If we assume that my memory is correct (a risky assumption), then including Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which I’ve just finished, and (if you count it as a novel, which it isn’t) Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, which I read last week, I have read exactly two science fiction novels in the last 5 years (though I have more in my book queue, thanks in part to our resident evil creator of math problems)1. To say that I don’t read science fiction doesn’t quite capture the absence of science fiction in my reading: I am an un-reader of science fiction.
It is no wonder, then, that for the first hundred pages or so of Watts’ hard core space adventure, I was basically lost, dizzy, disoriented, and discombobulated. In those first pages I read about a crew of technologically-enhanced superhuman subject-matter experts (a biologist, a linguist, and a soldier) led by a vampire, floating around on an intelligent spaceship somewhere at the edge of our galaxy, where they were confronting an alien “artifact.” All of this I read in a story narrated by a man sent along to observe and translate the super-geniuses for the human, all too human folk in charge back home and, it seems, for me, even if I wasn’t sure exactly what language he was translating it into.
Then, on top of being confronted with a bunch of characters and situations wholly unlike those in the books I usually read, I was also being bombarded with scientific explanations (at times seamlessly woven into the story, at others, less seamlessly), some based on real science, some based on informed speculation, and some just bullshit2. There were definitely moments during which I wasn’t sure whether I was coming or going.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book, I really did. By the book’s second section I had found my bearings, and the book’s rhythm, so I was able to read most of the action-packed confrontation with the “artifact” without problem. However, when I reached the story’s climax, my train of thought, which had been running parallel to Blindsight’s for a good 120 pages, suddenly and irreversibly derailed, sending my suspension of disbelief tumbling into a crumpled, fiery tangle of charged illusions.
When I read fiction I like to disappear into its world, leaving my own world behind entirely, so that even the most fantastic events seem, if not really possible, at least coherent. Near the end of Blindsight I found myself peering into the novel’s world, strange as it was, entirely from the outside. It was not an enjoyable experience, to be yanked out of a world like that; a feeling not unlike that of being shaken out of a dream.
Before I get into what happened, let me tell you a little about my firmly terrestrial, mostly non-cyborg life. Back in the early aughts when I was a young grad student, this guy from Harvard named Dan Wegner, whom I’d never heard of, visited our department and gave one of our area talks (to a packed room of maybe 15 faculty and grad students), then went to dinner on the department’s dime and talked shop with us. His talk was on the subject of a book that he had written and was about to publish on the subject of conscious will, which he described as mostly an illusion (No Religion! But the book is still pretty good).
In that same year (or early in the next, it was a long time ago), I saw another Harvard professor, Marc Hauser, give a much more well-attended talk (Hauser was a rising star back then) on his work with Rhesus monkeys and his views on the evolution of language.
Not long after that (looks like October ’02, but don’t watch that, or at least No Politics!), I went to a surprisingly sparsely attended linguistics talk by Noam Chomsky (the linked talk, which was not about linguistics, was standing room only), in which he answered questions about the Minimalist Program (all of which amounted to, “What the hell is the Minimalist Program, and have you gone insane?”), and spent most of his 90 minutes talking up a paper he had co-authored, and which would be published a month or so later, in which he, Hauser, and a guy named Fitch (who I would see talk about music a year or so later, but that’s a topic for another post) laid out a position on the evolution of language (or lack thereof).
Finally, around the same time (I believe between Hauser and Chomsky), I attended a talk by a guy with long hair and an Australian accent by the name of Chalmers, who talked about epistemic space. I and a few others then hung out with him afterwards, and we talked mostly about zombies and 2-dimensional semantics. Exciting stuff! I was a crazy kid, what can I tell you?
What the hell does any of this have to do with Blindsight? Well, Blindsight marks the first time in my life that I have read a novel and come across the ideas, and in some cases even the names, of people I’ve met in person. Hell, Watts even cites the Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch paper on the evolution of language that Chomsky was pimping in the talk I attended. Not just the person, but the very same paper (a now-famous, or infamous paper)! And Chalmers’ version of zombies as non-conscious beings who mimic conscious beings in every way (and are themselves unaware that they are not aware), though un-cited, figures heavily in one of the most important scenes in the book, as do Wegner’s views on the illusory nature of conscious will.
In all, I count 8 people, most of them cited, whom I’ve met at least once, some of whom I’ve met many times, whose research or ideas show up mostly near the end of the story, during the concept-heavy climax and denouement. I was OK until I came across Wegner’s ideas (I got through the zombie stuff OK, because Chalmers is ubiquitous, so it wasn’t as jarring to find him in space), and then his name – not only have I met Wegner, but I was there as a sort of outside witness to the ideas of his, which figure so prominently in this book, as they took their final shape.
At that point, somewhere around the time the shit was hitting the fan for our vampire-led crew, the connection between myself and the world of the book, or the disconnect between its world and mine, was severed, or reconnected… whatever you do with a disconnect when it becomes a dis-disconnect. If you encounter someone you’ve met, and with whose work you are extremely familiar, in the context of a spaceship captained by a vampire and crewed by cyborgs, you’re going to experience a bit of dissonance, right? Right? I know I sure as hell did.
None of this is Blindsight’s fault of course. It’s not like Watts was sitting there thinking, “I’m going to write it so that anyone who’s spent time in cognitive science in the last 20 years is going to find this part of the book kinda trippy.” Or at least, I don’t think he was. Was he? That would be weird (and man, physicists must find all science fiction seriously disconcerting). Anyway, my failure to let the book take me where it wanted is entirely that, my failure. It’s usually unlikely that I will encounter people I’ve met in a novel about prison life in late-19th century Russia, or one set during the Slade’s second “Crisis of Brilliance” a hundred years ago, so there haven’t been many opportunities in my reading life for me to experience the sort of dissonance that Blindsight occasioned.
As a result of this neglect in my field of literary vision (to run with the central metaphor of the novel), I basically lost the end of the book. I mean, I could tell you what happened, but I didn’t really experience it, and as a result, I can’t really tell you what I think of it. I can tell you that I think the book as a whole was well written, that Watts is clearly exceptionally smart and knowledgeable, and that I was impressed by what I saw as interesting choices with respect to the artifact and its makeup3. I think I may even try to read it again soon (there is no reading, only rereading, right?), and I’m eager to talk about it, because seriously, fucking vampires in space! But dude, that was weird. I’m going to need to spend some time in Ancient Rome or post-World War I Europe to recover.
Now, tell me about a weird reading experience of yours. Or what you think of Blindsight. Or give me some more science fiction recommendations, preferably ones that don’t include sections that rely heavily on Medin’s work on categorization, Barsalou on the perceptual grounding of concepts, or Atran and Norenzayan on religion.
1 If you haven’t read The Illustrated Man, don’t. It’s preachy, silly at times, and at least to my mind, not very well-written or thought-out. It is, in a way, the precise opposite of Blindsight.
2 Watts doesn’t hide that some of it is bullshit, noting at the end of the book that he sometimes wings it to further a story. I have no problem with this, because it’s fiction, not a trade book on physics or cognitive science, but I must admit that, given this, being the sort of person who can’t help but try to sort the real science from the “this will help the story along” science doesn’t exactly facilitate smooth reading, particularly in a genre that is so…alien to me (see what I did there?).
3Around the same time I attended the talks I mention here, I went to a talk by Thomas Ward on creativity. He has been arguing for a good 20 year now that creative cognition is limited by existing exemplars — that is, what we know determines what we create. One of the sources of data supporting his argument was a survey of science fiction writing, in which extra-planetary beings tended to have a lot of the features that Earth animals do, like bilateral symmetry (a quick search suggests that 90% of the stories he surveyed involved creatures with such features). Watts’ alien creatures and structures are not bound by the features of Earth creatures.