Friday Favorites: “Blindsight” by Peter Watts

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m reposting a review of Peter Watts’ “Blindsight” (free to read online) that I wrote years ago, with a few updates. Wow, I used to write longer reviews back in the day …

“Blindsight” is a first contact story in a technologically advanced future, where humans have finally gone where they aren’t biologically meant to go, which is to say, they are generating and discovering more data than their brains and meat can handle. Cybernetically augmented people act as the conduit between the technology and the people. One of these augments is the protagonist, Siri Keeton, who had half his brain removed as a child, resulting in losing much of his capacity for emotions and empathy. As an adult, Siri specializes in interpreting incredibly high orders of data and patterns, thereby acting as a middleman between humankind’s incomprehensible technology and humankind itself.

Sidenote 1: this book was written in 2006, predating Apple’s Siri, but you could take it as an accidental prophecy.

Sidenote 2: I’m not super on board with how Watts talks about autism in this story. It’s not my place to talk about it, so I’ll point you to Ada Hoffman’s commentary.

One day in 2082, Earth is visited by a group of projectiles that flash over Earth and then vanish, leaving no clue behind. Siri is sent with a similarly enhanced five-man team towards the unknown, in order to investigate. The crew is incredibly complicated and interesting, all manifestations of the author (a professional marine biologist) exploring a number of neurology, biology, and cognitive science theories such as manufactured multiple personalities, sensory augmentation, and even resurrected vampires.

The first contact is a harrowing one, and as incredible discoveries about the aliens come to light, we find ourselves asking along with the protagonists the big question of the book: what good is consciousness? It’s a risky proposition for an audience that is only able to process the story through consciousness. The titular real-life condition of blindsight–in which a person with blindness resulting from brain damage to their visual processing center, can nevertheless respond to visual stimuli, such as catching an object that they are unable to see–is used to convey to us how it “feels” to be a creature with intelligence but no sentience. Uncoupling “intelligent responses” from “sentience” is an interesting move, because that is one enormous question of AI: at what point could humans make a sentient machine? Can we ever tell if it is a sentient machine, due to the fact that we can never see from the machine’s “mind”? “Blindsight” makes the argument that it doesn’t matter. “Blindsight” says: we don’t really know what thinking is, or what a soul is, or what it really means to be a sentient thing. Therefore the only logical response is to use the only measure we have of intelligence, which is that the entity is capable of learning, of pattern recognition, of improved performance, at which point this begins to sound very familiar to computer science folks.

Many people act as if the be-all end-all of machine learning, of making a “thinking machine”, necessarily ends in sentience. The hypothesis posed by “Blindsight” is that such a statement is being human-centric, perhaps even sentience-centric. Rather, it is entirely possible, and perhaps evolutionarily favorable, to become extremely intelligent without developing sentience. Such organisms would not so much think as calculate, sifting and gathering through patterns and then reacting. Living in the void of space as they have for ages, crunching the pure hard data of natural physics and mathematics, they have perfected themselves. But human data is infinitely messier, often purposeless, stuffed with what entertains a sentient mind but is meaningless to a data processor.

So–who’s going to win?

In the book, the reader is invited to “pretend you are Siri Keeton” and if you do so successfully, then you might end up rooting for the aliens made of pure data. And I actually did briefly, which is perhaps the highest praise a book like this can receive, and which is why I put this down as a favorite. I wouldn’t say it was a fantastic emotional experience reading this book, but as a conceptual exercise I found it incredibly well executed.

We never actually find out who ultimately wins–Siri isn’t there to see it–although he closes the story with a hypothesis … which I will not spoil, but which I disagree with.

The book (or Siri) posits pretty hard that humans are cognitively weaker than aliens made out of pure data, because we have the useless middleman of a consciousness slowing things down. Last I checked, humans have built some pretty spiffy machines that can crunch data at incredible speed, and in Blindsight it’s advanced beyond what we can imagine today. So I truly see no reason that humans are inherently disadvantaged.

I feel like the battle of the races in Siri’s mind is a metaphorical one, and ends the way that he–nearly an alien himself–finds the most comforting.

Then again, perhaps I’m doing the same thing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Friday Favorites: “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m going talk about “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep, a YA book. It’s not SFF, but it is ballet, so we’re still #onbrand!

“Ribbons” follows Robin, an eleven-year-old Chinese-American girl who is a promising and passionate ballet student. But, she has to give up those lessons so that her parents can afford to bring her aging grandmother to the US, which permanently alters the family dynamics as well as economics.

Once her grandmother arrives, Robin wants nothing more than to go back to her beloved ballet lessons, but when her grandmother sees her tying on a pair of pointe shoes with satin ribbons, all hell breaks loose for reasons that nobody will explain to Robin, who is feeling more and more pushed out of the family circle. Resentment, jealousy, and pain build until Robin and her grandmother accidentally come to a better understanding of each other’s inner world and the hurts they both hold.

Reader, this book was the first time that I really and truly saw myself in a story. I remember the utter shock of it: someone wrote a book–for me?

I desperately wanted ballet lessons as a child. I had my first ballet lesson when I was over 30. I did not have a cranky grandmother living with my Chinese-American immigrant family in the US, but I knew that the reason for my deprivation was in part because my parents were desperately saving all the money they could for my future and my younger brother’s future. (I say in part because they eventually did scrape up some money for entirely unwanted piano lessons.)

In hindsight of course I am sure there are many, many Chinese immigrant girls who wanted ballet lessons. But I didn’t know at the time because I didn’t live next to or talk with any of them, because my parents chose to bring us to white suburbia. That had its benefits for sure. Diversity was not one of them. I consumed and even enjoyed volumes upon volumes of white ballet girl books (I love Noel Streatfeild’s “Ballet Shoes” to pieces, so please don’t take this post to be a slam on those stories) but I knew those books weren’t for or about me. The same was broadly true of my reading, whether it was in literature or SFF. I did occasionally land on a book about being a Chinese immigrant, which was inevitably about Pain and Suffering and Abusive Family Dynamics. Thank you, publishers, for reducing my existence to those dimensions!

So it was incredible to read “Ribbons,” which seemed like it had been written just for me. If you looked at the readership of the extremely white town where I lived, from whose library shelves I plucked the volume, that might even have been true.

Although the book is not SFF, it was a fantasy for me: an AsAm girl immigrant who cannot have the ballet lessons that she so desperately wants–and even though she’s talented to boot. (I’m not talented. I did say this was a fantasy.) And as a child who thought she would never get the chance to dance, I made my peace with that and let Robin dance for me. I was a dramatic child, okay.

And then at age 30something, I hauled myself into a ballet studio and paid for my first lesson. I’ll never stop wishing I’d been able to dance as a child, but I am slowly learning that it is just as valid and beautiful to pick it up now as it would have been 25 years ago. Thanks for inspiring me, Laurence Yep.

(On a less self-centered note, I find it extremely regrettable that whole piles of talent and passion and drive in this world are lost. By the end of the book, Robin gets her chance. Many people never do, which is the part where the fantasy breaks down. This is why I donate to my dance studio.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write fanfiction where Robin goes away to SAB and becomes an NYCB soloist.

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