Fiction Review: Blindsight by Peter Watts

BlindsightA laser is asked to find darkness in a dark room. This will be easy, thinks the laser, how hard can it be to find what I’m surrounded by? Yet wherever the laser looks, all it sees is light.

The characters of Blindsight are not searching for darkness but for the nature of consciousness, which is what prompts a cantankerous biologist to come up with the parable of the laser in the first place. For while Blindsight is, on the surface, a classic space opera complete with mysterious aliens and a colourful crew captained by a vampire – whose existence is explained through creative palaeogenetics –  what sets Blindsight apart is that the vampires and aliens are really there for an exploration of the nature of consciousness.

The exploration starts in the mind of the narrator, Siri. His partial lobotomy has taken his ability to engage emotionally, but given him a talent for distilling peoples’ meanings from their words without colouring them with his own prejudices and interpretations. He’s so good at it that he’s packed off with crew of misfits to investigate a large alien somewhere beyond the orbit of Jupiter – beyond which, we’re told, nobody gets to goes without being at least a little vampire.

Siri’s crewmates have all augmented themselves to thrive in their chosen specialities in an age when computers are so smart that they’ve left nothing useful for unaugmented people to do. As Siri gets to know their ‘topology’, as he calls it, it becomes more apparent that their augments have left each of them with a consciousness that is not exactly baseline human.

Between them, they need to work out the intentions of an enormous alien entity calling itself Rorschach, which is as big as a decent sized moon. In case that isn’t hard enough for the characters to get their enhanced heads around, Rorschach incorporates a powerful electromagnetic field that interacts with neural impulses to leave the characters feeling like they’re working their way through the casebook of Oliver Sachs.

Blindsight asked me to make a certain amount of effort to keep up, and not because there’s anything difficult about the prose. Several times, I found myself having to read a passage twice to make sure I knew what was going on. By the time I finished the novel, I was left with many questions to make up my own mind about. Was Siri really as emotionally disengaged as he thought he was and if he wasn’t, how trustworthy were his impressions of the other characters? Was the vampire really in command or was it merely the acceptable voice of one of those annoyingly smart computers? Were the other crew making their own decisions or were the effects of that electromagnetic field less random and more lasting than they appreciated? Did Rorschach understand the joke inherent in choosing its name?

And ultimately, was Rorschach conscious or merely going through the motions? Because the only way to answer that question is to work out what consciousness really is, if it means anything at all beyond simply describing the way Homo sapiens happens to process sensory input.

It’s the mark of great literature that it can be an utterly engrossing read while leaving such fundamental questions in its wake.

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Posted in Book review: fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Coldwater Cottage – 18: The Ascent

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17


Coldwater CottageIan shot through the door and blinked at the grey light bathing the boulders below him. He grabbed his air gauge and lifted it in front of his eyes. Twenty bars. Not much, but enough to get to the surface. He turned to face the house as he kicked upward, and perhaps he heard a distant voice say, “she was never really alone here,” but he wasn’t sure.

Back in the eternal grey between the surface and the bottom, eyes darting between the depth gauge and the Celtic cross in his hand. The cross glinted as red seeped back into the colour of his drysuit. Ian looked up to see the sparkle of sunlight on the surface above him. His head burst into the air, and he took the sweetest breath he’d ever tasted, for all the salt he inhaled with it.

He opened the valve into his buoyancy jacket, but the sigh of air died from the moment it started. It was enough to keep him on the surface, but Ian shuddered at the thought that he’d surfaced with less than one more breath in his tank.

The boat bobbed about fifty meters away. He could see Jakki’s blonde head as she lay against the rubber side. He was only ten meters away by the time she saw him. She leapt to her feet, but staggered and lost her balance as the boat rolled.

“Ian!” Her voice was muffled by his hood, but he could hear the joy in it.

Ian slipped his mask down around his neck and threw his arms over the side of the boat. He opened his left hand and expected Jakki to grab the brooch. She glanced at it, looked at him and time stood still as he saw that old look of trust return to her face.

Jakki sprang forward, leaning over the side to throw her arms around his neck. “I knew you’d find it.”

Ian pressed his face into her shoulder. “Yes,” he said. “I found it.”


The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes

Goodreads

Cover by Manda Benson

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo

Foreclosure

Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

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Posted in Coldwater Cottage, Uncategorized

House Share

HouseShare

(Toms Baugis [CC / Flickr])

The morning after our housewarming party, Caroline was in an exuberant mood.

“I know! Let’s go on a picnic!”

“Not so loud,” groaned Ron from the sofa.

He’d been on that sofa when I went to bed at two in the morning. Now I thought about it, he’d been on it when the first guys turned up with a stack of takeaway pizzas at six last night, and only left it if he couldn’t find anything alcoholic within easy reach.

“A picnic’s just the thing for a hangover.” Caroline, I was learning, was a morning person.

“Don’t you think so?” She turned to me.

“Eh, what?” I am not a morning person. “OK, why not? We’ve still got some of the red wine left, haven’t we?”

Ron groaned louder, pressing his hand to his head as if trying to contain his swollen brain. Caroline and I looked at him.

“Don’t mention that stuff,” said Ron. “I’m never going to drink again.”

“It’s not about wine,” said Caroline. “It’s about being outdoors, in the sunshine. Simple food. Sitting on a blanket. Trees.”

“Plastic wineglasses,” I said, eliciting a satisfying groan from Ron.

If Caroline was going the be the exuberant one and Ron was going to be the party animal, I may as well step into the sardonic-shaped vacancy in the house.

“Marmalade sandwiches.”

I raised an eyebrow at her, hoping it looked sardonic.

“Well, why not?” she asked. “Fresh air, sunshine and marmalade sandwiches. Just what Ron needs.”

“I never want to see daylight again,” said Ron.

That was my cue to throw open the curtains.

Ron hunkered even lower on the sofa. “I can feel the sunburn already.”

“You can’t get sunburned through glass,” I said sardonically.

“I can,” said Ron who was too hung over to distinguish sardonic from pedantic.

“I’ve got a basket,” said Caroline, “so let’s make some sandwiches.”

“You mentioned trees,” I said.

“Yes. Willow trees,” said Caroline.

“Where there are trees, there are wasps,” I said.

“No there aren’t. Don’t be silly.”

“And there will be ants.” It was the most eloquent thing Ron had said all morning. Caroline and I looked at him, but he didn’t add a groan.

“And if there are willow trees, there must be a river,” I said. “And Ron will fall in.”

“That’s true,” said Ron. “I always do. Even if the river’s tiny.”

Caroline looked between us and sighed. “Oh all right. We’ll go to McDonalds.”

I took that to mean sardonic was off to a good start.

HouseShare

(Toms Baugis [CC / Flickr])

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Coldwater Cottage – 17: The Promise

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16


Coldwater Cottage“I’ve seen your memories. Now I’ve shown you one of mine.”

Part of Ian’s mind refused to believe it, but the knowledge of how little air he had left was more powerful. It didn’t matter whether the voice was real or not, only whether it could get him out of here.

“Look up.”

Ian looked up and saw a rectangle of grey light that could only be the front door and was Ian’s whole life as soon as he saw it. All he had to do was kick his fins and he’d be in the light with nothing between him and the surface.

“Do you understand who I am?”

It didn’t matter who the voice was. Nothing mattered but light and air, but Ian found himself hesitating.

“Don’t you remember the promise you made to Jack? Over and over?”

That wasn’t fair, Ian screamed at himself. To bring up the one thing that would hold him here.

“She believed you, so she made it true. She kept something of you with her.”

Ian thought again about how similar the voice sounded to his own.

“She kept believing you till she was sixteen. It took that long to realise she was depending on a shadow of you. So she left to build another shadow out of Mum.”

Ian couldn’t help but phrase his thought as a question. You’re the shadow of me that she built? That makes no sense.

“You’re in the sea. How can you hope to understand it when you don’t understand your own sister. Now go to her before you join me.”

Ian flicked his fins and wondered how he was going to explain the voice to Jakki, or even to himself once the reality had become a memory.

“You’ll manage. You’ve banged your head and maybe got a touch of narcosis. Your conscious mind didn’t know how to get you out, so it gave up and let your instincts take over. You’ll half believe it by the time you get to the surface.”

Surface. Light. Air. Life. The ideas flooded Ian’s mind, and with it came another thought. He hadn’t seen Dad, so where was he?

“He was in the garage when the cliff collapsed. Now get the hell out of here.”

Next week: Coldwater Cottage concludes with The Ascent


The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes

Goodreads

Cover by Manda Benson

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo

Foreclosure

Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

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Posted in Coldwater Cottage, Uncategorized

Tyburn Tree

TyburnTree

(diamond geezer [CC / Flickr])

Dark, late, rain.

Bad combination.

If Emilia hadn’t been dwelling on the combination as she dashed across Hyde Park, she wouldn’t have turned left instead of right at the Marble Arch exit. But her feet ached from shoes that weren’t designed for high-speed progress across royal parks and half her mind was on the painstaking – not to mention expensive – work of the hairdresser that would be reduced to a bedraggled tangle by the time she arrived. She was standing at the end of the Edgware Road before she realised.

Bayswater Road was deserted, as though even the usual taxis and buses had gone home in disgust with the weather. She took the chance to scurry across, so she’d at least be on the right side when she backtracked to Oxford Street.

The wail of a horn announced that the road wasn’t as deserted as she thought. She bounded on to the traffic island, her heel tipping her on to her hands and knees. Swearing at the receding tail lights didn’t solve anything, but it was all she could do for now so why the hell not?

When she paused for breath, she felt grass rather than paving stones beneath her hands, which was strange because grass wouldn’t have made her palms sting like this. What it would do was cover the knees of her trouser suit in mud, so she let rip with another torrent of language she very rarely used.

It was just after she ran out of words that she heard the creak. She looked up, seeing three wooden posts in the gloom in front of her. She could barely see them, which was strange because Bayswater Road had to be one of the best lit streets in London. The orange light was still there, but it had faded as if all the lights were running at a fraction of their power.

Or as though they were much further away than from across the road.

She stood up carefully, relieved to find she hadn’t twisted her ankle. In front of her, the three posts reached up to where they were joined at the top, by horizontal beams forming a triangle. Each beam suspended a large bundle that hung just above the ground.

Forgetting for a moment that she was late, she stepped closer. Surely these bundles weren’t what they looked like. It was no more than a trick of the anaemic light.

She stepped to one side, to where the light allowed her to see slightly better. She wanted to pretend that she wasn’t looking at a woman’s face. Even more, she wanted to pretend that the rope suspending her from the beams wasn’t around her neck.

The light was poor, she told herself. She could be mistaken.

A stronger light flickered across the hanged woman, leaving Emilia no space for doubt. The light was of a similar orange tone to the streetlights, but it was stronger and getting more so.

Emilia spun around to face a flame advancing on her. She wanted to back away, but then she’d back into the hanging woman and her feet refused to let her do that. As she watched, a figure in a dark cloak resolved behind the flame. The flame wasn’t floating in the air, she saw, it was a lantern that the cloaked figure was holding before it.

“Heard you shouting.” A man’s voice shouted from behind the lantern. “Was you calling the watch?”

“What?” Emilia wiped rain from her eyes. “Who are you?”

The man held the lantern closer.

“What’re you doing here?” he shouted. “Go back to where you came from!”

“I…”

She stepped back before she knew she was doing it. She whirled round, horrified at how close she was to the corpse.

There was nothing behind her.

She turned back to the cloaked man. The traffic island was bathed in sodium light, but there was no one else standing on it. A bus droned past on its way toward Oxford Street.

Where Emilia was supposed to be.

“I’m late,” she said as she followed it.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Coldwater Cottage – 16: The Light

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15


Coldwater CottageThe voice was silent, and Ian began to think the hallucination had passed. He felt sick when he wondered how long he’d spent debating with himself. He had to concentrate. He had to get out of here.

“You really think I’m a hallucination, don’t you?”

Ian groaned without opening his mouth. There was something hypnotic about the voice, something that commanded Ian’s full attention.

“Close your left hand.”

Ian stared at nothing, unsure whether his eyes were open or closed.

“I said close your left hand.”

Ian’s fingers closed on something flat and solid. It was about the size of his palm. He ran his thumb along the back of it to feel the pin of the brooch. How had it got into his hand?

He must have blinked because suddenly the room was lit before him, but something was wrong. The mattress was on the camp bed, and there was a sleeping bag thrown over it. The door opened and a girl sidled in. Ian recognised Jack, but she was older than when he’d left, perhaps thirteen or fourteen. She turned and whispered to him. “Where’s Dad now, Ian?”

Dad must be out of the house, or she’d never dare to come in here. Jack nodded as though it was a reassuring answer and opened a cupboard. She pulled out the silver jewelry box and lingered over Mum’s picture. She opened it and held the brooch up to the window. Ian’s throat was tight with fear for her. He couldn’t bear to think what might happen if Dad found her. He could almost see Dad trudging back to the house after a search through a dozen empty rabbit traps, and silently begged her to get out of the room. Jack looked up as though she heard him and replaced the brooch in the box. She closed the box with a precision that told Ian that she’d done the same thing many times before and knew how to get away with it. She closed the cupboard, left the room and closed the door without making a sound.

The room faded to darkness. Ian was sitting in the dark, waiting for his air to run out.

Next week: The Promise


The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes

Goodreads

Cover by Manda Benson

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo

Foreclosure

Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

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Posted in Coldwater Cottage, Uncategorized

The Unexpected

TheUnexpected

(Tom Waterhouse [CC / Flickr])

“Something a tad unexpected happened to me on the way to the office,” I said.

“Unexpected?” Sandra’s eyes were wide. “Your sleeve’s hanging off your suit, your toes are poking out of your shoe and you’re meeting the clients in ten minutes.”

My secretary has a knack for summarising a situation.

“Yes,” I said. “Well, the clients were expected so I didn’t mean them.”

Sandra rolled her eyes. “Give me your shoe. And your jacket.”

I had the shoe off before it occurred to me to ask why.

“Because I keep a tube of superglue in my desk,” she said. “And because if you get fired, I’ll end up working for Gordon Wanderhands down the corridor. So give me your jacket, and you’d better retie your tie while I’m at it.”

“Right-ho,” I said. “Who’s Gordon Wanderhands? Surely you mean Gordon Watson – oh, is that his nickname?”

“You didn’t hear it from me,” said Sandra who was bent over my wounded shoe.

“Why d’you call him that?” I asked.

She looked up. “Tellme again how you were made a partner.”

I thought about it.

“Unexpectedly,” I said.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Coldwater Cottage – 15: The Past

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14


Coldwater Cottage“I gave you every warning, and still you had to go straight for the box. It’s hers.”

The hiss and roar of his breathing told Ian that he was still alive, but he knew he wouldn’t be for much longer. He was hallucinating when his life depended on clear thinking.

“Like I said, I warned you.”

The voice sounded exactly like his own. He railed silently for it to shut up.

“I’ll shut up when I want to shut up. This is my house now.”

Ian felt his arms wrap themselves around his knees. He thought of Jakki adrift in the boat, waiting for him to come back up. What if no one saw her and called the coastguard? She’d never be able to steer the boat back to land. He was abandoning her for a second time. The thought sank into his stomach like a lead weight.

“What’s that?”

A torrent of memories surged through Ian’s mind. Of him and Jack clinging to each other while Dad raged through the living room. Of the trust in her face when he said he’d never leave her. Of the day he broke his promise and walked for miles to the nearest town, only to get collared stealing a Mars bar from a newsagent. Memories of the image of her that he’d conjured up to give him the courage to keep his mouth shut when the social services asked where he’d come from, convinced they’d send him back to Dad if they knew. Then the years of foster homes and college as he trained as a social worker, to help people like himself and Jack only to find that every lost soul was a poor substitute for the one he’d left behind.

“It’s you?”

He ignored the voice this time, as his memories brought him back to Jakki, alone in the boat above him.

“She’s up there?”

Yes damn it, she’s up there, Ian thought. Happy now?

Next week: The Light


The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes

Goodreads

Cover by Manda Benson

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo

Foreclosure

Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

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Posted in Coldwater Cottage, Uncategorized

London Rain

LondonRain

(Su-May [CC / Flickr])

Jim was lost.

That’s a problem with London suburbs: there’s so much of them that no matter how well you think you know your way around, it only takes one wrong turn and you stumble into one of the gaps in your knowledge.

Jim stared around him, looking for something familiar and wondering how he got here. He backtracked, hoping it would take him back to the familiar street he’d been on a few minutes ago.

Five minutes later, he was still lost. He must have turned right when he thought he’d turned left. Or left when he thought he’d turned right.

It had to happen on the day he’d forgotten to charge his phone, and when he’d finally persuaded Millie from the office to meet him for a drink. He quelled a vision of her sitting in the pub they’d agreed, checking her watch every half minute until she left in disgust.

He walked straight ahead. If he kept going in a straight line, he’d come to something he recognised soon enough.

At least it wasn’t raining.

He regretted the thought immediately, because it started to rain. He quickened his pace as the first drops darkened his jacket. Millie wouldn’t be impressed if he turned up looking half-drowned as well as late.

The first drops turned into a deluge, closing his view of the street ahead to the next couple of hundred metres. He pulled his jacket up around his head and ran, splashing through puddles forming beneath his feet. Rain ran into his eyes, blurring the view of even the small bubble of London the rain allowed him to see.

A red circle with a blue bar swam into view in front of him.

An Undergound station.

Sanctuary.

There were three tube stations within a couple of minutes’ walk from where Millie would be waiting, and all he needed to get there was a wave of his oyster card. Better than a magic carpet.

The ticket hall was deserted. The tiles gleamed as if no one had walked on them since their last polish. The wet footprints he left on them made him feel he was trespassing, but the gates swung open readily enough.

The escalators shone like the tiles and they weren’t moving, so he walked down. He stepped off into a corridor that branched right and left to the platforms. It was the same layout he’d seen in more stations than he could count, but there had always been a schematic on the wall he was now facing, which would tell him which line he was on and where the trains went from either side. Instead, he faced pristine cream tiles with no sign of having had a hole drilled into them to support the sign.

Perhaps he’d blundered into a brand new station that wasn’t yet in use.

Before the thought took hold, a rumble of sliding doors made him look to his right. A train stood at the platform, which was strange as he hadn’t heard it come in while he’d been descending to the platform level.

Without knowing which line he was on, a train was better than an empty platform. If it was going the wrong way, he could change at the next station.

He boarded a carriage in which someone was sitting in every seat but no one was standing between them. He looked around to see that all the men were wearing dinner jackets and all the women were wearing ballgowns. He must have jumped into the middle of an outing to the opera or a wedding party. Or something.

Every head turned toward him.

He was suddenly very aware of the rain dripping from his jacket and the mud splashed up his trousers.

Every mouth split into a grin.

Jim tried to smile back. If they were going to laugh at him, he could be a sport about it.

As one, every passenger leapt to their feet.

Jim was looking in the opposite direction to the first handclap so he didn’t know who started it, but then every passenger was beating their hands together, filling the carriage with a thunder of applause so loud it almost drowned the sound of the rumble of sliding doors behind him.

He whirled around and dashed for them, but they closed before he could leave.

He wondered if Millie would still be waiting for him, but she’d probably given up and gone home already.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Coldwater Cottage – 14: The Dark

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13


Coldwater CottageThe flashlight went out.

That was odd; he’d charged the battery and the bulb was fairly new. There was no need to panic, there was a light on his buoyancy jacket. Not as powerful as the flashlight, but it would give him enough light to get out of here. There was no need to panic. The fingers of his left hand closed, and Ian knew he had dropped the box. His right hand found the large switch on the spare light, which had been thoughtfully designed so Ian could find it in the dark while wearing gloves. He felt the switch click. Nothing. He jerked the switch back and forth but the light was dead. He felt the check of the regulator as his breathing threatened to accelerate out of control.

Calm down, he told himself. Think. There should be a faint light from the window, but Ian’s eyes were still too used to the flashlight to make it out. Not that he could get through the window with the tank on his back. That left the door he had so carefully closed, which was behind him and to his right. Or was it to his left? If he could find the wall behind him, he could grope for the handle. He flicked a fin. His co-ordination betrayed him and his shoulder bumped the wall — or was it the floor or ceiling? — against his shoulder. He was disorientated, and now he’d have to search the whole room. He angled the backlit face of his dive computer toward his air gauge. It gave him just enough light to see the needle. Seventy bars wasn’t much to get out of this room, get out of the house and ascend twenty meters slowly enough to avoid the bends, but it was possible if he kept his breathing under control and didn’t panic.

The dive computer went out.

“Can’t you take a hint?”

Ian froze and pressed his hand to the ache in his head. The voice had sounded as though it came from inside his skull, as if he’d spoken himself.

Next week: The Past


The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes

Goodreads

Cover by Manda Benson

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo

Foreclosure

Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Coldwater Cottage, Uncategorized
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