a spaceship shines a white light over a planet being covered by dark brambles

It’s time to get close and personal with Blindsight, a Hugo-nominated science fiction novel by Peter Watts. The cover features a planet that looks overrun by the dark brambles from Sleeping Beauty, and the title makes me wary of possible ableism. Blindsight is a real neurological phenomenon. Simply naming it isn’t ableist, but the word “blindsight” is regularly misused in fiction. Plus, able-bodied writers have a bad habit of giving blind characters some sort of supernatural sight and then acting like it’s profound.

Blindsight opens with a prologue. Prologues are almost never the best way to begin a book, and when they are, they should be renamed “Chapter One.” But Watts put it in his book, so that’s what we’re covering. You can read through the whole prologue on Watt’s confusing website. Let’s get started.

Content Notice: severe ableism, graphic violence among children, the possible death of a child, and stigmatizing description of brain surgery.

Mystery Requires Some Context

It didn’t start out here.

This line is going for curiosity and intrigue, but it’s so vague that readers don’t have much to be curious about. Replacing “it” with something more evocative and tense would have improved it quite a bit. For instance, “The winnowing didn’t start out here.” Replacing “here” would also be an improvement: “It didn’t start in the burning rim.”

As is, I give it 2 out of 5 stars. However, the sentence is quite short, so maybe the rest of the paragraph will add something concrete to this mystery. Let’s look at the whole thing.

It didn’t start out here. Not with the scramblers or Rorschach, not with Big Ben or Theseus or the vampires. Most people would say it started with the Fireflies, but they’d be wrong. It ended with all those things.

No, that did not help. Watts just threw out a bunch of world terms without context. We don’t know what scramblers, Rorschach, or Theseus are, so those words are meaningless blather at this point. Vampires don’t need explaining, but they also aren’t particularly novel or intriguing. I’m hoping that Big Ben refers to the clock tower in London, but I suspect this book will disappoint me. The Fireflies are at least visually evocative, and because of the cult classic TV show, many readers will guess they are spaceships.

Alluding to events this way can be intriguing, but you can’t just vomit a pile of terms. You have to describe something that evokes the imagination. To do that, Watts needs to slow down and focus more on fewer things.

Example

It didn’t start out here. Most people would say it started with the Fireflies, on the day they converged around Big Ben and ate through our civilization in a matter of hours. But those people are wrong. That’s how it ended.

The current last line of the paragraph is also a little confusing. Watts states that people think it started with the Fireflies specifically. But then saying “It ended with all those things” suggests they thought it started not only with the Fireflies but also with the vampires, Big Ben, and the whatever-those-words were. If that’s the case, Watts should have reworded the paragraph to open with “It didn’t start out here. Most people think it started with the scramblers or Rorschach…”

I also couldn’t resist the temptation to tighten the sentence in my example. Closing with “ended” gives the paragraph more punch.

Moving on to our next paragraph.

For me, it began with Robert Paglino.

If I were given free rein with the strikeout tool, I would nix the entire previous paragraph and start here. The current start isn’t an effective teaser, and while “Robert Paglino” isn’t any more fascinating than all that, we at least know this person matters at some level.

But seriously, what is “it”? Maybe Watts means “the story,” but even that doesn’t work. This is a first-person retelling, meaning a future version of the protagonist is telling the story. They must have some reason for starting here. Watts doesn’t give us any real idea of what this framing is, missing his opportunity to put in a compelling teaser.

Oppression Should Be Condemned

At the age of eight, he was my best and only friend. We were fellow outcasts, bound by complementary misfortune. Mine was developmental. His was genetic: an uncontrolled genotype that left him predisposed to nearsightedness, acne, and (as it later turned out) a susceptibility to narcotics. His parents had never had him optimized. Those few TwenCen relics who still believed in God also held that one shouldn’t try to improve upon His handiwork. So although both of us could have been repaired, only one of us had been.

On the plus side, world information is worked in pretty smoothly here. We now know this takes place in a Gattaca-style setting, where everyone has been genetically modified by birth, and those who aren’t modified are a lower class. However, throwing in “TwenCen” is a mistake. It’s unnecessary to give a specific term here, it isn’t relevant to the rest of the prologue, and readers have enough to figure out already.

I’m also skeptical of the idea that with all the troubling and ableist implications of this type of mass genetic modification, only religious people are holdouts. Surely some other groups have ethical and practical concerns about altering someone’s genome to erase minor conditions like acne. While religion was the explanation in Gattaca, the movie only featured one set of parents whose reasons were religious. This is a sweeping generalization.

As for the kids, while this type of oppression is sympathetic, the way it’s phrased here is problematic. In the context of disability, words like “misfortune” and “repaired” are stigmatizing. They bring up the stereotypes that treat disability as a personal tragedy and view disabled people as damaged or broken. On top of that, Watts is framing Robert’s genetics as the issue instead of the way he is treated. From an in-universe perspective, the protagonist is saying this, which means they’re actually justifying and spreading the marginalization they faced.

Hearing the protagonist’s situation described as a developmental misfortune that’s been repaired is also concerningly ableist, but we’ll have to wait to find out more.

I arrived at the playground to find Pag the center of attention for some half-dozen kids, those lucky few in front punching him in the head, the others making do with taunts of mongrel and polly while waiting their turn. I watched him raise his arms, almost hesitantly, to ward off the worst of the blows. I could see into his head better than I could see into my own; he was scared that his attackers might think those hands were coming up to hit back, that they’d read it as an act of defiance and hurt him even more. […]

This transition is pretty disorientating. Watts was just giving us general exposition, so we don’t have enough context for where in the timeline this is meant to be. I assumed it was their first meeting. If you go back, it becomes clear that this is “when it started,” but that’s a long and complex paragraph ago. A reader’s working memory isn’t that long.

Similarly, who is “Pag”? Again, if readers go back, they can figure out this is short for “Robert Paglino,” but you can’t expect readers to remember what looks like an insignificant last name. Watts could have instead opened the previous paragraph with “At the age of eight, Pag was my best and only friend.” Since that comes immediately after the full name is given, it would be much easier for readers to make the connection.

Once we get past the transition, we have yet another instance of a storyteller lazily using bullying to generate conflict and sympathy for school-age kids. I will give it to Watts that these marginalized kids would likely be the targets of bullying, unlike all the protagonists targeted for having cool powers. However, a couple problems remain.

First, showing only extreme schoolyard violence not only normalizes it, but minimizes the psychological harm that harassment does. If people come to think of bullying as mugging, it’ll be hard to get them to take name-calling seriously. Second, where the hell are the adults? It’s their responsibility to keep kids safe, and it’s hard to get people to realize that when storytellers keep pretending the playground is some postapocalyptic survival zone.

Dark Elements Should Aid the Story

But I didn’t know what to do.

I hadn’t seen much of Pag lately. I was pretty sure he’d been avoiding me. Still, when your best friend’s in trouble you help out, right? Even if the odds are impossible—and how many eight-year-olds would go up against six bigger kids for a sandbox buddy?—at least you call for backup. Flag a sentry. Something.

I just stood there. I didn’t even especially want to help him.

That didn’t make sense. Even if he hadn’t been my best friend, I should at least have empathized. I’d suffered less than Pag in the way of overt violence; my seizures tended to keep the other kids at a distance, scared them even as they incapacitated me. Still. I was no stranger to the taunts and insults, or the foot that appears from nowhere to trip you up en route from A to B. I knew how that felt.

Or I had, once.

Finally, Watts creates something engaging. Something engaging that’s probably an ableist stereotype, but for the moment let’s pretend it’s handled respectfully. The protagonist’s lack of caring adds novelty to the typical bullying routine, and their struggle to overcome their indifference makes for a compelling internal conflict. They can recognize they should help, but without emotion to motivate them, they’re having trouble taking action.

But that part of me had been cut out along with the bad wiring. I was still working up the algorithms to get it back, still learning by observation. Pack animals always tear apart the weaklings in their midst. Every child knows that much instinctively. […]

What. The. [email protected]#%.

No, most pack animals do not just kill members of their own pack that are sick, injured, etc. While animals aren’t always altruistic, many animals are known to protect or comfort other group members that are vulnerable. Packs are teams that work together for survival. Why would you kill a member of your own team?

Also, comparing a disabled child being physically assaulted by a large group to a “weakling” being torn apart by a pack is dehumanizing and ableist. Having a disabled kid that needs to be rescued is already following the helpless disability stereotype. Making this comparison just doubles down on the harmful idea that disability is inherently weak. The fact that Pag isn’t disabled by today’s terms doesn’t matter; Watts has made it clear that Pag is disabled in the context of this setting.

Then, Watts asserts that children instinctively know that animals kill each other. I don’t think he understands what the word “instinct” means. It means a natural inclination toward a basic survival behavior. Instincts are not random, fake factoids about other species.

This is pointless, edgy nonsense.

If you’re wondering about the “bad wiring” part, don’t worry, we will get to that.

In the end, propaganda worked where empathy failed. Back then I didn’t so much think as observe, didn’t deduce so much as remember—and what I remembered was a thousand inspirational stories lauding anyone who ever stuck up for the underdog.

Watts, you know that you’re calling your own story propaganda, right? Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the more interesting and less inane ways to describe stories. But if you’re going to criticize them, it’s not just those other stories that are coming under fire.

So I picked up a rock the size of my fist and hit two of Pag’s assailants across the backs of their heads before anyone even knew I was in the game.

The line about animals killing the weak was a lead-up to more violence among children. Color me unsurprised. But how exactly did the protagonist hit these two heads with one stone? It must have been quick; did they throw it? That feels pretty implausible. Did they barge in there and do it by hand?

This is a group of six kids and the punchers are in front – meaning the other kids should be behind them, facing them. To get to the back of their heads, the protagonist would have to run at the group and push their way in. That would give the kids a chance to react. That is, unless the protagonist did a sneak attack on the kids who aren’t doing the punching. I have no idea; this line is all we’ve got.

Next, the protagonist somehow uses the rock to take out a third kid while that kid is “turning to face the new threat.” Thankfully, the rest of the kids run away instead of using their bodies as cannon fodder as if they were horde minions.

Two of the enemy twitched at my feet. I kicked one in the head until it stopped moving, turned to the other. Something grabbed my arm and I swung without thinking, without looking until Pag yelped and ducked out of reach.

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.”

[…]

“Oh shit, you—I mean, you never…” He wiped his mouth. Blood smeared the back of his hand. “Oh man are we in trouble.”

“They started it.”

“Yeah, but you—I mean, look at them!”

The moaning thing was crawling away on all fours. I wondered how long it would be before it found reinforcements. I wondered if I should kill it before then.

Wow. Okay… so that stone that hit two heads somehow made at least one person fall to the ground twitching. And did the protagonist just kill one of those kids?

While we don’t know what disability the protagonist has yet, Watts has made it clear that the protagonist’s homicidal behavior is a result of lacking emotion and empathy. This is a toxic stereotype that stigmatizes people with neurodivergent traits such as alexithymia, who may struggle with or not feel empathy but still respect and care about other people.

Then, even if we set aside the disturbing and ableist complications of a protagonist who views injured kids as things to be put down, the characterization is all wrong. This is not the same character Watts was depicting half a page ago. That character may have not felt empathy as an emotion, but they intellectually understood it. They know they were responsible for helping their best friend. They also understood the cultural roles expressed by stories well enough to fight for the underdog.

Now the protagonist doesn’t even understand that human life has value. What logic leads them to think of these kids as subhuman while simultaneously worrying that they will crawl off to find reinforcements? What story did they see where the hero started finishing off injured enemies who could barely move?

It’s a story like this one, isn’t it?

With the retelling narrative premise, the story essentially has two different narrators: the future protagonist and the current protagonist. If the writer isn’t clear which one is narrating at a given time, it can create weird inconsistencies. But if the future protagonist was narrating the paragraph about empathy and friendship, they wouldn’t have been perplexed by their lack of emotional response to seeing their best friend in trouble. The future narrator knows exactly why that happened.

The change in personality, the weird animal stuff, and the astounding ableism are all being used to justify why the protagonist is inclined to do horrific things. While hurting others creates conflict for the protagonist, Watts didn’t need to go nearly this far. If the protagonist considered hurting a single injured kid, and Pag put a stop to it, that would have been enough.

Being edgy is the point. Logic and consistency are secondary concerns. Respect for other human beings is not even a consideration.

Ten Minutes of Research Isn’t Too Much

I actually did feel something then—faint, distant, but unmistakable. I felt angry. “They started—

Pag backed away, eyes wide. “What are you doing? Put that down!”

I’d raised my fists. I didn’t remember doing that. I unclenched them. It took a while. I had to look at my hands very hard for a long, long time.

The rock dropped to the ground, blood-slick and glistening.

“I was trying to help.” I didn’t understand why he couldn’t see that.

“You’re, you’re not the same,” Pag said from a safe distance. “You’re not even Siri any more.”

“I am too. Don’t be a fuckwad.”

They cut out your brain!”

“Only half. For the ep—”

“I know for the epilepsy! You think I don’t know? But you were in that half—or, like, part of you was…” He struggled with the words, with the concept behind them. “And now you’re different. It’s like, your mom and dad murdered you—”

“My mom and dad,” I said, suddenly quiet, “saved my life. I would have died.”

“I think you did die,” said my best and only friend. “I think Siri died, they scooped him out and threw him away and you’re some whole other kid that just, just grew back out of what was left. You’re not the same. Ever since. You’re not the same.”

Oh dear god.

Look, I don’t know exactly how those people who’ve had hemispherectomies would want to be represented, but I’m pretty damn sure it’s not as murderers. That’s the kind of propaganda that gets disabled people killed.

Also, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want to be depicted as people who died in surgery and came back as someone else. If you’re going to use real conditions in your story, the very least you can do is some research to get the basics right. In only ten minutes of searching on the internet, I discovered that kids who undergo this procedure do not have memory or personality changes, but they do lose control of one hand and half of their field of vision. If your main character has a real disability you don’t have and you can afford to hire a consultant with that lived experience, please do so. It makes a huge difference.

The most absurd thing is how easy this problem is to fix. This is a scifi setting; make up a scifi reason this happened! Just remember that making a fictional disability that turns someone into a killer still stigmatizes disability. So if you’re looking for an incident that turns the character into a killer, make sure the result isn’t presented as a disability or reminiscent of one.

Also, we finally know the protagonist’s name is Siri, and he’s a boy. Those things seem really trivial right now.

I still don’t know if Pag really knew what he was saying. […] Maybe, after fighting pod people in gamespace, he couldn’t help but see them everywhere. Maybe.

But you could make a case for what he said. […] There’s a reason they call it radical hemispherectomy: half the brain thrown out with yesterday’s krill, the remaining half press-ganged into double duty. Think of all the rewiring that one lonely hemisphere must have struggled with as it tried to take up the slack. It turned out okay, obviously. The brain’s a very flexible piece of meat; it took some doing, but it adapted. I adapted. Still. Think of all that must have been squeezed out, deformed, reshaped by the time the renovations were through. You could argue that I’m a different person than the one who used to occupy this body.

Nope. Nope. Nope.

The grownups showed up eventually, of course. Medicine was bestowed, ambulances called. Parents were outraged, diplomatic volleys exchanged, but it’s tough to drum up neighborhood outrage on behalf of your injured baby when playground surveillance from three angles shows the little darling—and five of his buddies— kicking in the ribs of a disabled boy. […]

And no one was outraged that this playground was an unsupervised violent crime zone despite having surveillance from three angles. It’s a kid-eat-kid world out there, folks. You can also see in that last sentence that Watts is presenting disabled kids not just as people facing marginalization but also as objects of pity. This is yet another dehumanizing and stigmatizing stereotype about disability. Combined with the other stereotypes that have been applied to Pag so far, it paints him as a pathetic, tragic victim who exists to teach Siri lessons, rather than have a full, meaningful life of his own.

Watts also wants us to believe that in his world, the oppression is so severe that kids flagrantly commit violence against a disabled person while being recorded. Yet simultaneously, no one was outraged that a disabled person severely injured these non-disabled kids. Or for that matter, even demanded that Siri be separated from the other kids to prevent him from killing anyone. Oppression just works however Watts wants it to in any given moment.

Your Values Will End Up in Your Story

So I survived that and a million other childhood experiences. I grew up and I got along. I learned to fit in. I observed, recorded, derived the algorithms and mimicked appropriate behaviors. Not much of it was—heartfelt, I guess the word is. I had friends and enemies, like everyone else. I chose them by running through checklists of behaviors and circumstances compiled from years of observation.

Again, hemispherectomies do not turn people into cyborgs. But let’s just set that aside for a moment, as difficult as that is.

Watts is presenting this character as an emotionless genius. If separated from stereotypes about disability, an emotionless character who is trying to pass as normal could have a lot of novelty, conflict, and sympathy. It could also be relatable for all the people who struggle to meet social expectations. Murderbot is an example of a similar character done exceedingly well, though Murderbot isn’t emotionless.

But Watts has also decided to give Siri inexplicable computing powers. Even if these aren’t powers literally, this computer thinking is clearly designed to be a sign of Siri’s superiority. This suggests that Watts isn’t interested in giving his protagonist compelling struggles. Instead, he wants to deliver a boatload of candy. While Murderbot also has plenty of candy, readers know that’s because it’s a construct, and Murderbot’s candied abilities aren’t designed to erase its social problems.

Based on what we’ve seen so far in Blindsight, we can expect Siri’s lack of emotion and behavioral checklists to play whatever role is needed to justify why Siri does terrible things in any given scene. When being emotionless doesn’t make the story edgy, Watts can pull in the one emotion he’s established Siri has: anger.

I may have grown up distant but I grew up objective, and I have Robert Paglino to thank for that. His seminal observation set everything in motion. It led me into Synthesis, fated me to our disastrous encounter with the Scramblers, spared me the worse fate befalling Earth. Or the better one, I suppose, depending on your point of view. Point of view matters: I see that now, blind, talking to myself, trapped in a coffin falling past the edge of the solar system. I see it for the first time since some beaten bloody friend on a childhood battlefield convinced me to throw my own point of view away.

Well, there we have it. Siri is a wish-fulfillment character for men on the atheist to alt-right ideology pipeline.

If you’re wondering how the hell I got there, the key is the word “objective,” emphasized with italics. That word doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s a cultural signal of current-day rationalists, who are usually atheist white men. Many of them want to believe they are brilliant and objective. For them, objectivity means being free of bias and emotional influence.

The problem is that humans are not capable of that, and pretending that we are is dangerous. For the rationalists I’ve known personally, their denial of their own bias and emotion only meant they had no correction mechanisms in place. In other words, they were especially biased and emotionally driven. Yes, it was quite ironic.

In any case, rationalists will use claims of perfect objectivity to dismiss ethics. For instance, some dude might say: “White people score better on IQ tests than Black people. It’s just a fact.” Then if you try to explain why this statement is misleading and harmful, they will claim you are biased because you are motivated by values such as promoting equality. This is how they are lured into supporting hate groups. And as an emotionless objective genius who ignores morality in favor of dubious logic, Siri looks like their poster boy.

Moving on from rationalist wish fulfillment, Watts is once again trying to create a teaser but throwing in too many things. This time he at least has some context to fill it out, but he needs to stop meandering and choose something to focus on. It might be the disaster with the scramblers, the fate of Earth, or being trapped in a coffin. Choosing all of them is just confusing the issue.

It’s time for the last lines of the prologue.

He may have been wrong. I may have been. But that, that distance—that chronic sense of being an alien among your own kind—it’s not entirely a bad thing.

It came in especially handy when the real aliens came calling.

Oh hey, look, Watts actually created an effective teaser. We have some intriguing context and we aren’t zooming past a bunch of random stuff. Even so, Watts is giving up tension by emphasizing how cool Siri is. That’s one of the issues with making a super candied protagonist: their problems feel trivial.

Let’s consolidate the last three paragraphs into a stronger teaser, ignoring how this objectivity worship is absurd.

Example

I may have grown up distant but I grew up objective, and I have Robert Paglino to thank for that. He may have been wrong, but the distance he gave me—that chronic sense of being an alien among your own kind—it’s not entirely a bad thing.

I needed every drop of it when the real aliens came calling.

I took the first sentence from the previous zoomy paragraph and dumped the rest. Then to make the chain of logic clearer, I attributed the distance to Pag and took out the line focusing on the protagonist. Then I altered the last sentence so the alien problem wouldn’t seem easy.

I did take minor liberties with the content. I don’t know if this edit actually fits what Watts was trying to say about Siri – partly because what’s written here doesn’t make much sense.

Complete Your Arcs

Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of the character revelation this prologue is supposed to deliver and how it’s executed.

  1. Siri has an operation that renders him emotionless, but he’s still really observant about human behavior.
  2. He doesn’t view other kids as human and considers killing some of them.
  3. As a result, Pag tells Siri that he’s not the same person he was before he had surgery.
  4. Expositing, future Siri says the friend was making a valid argument.
  5. Then future Siri describes how after the incident, he was still emotionless and observant, but because of Pag, he was also objective.

Watts narrates this to illustrate a personal realization of Siri’s, but then he inserts a plot hook that’s far more important: Does Siri still think murdering people is okay??? Siri manages to stop himself from attacking his friend, but he defends his behavior toward the other kids. Then the scene is halted for exposition, leaving this important question unanswered.

This exposition isn’t great for the personal realization either. If this lesson is important enough to justify a prologue, it should be dramatized in real time. In stories, important new insights are turning points – receiving the insight should allow the protagonist to solve a problem they are facing. For instance, maybe recognizing he’s not the same person allows Siri to understand why he shouldn’t kill people. I’m not sure how that would work, partly because Siri’s motivation for killing makes no sense, but that’s not important. The realization is the highest priority, so if the conflict doesn’t match, it should be replaced with another one.

Without a meaningful arc centering on this realization, this flashback isn’t pulling its weight. Watts could have just told us that Siri’s friend said a mean thing to him once; we have no reason to see it unfold.

But that’s not the only issue here. How does being called a different person make Siri objective? He was already an emotionless and observant outsider before this event. Since we’ve jumped to future Siri, we don’t even know what he thought of the statement at the time, much less how it impacted him.

Maybe it’s supposed to be that Siri realized he was wrong, or that the idea taught him to embrace multiple perspectives, or maybe that he considers himself an outsider now. Hints of all of these are in the text; perhaps Watts hasn’t made up his mind.

Of course, none of these options would make Siri “grow up objective” because that’s not a real thing. An outsider perspective is still a perspective with its own biases. Instead, Siri could be more objective about some ideas. If he views himself as an alien among his own people, being more objective about human exceptionalism would work well. But the rationalists reading this book will probably buy any explanation for objectivity, because they have an emotional reason to – they’ll love the book, they’ll love Siri, and they’ll want to believe that they can be perfectly objective too.

Overall, Watts has an engaging voice, he knows how to create conflict, and he’s adept at adding novelty. But the actual ideas he’s expressing are poorly thought through. He tends to ramble and meander, he can’t choose what to focus on, his characterization is inconsistent, and he has a reckless disregard for accuracy. Most of all, he is turning oppression against disabled people into a dehumanizing storytelling device, just so he can make the story more edgy.

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