Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Neuropath by Scott Bakker and Blindsight by Peter Watts

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy
Originally appeared in STRANGE HORIZONS, August 25, 2008

Scott Bakker. Neuropath. New York: Tor, 2009, pp. 320.



Peter Watts. Blindsight. New York: Tor, 2008, pp. 384.



In the opening chapter of Scott Bakker's Neuropath, Columbia University psychology professor Thomas Bible is approached in his office by a pair of FBI agents. They show him a gruesome video of a missing porn star's apparent self-mutilation, and tell him that his old college buddy Neil Cassidy is responsible for it, hoping he can give them a lead.

The novel's basic ingredients are familiar—the brilliant serial killer playing a game with the world (Neil); the old friend/enemy/colleague of his who "knows how he thinks" and can read his moves (Thomas), who becomes of interest to the authorities pursuing the killer; the dance between them that quickly becomes very personal indeed, with the friend/enemy/colleague's family ultimately in danger. However, the book is set apart by the fact that the villain is not another thrill-killer acting out a muddled internal mythology in ritual form, but a neuroscientist whose acts are hideous experiments. These center on the scariest implications of the idea that perception and consciousness are nothing more than very crude chemical and electrical processes inside a piece of meat, and that everything we think and feel and do is therefore meaningless; that no choice is ever made, and nothing ever known.

While not part of the serial-killer story genre, this ingredient is also well established: a variant on the old worry that we live in an absurd, deterministic, or epistemologically inaccessible universe with which philosophers have coped since the beginning of intellectual history, from Descartes to Dostoyevsky to Derrida in the modern Western tradition. It is not even a new issue for Thomas and Neil, for whom this has been "The Argument" since their undergraduate days together at Princeton.

The difference in Neuropath is that instead of merely being an object of philosophical speculation, this view now has cognitive science indisputably on its side. Here neuroscience has already proved the worst fears about the issue, the speculative touch that makes this story science fiction. There may be signs pointing in this direction, but we are not there yet, Bakker explaining in the author's afterword of my reviewer's copy that a fair amount of this is "pessimistic interpretation of existing facts" aimed at creating a thriller that is "intellectually as well as viscerally disturbing."

As the inclusion of a professor as the main character may also suggest, Neuropath is one of those novels in which a major character spends a good many pages giving us the story's science in lecture form, and given the nature of the material he is discussing, it could leave the reader tired and depressed rather than engaged and stimulated. Nonetheless, the strength of the concept is such that Bakker for the most part succeeds in his aim of offering an intellectually disturbing thriller. The fright in the story comes not just from the violence Neil does to his victims in proving the point, but the fact that those things can be done to them at all, and that even if Neil can be killed, his "Argument" cannot be so readily dispatched.

To his credit, Bakker keeps the story moving along lucidly and briskly. His particular premise allows for some nasty twists on the stock situations associated with this kind of plot, and his involvement of the security state with the study of those possibilities in the novel (Neil worked for the National Security Agency) adds another layer to the intrigue. The lived-in future Bakker creates is also worth noting, more in line with "mundane" science fiction than cyberpunk, despite the homage to William Gibson that one may see in the title. A "greenhouse" world where the War on Terror has dragged on with all its corrosive effects (and where futurist Ray Kurzweil, contrary to Kurzweil's publicly expressed expectations, has just died), it is a place where technology has not rescued us from our contemporary troubles, despite its essentially "posthuman" subject.

Peter Watts's Hugo-nominated Blindsight (which is available on his website as well as in printed book form), however, could not be more different in this regard. In it, the Singularity is due any day now, complete with "reliable Human-consciousness emulations in a software environment" (p. 42). Tellingly, while Kurzweil's death is just a "tasteless story" (p. 38) in Bakker's book, the protagonist of Watts's, Siri Keeton, is actually working as a "synthesist" (a professional whose job is essentially to dumb down the science done by the ultrasmart AIs into something accessible to the humans they've left behind, without necessarily understanding it all himself) at the institute Kurzweil founded, just as they're finishing the job he anticipated.

However, Blindsight's story really begins with "Firefall," a day in February 2082 when tens of thousands of extraterrestrial objects swarm around the Earth, completely enclosing it like a fist so that they blot out the sky—and then mysteriously disappear. In the aftermath of the event the automated spaceship Theseus (complete with an elite posthuman crew) is dispatched to the Kuiper Belt to check out a transmission thought to be related to the February event. There they find a mysterious, alien spacecraft that only too aptly identifies itself as the Rorschach.

What follows is, again, a familiar genre situation: a first contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, in the form of an exploration of an alien vessel, complete with much discussion of the linguistic and epistemological problems of such a contact, extending to mysterious hallucinations. However, the contact is thoroughly developed and richly detailed, the mystery intelligently constructed, and the train of developments that follows will appeal to those who found a novel like Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama short on visceral thrills. Watts's characters, moreover, are more than cardboard figures existing just to discuss the Big New Development; their personalities, extending to the details of their altered bodies and minds, are not just part of the background, but affect the drama.

Longtime readers of hard science fiction will find much of the detailing of Watts's future familiar (some of its early pages read like a lexicon of futurist terms, every gadget and wonder you have ever read about in the pages of magazines like Wired part of daily life), but his handling of these concepts certainly has its strengths. Whereas so many blends of old-fashioned interplanetary travel and newer speculative science read like an awkward layering of molecular assemblers and gene splicers over Golden Age starships and robots, the vision here felt to me to be all of a piece, O'Neills and buckytubes sharing the page without dissonance. Watts's feel for the social aspects of this future struck me as less impressive, in some ways a throwback to the rationalism of another era, but to his credit he takes many of his ideas (like the implications of easily available virtual sex) to their logical conclusion. At the same time, Watts effectively works in some ideas that could easily seem like the stuff of cheesy B movies (spacefaring vampires!), as well as a number of fresher concepts, the key ones right in the hacked-up brains of Keeton and his crewmates. (Some readers may be interested in knowing that Watts appends eighteen pages with a hundred and thirty three footnotes elaborating the scientific background he drew on for the novel, and his extrapolations from it.)

Given that Blindsight, like Bakker's book, places such stress on the functioning of brains and the workings of consciousness, the two novels tread much of the same ground, playing off many of the same assumptions, with characters communicating similar ideas in much the same terminology (extending even to Watts's title) in an exploration of an old question made new by recent scientific developments. However, whereas in Neuropath the scientific proof of this view of consciousness is the story, in Watts's novel it is part of a bigger premise, the angle less the illusory nature of consciousness than the idea that sentience may simply be irrelevant from the standpoint of evolution. Consequently, whereas Bakker's novel derives much of its impact from its narrow scope and no-frills future, Watts's bigger canvas proves essential to telling his "macro" tale about what such a diminished premium on sentience might mean from the standpoint of the history of life in this universe.

Nonetheless, the similarities between the two works say more than their differences about the direction SF is taking. Rather than concentrating on human beings' scope for choice, writers might find themselves increasingly looking at the absence of meaningful choices, a theme that has already attracted the attention of numerous other writers, Ted Chiang, Greg Egan, and Daryl Gregory to name but a few. That would not be unprecedented for literature, nineteenth-century naturalism having had a similar focus, derived from the cutting-edge science of its day—Darwin and Marx, particularly. However, whereas those ideas seemed to demand a new social vision, the new cognitive science seems to imply only an end, whether a "Semantic Apocalypse" as in Bakker's book, or one of a more physical kind, as in Watts's. Put another way, they concentrate on a dark side to a technological Singularity that is far from brand new—one can see most of its essential concepts already well developed in Clarke's 1956 novel The City and the Stars (if not in the earlier novels of Olaf Stapledon)—but which the science fiction of the cyberpunks and after has focused on as never before, and more importantly, tended to treat as imminent.

At this point, I wonder if that long-running trend has not taken us full circle. Back in his preface to William Gibson's early collection Burning Chrome, Bruce Sterling criticized the science fiction of the 1970s for what he saw as an aversion to "tangling with a realistic future" (p. xii). Cyberpunk's interest in the revolutionary possibilities of information technology and biotechnology was supposed to be a partial corrective to that, and from there it was just a short hop to the routinization of the Singularity in science fiction. However, might it be time to wonder if the track taken by the science fiction writers of the '80s has not, in its turn, become a barrier to imagining realistic futures, or futures of any sort? The plausibility of the Singularity aside, the presumption that technology is bound to make life literally incomprehensible (and indescribable) outside of the fairly near term can be a barrier as well as a source of inspiration, as James John Bell suggested some time ago. Moreover, by this point, with the subject's outskirts (for by definition we cannot get beyond that) so heavily explored already, it might already be more the former than the latter. Compelling novels continue to be written about it, but I get the feeling that the imaginative limit of the Singularity also marks the "end" of science fiction (or at least the rigorously extrapolative brand of it) prematurely declared so many times before.

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