It didn’t start out here.
– Peter Watts, Blindsight, 2006
You could say that this futuristic interplanetary scifi started back on earth with the origin of our species. Sure we’re smarter than the average bear (does anybody out there remember whose catchphrase this was?), but we also happen to know how smart we are. We’re sentient beings; we’re self-aware; we’re conscious of our own consciousness: it’s what makes us special. Peter Watts explores an alien possibility: what if our specialness is our Achilles’ heel?
Hegel says that his “master-bondsman” discourse isn’t just political or social; it’s also and primarily psychological. Does my conscious self serve my self-conscious self, or is it the other way around? Hegel means partly this: do I use my intelligence to feed my sense of self-worth, or do I use my ego to optimize my dominion over the world? A self undergoing the inner struggle tends to fail in both regards: I am not self-sufficient and I am not master of my world. To reconcile self with self-consciousness is to engage in the cosmic spiritual struggle one self at a time.
But what if I didn’t have to engage in the struggle, not because I had resolved my inner divide between self-as-subject and self-as-object, but because I couldn’t experience the split? I wouldn’t be able to observe myself in the inner mirror because no one’s there to watch. In short, what if I was conscious but not self-conscious? I wouldn’t even be able to imagine the profound soul-searching I’m doing in this post, but I couldn’t care less because I’d be incapable of searching. Would that be such a bad thing? I’d be more single-minded, less ambivalent — a more effective agent thrown into the universe. Perhaps I’d even be more adaptive.
Peter Watts’ spaceship is manned by crewmembers retrofitted with surgical, chemical and genetic modifications designed to overcome the innate limitations of self-awareness. Here,excerpted from an interview, is what Watts had to say about them while he was still writing the book:
One of the characters is a reconstructed vampire, a cannibalistic Human subspecies that died out with the rise of Euclidean architecture. We found enough of their genes in the bloodlines of sociopaths and high-functioning autistics to resurrect them. We brought them back because they’ve got these incredibly cool analytical pattern-matching abilities — but we also have them hooked on anti-Euclidean drugs to avoid spazzing out when they see intersecting right angles. [That’s why showing a vampire a crucifix freaks him out: it’s the right angles.]
Another one of the characters is a linguist whose brain has been surgically partitioned into autonomous chunks — surgically-induced multiple personality syndrome, so that she can have a series of onboard parallel-processing modules. There’s a biologist whose motor strip has been so massively interfaced with teleoperated equipment that much of the coordination of his physical body has been lost (he tremors a lot because there’s just not enough room on the motor strip to handle both his body and his teleoperators).
The protagonist is a character who had half his brain removed when he was a child. He had a particularly devastating form of epilepsy, and a radical hemispherectomy was the only way to keep the seizures from killing him. This form of epilepsy involves an electrical storm bouncing back and forth across the corpus callosum, producing a positive feedback loop in the brain. So they removed half. Such operations actually happen today, by the way. [Hear that, Ivan?] Anyway, our protagonist grows up convinced that he is not what his parents say he is. His parents killed their only child, because they cut out half his brain. There was personality in that half. The other half had to make up the slack, had to totally rewire itself — and what identity could possibly survive that kind of neurological violence? So this character grows up feeling that he is essentially a pod person that has grown up in the body of a dead boy, and he has this enormous survivor guilt syndrome. [As a result of the surgery, this character is physiologically incapable of empathy — perhaps because in a Hegelian sense he can no longer relate to himself. His job is to record exactly and objectively what happens on the voyage without the distractions of personal drama to muddy it up.]
Anyway, these characters go off and meet aliens, and explore the theme of consciousness along the way. And perhaps the most disturbing possibility I explore is that consciousness [or self-consciousness as I, ktismatics, am using the term] — as distinct from intelligence, which is a whole other phenomenon — actually isn’t necessary in an evolutionary sense, and may in fact be a bad thing… We say we’re intelligent, we’re conscious, and that’s why we rule the nest. But those primitive egg-laying mammals in Australia? They ruled the nest too, until the bunny rabbits washed up on shore. They didn’t rule the nest because they were superior; but because they were isolated. They had no real competition. So. We Humans are highly intelligent, and maybe that’s enough to overcome the drawback of being conscious at the same time. But there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t postulate an organism that’s every bit as intelligent as we are, but nonconscious. And when those guys wash up on the Australian shores, we are toast.
This is a “first contact” story, where these variously “optimized” humans go out to meet with an alien species that has just made its presence known in our solar system. It turns out the aliens are intellectually and technologically superior to humans, as might be expected of a species that can manage intergalactic travel, but they seem to have no self-conscious capabilities whatsoever. They’re like organic, self-replicating robots. You can try to understand what they’re thinking, what motivates them, whether their intentions are benign or malign; you can even talk to them about it. But it’s all a simulation, because none of the words about consciousness connects with the aliens on the inside. Self-referentiality means nothing when there is no self to refer to. No megomaniacal urge to conquer or to be first in anything, no fear, no longing to relieve existential loneliness in a seemingly empty cosmos — none of the “self” stuff matters, so it never gets in the way of doing what has to be done. As Watts says, when these guys show up, we are toast.
How different this fictional universe is from It’s a Wonderful Life or The Departed or A Scanner Darkly. Watts shows us a future totally embedded in the scientific hegemony dreaded by postmodernists. Even those sensitive but reduntant souls who opt out do so by shutting their bodies down and plugging themselves into an idyllic virtual reality called “Heaven.” The metaphysical and spiritual bifurcation buried deep in our souls, the generator of personal motivation and dramatic tension, turns out to be an evolutionary byproduct of dubious survival value. Victory goes to the post-humans — even if they are incapable of savoring it. It’s the end of history, but not the way Hegel envisioned it.
[Incredibly, this recently-published book is available in its entirety online, for free. Why? Because the publishers didn’t think it was going to be a big seller so they couldn’t meet the demand. Watts wanted to make sure people who wanted to read his book were able to. Here’s another cool thing from Watts’ website: a pseudo-scientific audio lecture, complete with PowerPoint slideshow, describing the “vampire genome project” — the backstory behind one of Watts’ characters and pretty darned entertaining.]