interacted with one another, how contact with the aliens was handled, or the way the investigation was conducted. The methodologies the crew employed when studying the aliens went to such extremes that I felt like they were digging their own grave.

Complaints aside, this isn't a bad novel. It won prestigious awards. And Watts bleak worldview on humanity isn't lost on me. I certainly wouldn't argue with him on that. There is so much going on in here (the science, the debates, the unique aliens in an otherwise well trod storyline), and the fact that I've had such a visceral reaction to it demonstrates that I was engaged in the story. But Watts' most egregious offense, and the one that I will not yield on, is that he didn't give us a protagonist worth rooting for. By the time the Siri confesses his sins and the epilogue fades, I can't help but feel that the price for the reader to get there was too high.

3 stars


Friday, March 5, 2021

Book Review: Nemesis Games

book cover for Nemesis GamesA thousand worlds have opened, and the greatest land-rush in human history has begun. As wave after wave of colonists leave, the power structures of the old solar system begin to buckle.

Ships are disappearing without a trace. Private armies are being secretly formed. The sole remaining protomolecule sample is stolen. Terrorist attacks previously considered impossible bring the inner planets to their knees. The sins of the past are returning to exact a terrible price.

And as a new human order is struggling to be born in blood and fire, James Holden and the crew of the
Rocinante must struggle to survive and get back to the only home they have left.

The plot to this one takes a backseat to character development. That's not to say that there's no plot. It's just that events happen here and there, and the focus is on how the crew of the Rocinante, separated by millions of miles, deal with these events and find their way back to each other.

James Holden has been the consistent POV character through this series. In this installment, we get the POV of Naomi, Amos, and Alex as well. So it was nice to see how they think and get their take on each other. The Rocinante is not just a job, it's family. Bobbie Draper, Chrisjen Avasarala, Fred Johnson, and Clarissa Mao are also present, and each adds to the story.

I read this after watching the latest season of The Expanse. Once again, I think the TV show did a better job handling the material, amping up the drama and focusing on important character moments which were glossed over in the book. We got to see more of the relationships Naomi had with Filip, Marcos, and her old crew. The book came up short here. It was almost as if Filip and Marcos were too busy, so why make the effort at all?

The whole Martian corruption storyline, which the TV show started exploring in season four, was far more intriguing than Alex's sad attempt at reconciling with his ex-wife. Fortunately, this yielded to his assisting Bobbie rather than dragging on any further.

Amos's storyline was pretty close to a match (book vs. TV show). The TV show did a better job of humanizing him though. It touched more on his past and emotional development points that were lacking in the book (I understand that "The Churn" provided a good deal of that background). He also saw something in Clarissa way back in Abaddon's Gate, and his visit to her here can be seen as an attempt by the writers to rehabilitate a character that I thought was lackluster.

Holden's storyline wasn't much to write home about. Except for the attack on Tycho Station, he spends most of his time pining for his friends. Admirable, but not all that entertaining.

This must sound like I didn't like the book, but I did. It's just that the TV show was so much better. I'd give the show 5 stars and the book 3.5 stars. I'm hoping to read the next book before the next season comes out.