Blindsided by Blindsight

This is only in part a book review; in part it is a meditation on some of the topics raised by the books involved.

By some odd coincidence, I read BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts (available on the web here http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm ) the same day I read THE CUBE AND THE CATHEDRAL by George Weigel. The contrast between the two books, and the world views represented, could not be more clear.

SPOILER WARNINGS !!!

I discuss the surprise ending of BLINDSIGHT below, so for pity’s sake, if you mean to read this book, do not read this review.

 

Short version: Worst. Ending. Ever.

After a strong beginning, this book goes off the rails, crashes and burns, and the dazed reader, like passengers surviving a train wreck, numbly follows as the plot wanders out into the middle of a barren wasteland, where it dies. It is perhaps the most disappointing ending of any science fiction book I have ever read.

This book was nominated for a Hugo. It got a starred review from Publisher’s weekly. I am dumbfounded. There are some things in this book that I did not like for reasons personal to me; but there were other things wrong with the book, violations of the most basic rules of story-telling, that should have disappointed even a reader who shared not one of my personal tastes.

Long version:

 Let me discuss the book’s plot, characterization, its strong points, its weak points, and make a general comment about what is wrong with the whole worldview underpinning the book. 

Plot:

In the near future, neurotechnoogy allows for radical restructuring both of damaged and healthy brains. A handful of misfits are sent out on a suicidal mission to make First Contact with an alien race. The aliens have made no overt hostile actions, but the Earthmen are wary.

Aboard the Earth vessel are (1) the artificial intelligence called The Captain, who is incomprehensible and silent. The Captain only speaks once during the whole book. (2) a member of a rediscovered and genetically revived (Jurassic Park style) race of hominids who preyed on mainstream humanity, called vampires. Vampires are nocturnal and have an epileptic fit at the sight of right angles. (3) A linguist with multiple personality disorder, rendered orderly by means of neuro tech. (4) A soldier (5) a biologist with multiple enhanced senses able to interface with an astonishing number of probes and instruments (6) the main character, who is a sociopath, someone not able to feel any human empathy. His role in the mission is to observe and report back to Earth.

The vessel is sent out to the Oort cloud, where it encounters a superjovian planet, a failed star, the center of an immense magnetic field. Orbiting the superjovian planet is an alien artifact like a thorny crown. Some sort of large-scale planetary engineering is going on, and the thorny artifact seems to be growing.

The main character has several flashbacks. In his youth, he suffered a radical hemispherectomy: half his brain was cut out and replaced with neuro-tech wires. The main character either is (or has convinced himself that he is) unable to feel human emotions. He merely notes certain patterns of behavior, hears voices without understanding them, and reacts in whatever way the observed patterns seem to indicate. We see glimpses of his troubled childhood, his parent’s dysfunctional marriage, his cold and petty relationship with a girlfriend.

For example, when his mother downloads herself into a disembodied existence in a mainframe called “Heaven” the main character is bitterly angry about it, repulsed, but does not admit to himself that he has any emotion about it, or any emotions about anything. The future world is one where real life is not that interesting compared to the godlike Nirvana and Elysium of disembodied electronic existence. The author foreshadows that some day very soon there will not be enough people in the outer flesh-and-blood world to “keep the lights on”, that is, to keep the download nirvana running.

My compliments to the author here: this was a brilliant conceit, brilliantly executed.

But to return to the plot:

The team establishes communication with the aliens very early, but the linguist soon decides that the responses from the aliens are a “Chinese Room”, that is, responses dictated by a non-self-aware system, something that repeats back (in a highly sophisticated way) meaningless (to the alien) word-sounds, but so cleverly put together according to the rules of grammar that, to the humans, they seem like intelligent speech. The “Chinese Room” of the alien vocal system warns the humans in no uncertain terms to stay away from the artifact.

(For those of you who have not heard the term before, “Chinese Room” refers to a thought experiment by John Searle. It refers to a system that does not understand communication, but can imitate communication by rote. More on this below. )

The main character has some hallucinations of the aliens before meeting them, but nothing ever comes of this. Apparently he was able unconsciously to deduce what they looked like long before any human saw any of them, but nothing comes of this fact.

The Vampire is the second in command, and the only one allowed to talk to the captain. The vampire is smarter than baseline humans by several orders of magnitude, and so the sons of Adam merely take it on faith that the Vampire is acting in their best interest. The Vampire orders one provocation after another against the aliens: the crewmen break into the artifact, suffer horrific hallucinations (due to the intense magnetic fields passing through the area), accomplish nothing in particular, kidnap one alien, kill a few others, bring two aliens back to the ship for examination. The aliens are starfish like or squidlike beings.

The biologist concludes the aliens are nonselfaware. The linguist tortures them , trying to establish basic communication. When the aliens are asked to number the objects present in the cell, for example, the alien does not number itself among the things present. The vampire concludes that these starfish are merely biological machines, part of the overall alien structure, not their centers of consciousness. 

After an astonishing display of superintelligence, the nonselfaware two aliens break out of their holding cells; the artifact attacks the ship. The soldier prepares the ship to ram the artifact, kamekaze style, and blow both human and alien to kingdom come. There is no explanation given for this. It is not clear (to this reader, at least) why the humans continued to escalate their provocations against the aliens.  It was not clear why the aliens struck back or what they wanted.

For no particular reason, the Vampire attacks the main character, and wounds him in the hand. For no particular reason, this attack sends him into curl-up-in-a-ball weeping and feeling sorry for himself for a period of time. (Weeks or months, I was not clear on this point). Then, the Vampire announces that the reason why he attacked the main character was to shock him back into empathy with human beings. So, when the main character reads a letter from his father, he is able to cry. The Vampire says he needs the main character to return to Earth and make them understand what the First Contract team learned.

What the First Contact team learned is that self-awareness is not only not necessary for evolution, it is actually an impediment. There is no such thing as free will. We are all biological machines controlled by our random neurological programming. Consciousness is merely a hindrance. The aliens are a far superior race because they are nonselfaware. They are a ‘Chinese Room’, an empty system with no point of view. 

The aliens probed the humans because the human communication, which contains many self-referencing words like “I” and “me” had to be interpreted by the aliens as a form of attack. Or something. That point ws not very clear. For whatever reason, First Contact is impossible with these aliens, because no one can talk to them, since talking is a form (according to them) of aggression. On the other hand, it is also stated  in the same paragraph that the aliens can form alliances and mutually beneficial arrangements.

Main character, for no particular reason, has lost his ability to mimic human understanding by means of copying their formal rules. On the other hand, his newly found human empathy does not really allow him to empathize with the crew either.

The Vampire is killed by the soldier, except maybe not, because the soldier denies it. The ships’ AI speaks through the dead body of the vampire, tells the main character to depart in a side-boat. The ships’ AI says that the reason why the ship gave orders through the vampire was that humans would not have taken orders from a machine. Main character flies back toward earth.

At this point, the ship and the artifact destroy each other. For no reason. The main character announces, again for no reason, that the aliens will not retaliate or take any further warlike action against the humans. The aliens are controlled by a strictly logical “game theory” approach to life (or non-life, in their case) and the game theory says the aliens will not attack humans again.

I can only assume I totally and utterly misunderstood what the author was trying to say here, or maybe I mistook irony for some literal statement. I can only report what my understanding of the book was. Your mileage may vary.

According to my understanding of the book, it is stated (1) that the aliens are innately hostile to the human beings, because the humans talking to each other, when overheard by the aliens, will be interpreted by them as hostile (2) the aliens are not self-aware, possess no consciousnesses, and therefore do not interpret things (3) the aliens can talk, or, at least, play word-games with humans, sort of the same way a “Chinese Room” will react in what seems (to you, but not to it) a rational response to a rational question (4) the aliens, after being attacked in a suicide attack, will not retaliate (5) the main character has to rush home and tell everyone on Earth about this all-important point. Only he, with his human empathy, can make people understand this all-important point. What the all-important point was, or why it was important, was not clear. Maybe he was supposed to tell them that the aliens are unaware of the human beings and are non-self-aware, in which case they are no threat. Maybe he was supposed to tell them that the mere fact of human possessing consciousness provoked the aliens, so they were a threat. Maybe he was supposed to tell them how to approach the aliens, or to keep away, or not to keep away. 

If each of these five points mentioned in the last paragraph seems to you to contradict one or more of the other five points, then you have entered the same twilight zone of confusion that I have.

Anyway, just to make sure that this whole pointless plot is even more pointless, while on the trip home, the main character picks up radio messages.

The first is that the “lights have gone out.” For no reason having anything to do with the plot, or the aliens, or anything, it is simply the case that some disaster back on Earth crashed the electronic heaven, killing the main character’s mother, and countless billions of recorded souls. I guess we are supposed to say “too bad” except this was a big so-what moment, because it had nothing to do with anything in the plot.

Second, the radio reports that more and more people are returning to real life and that, for the first time in years, the population is growing rather than declining.  I guess we are supposed to say hurrah, except that this was a big so-what moment for the reader. It was disconnected to anything that happened.

Third, the main character hears reports of spaceships fleeing the earth, as humans are fleeing the vampires, who have finally risen in revolt against their creators, Frankenstein-style. Then, the vampires have won, and the human race is dead, and the main character continues floating in his coffin-ship, in suspended animation, toward earth, the last human alive. At this point, the reader can only yawn, or laugh, or shake his head, depending on how much imaginative effort he wants to put into trying to create, in his own mind, some sort of emotional reaction to a pointless off-stage disaster that overtakes a nameless population of people for no reason. Certainly the author, whose job it is to make the reader able to imagine the fear and power of such apocalyptic scenes, does not stir a finger to help us out. The decline and fall of the human race might have been an interesting book, or even an interesting trilogy: but it cannot possibly be an interesting sentence tacked without craft or passion onto a pointless ending of the plotless book.

And… the end!

Main character does not actually ever land on earth. The book is his diary that he recites in space. We don’t know what becomes of him and we do not care.

So, just to recap: the reason for the mission is hidden from the characters and the reader never finds out either. It must not have been to make first contact, because the humans provoke the aliens for no particular reason and commit kami-kaze for no good reason. The aliens are both said to be a threat and said to be no threat at all. This was not two characters debating the ambiguous evidence, it was just that the author either did not make up his mind or (more likely) the nihilistic world-view of the story would not allow for either possibility, since either peace or war is meaningful, and the author’s theme was meaningless. Nothing is accomplished in the mission, no communication is made with the aliens, but neither is a communicationless solution to the problem (whatever the problem is) found or even discussed. I would have been much more impressed had the humans, or the Ship’s AI  manipulated the “Chinese Room” of the aliens to reach a mutually beneficial trade. You do not have to make a contract with bees, for example, to feed them and get their honey.

Strong Points:

In part the reason why I was so disappointed with this pointless ending was that the beginning held so much promise.

First, all the characters are quirky in the fascinating and repellant fashion that make, say, ax-murderers fascinating. Everyone is either a mass-murderer (the vampire and the soldier) a traitor (the soldier and the vampire) a sociopath (the main character) a schizoid (the translator) or a freak of some sort or another. Any sort of story where the broken members of a suicide mission, the dirty-dozen misfits, learned to get together, heal their broken brains, and over come a problem together, find some sort of redemption could have been a stirring and moving tale. Well, that is not this tale, but the beginning held promise.

The author brilliantly adds little touches to his invented world, touches of realism: for example, most people are “real world virgins”, because they have sex in virtual reality with perfected computer versions of whoever and whatever happens to strike their fancy. The main character is puzzled and peeved with his girlfriend when she finds him cheating on her with a fantasy version of her: a computer version with none of her real-life annoying habits. She also cannot resist asking her boyfriend to undergo minor neuro-chemical tweaks, because she wants to domesticate and improve him, make him happier: a type of meddling interference he both regards as sinister, and regards as inevitably built in to the female nature.

The drollery of a girl being cheated on by a guy with an electronic fantasy version of her is good science fiction.

All budding science fiction would-be writers should read these scenes and study how Peter Watts adds these little touches and executes these effects. It is merely the properly chosen word here, a casual comment there, and the whole world opens up, dizzying and strange, to the reader’s inner eye. The new world is utterly unexpected and perfectly expected. I cannot compliment the artistry strongly enough.

Let me pause to say why this is good, because the craft and care shown by the author in these scenes is about the only thing I can compliment in the whole pointless, nihilistic book. Science Fiction has one unique property. There is one thing SF does that no other genre, not Westerns, not Romances, not even horror, can do. Science Fiction can create in the reader that feeling of wonder and disorientation you remember when you first learned that, despite all the appearances, the world was round, not flat, and that stars were not tiny dots, but distant suns, immense as or own or larger, immeasurably distant in space.

Science Fiction is all about a sensation of losing your bearings, shifting your paradigms. Imagine the disorientation when Darwin first hinted that man was descended, not from Adam and Eve, but from apes and monkeys.  Imagine the disorientation when Copernicus yanked the solid earth out from her place at the center of the universe and sent her spinning off in an orbit around the sun. That sensation of having the earth yanked out from underfoot is the unique Science Fictional sensation. The new paradigm is not just weird, it is also weirdly logical.

In a science fiction story, the reader is asked to accept a new world: what if telepathy were real? What is men could teleport? Then, in the midst of the weirdness, a weird logic. In the world were telepaths could solve crime, Alfred Bester tells us how a criminal could get away with it (THE DEMOLISHED MAN). In a world where criminals can teleport, Alfred Bester tells us how a criminal could be locked up (STARS MY DESTINATION). The true art of the science fiction writer is in the little, telling details. In TO LIVE FOREVER by Jack Vance, sex is not a taboo subject, but among the immortals and mortals who want to be immortal, telling jokes about death and dying is taboo.

When the writer does it well, you hear the little detail, and you go: of course. Of course it would be that way.

Peter Watts also has science fictional brilliance yes, brilliance, I say not just in small things but in large. That world-jerked-from-underfoot feeling is hard to accomplish in these jaded modern times. Mr. Watts has a large theme that is just such a paradigm shift. He asks us to accept the science fictional premise that human consciousness is an evolutionary mistake.

His idea goes like this: we notice that we humans are the most skilled at what we do when we think about it the least. An artist flies by inspiration, surprised by his own art. An athlete is “in the zone” his body acting faster and more expertly than his conscious mind could ever tell his hands and feet to move. Intuition gives up complex insights we could never reason our way to see in a step by step fashion. When a man is suffering from “hysterical blindness” he has what is called “blindsight”. He has no conscious awareness of anything he sees, but if you throw something toward his face, he will duck aside or raise a hand to catch it, all by reflex.

So, the next step in the idea is this: consciousness is a make-shift, and evolutionary mistake, a waste of precious brain cells, a waste of resources. The truly advanced and truly efficient alien races would all see by blindsight. They would all talk by rote, not aware of what they were saying. They would all act by instinct, and their instinct would allow them to maintain a level of super intelligence far above the slow, plodding, dull reasoning of creatures crippled by consciousness.

Now, no matter what you think of this position philosophically, we can say two things about it (1) it fulfills, and fulfills brilliantly, the basic requirement of the science fiction writer’s task. The writer has presented us with an astonishing new world, a daring new concept, and challenged the orthodox belief at a fundamental level. SF is about asking “What If?”. Well, the question, “What if self-awareness were an evolutionary dead end?” is a perfectly cromulent SF question. (2) it undermines any possible drama the story might have, leaving the reader cheated.

Now for the weak points:

I cannot speak for other readers. Me personally, I would say that the characters in this book were all people I would like to have a policeman shoot to death, and then I would put a revolver in the dead character’s hand, get his fingerprints on it, to make it look like self-defense. I think I could be persuaded to lie to a jury under oath to help cover up such an act of police brutality, and later invite the bad cop over for a beer and a chicken dinner.

Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Bad guys are part of literature, and you don’t have to like a character for the character to be interesting. But the flipside of that rule is, that if the bad guy is repellent, he still has to be interesting, and here is where the book falls entirely flat: readers with an intensely negative and nihilist world-view have a particular love of such ugly species of humanity, or of inhumanity, but an ordinary reader will soon grow bored.

Bored to tears. Because there is no character development. None. Nada. Zip. The Vampire is a cipher the whole story. We never find out what his motives are for anything. He does random things, and nothing in particular comes of them. The soldier betrayed her own men and had them killed by an enemy during a torture session in order to get information from the enemywho was being tortured. Nothing in particular comes of this either. The soldier never seems to learn better, or repent, or grow, or change, or anything. The psycho translator had half a dozen personalities, not a single one of which had any personality worthy of note: I cannot remember a single thing about any of them, not even their names. The biologist tried to befriend the sociopath main character, but to no avail. He dies. Whoop-de-freaking-do.

The most powerful stories are all stories of character development. A man who learns better. A criminal who reforms. A selfish soldier who learns to love his brothers-in-arms and throws himself on a hand-grenade. Anyone who overcomes a flaw. Anyone who redeems his past crimes. There is nothing even remotely like that here. The earth government who sent out this crew of lunatics would have accomplished exactly the same result by sending a missile to shoot down the alien artifact.

So the character development was a cheat. The plot was also a cheat. Here is why: In order for drama to be drama, it must be meaningful. A story is not like jazz music, an impromptu set of sounds soothing to the ear, with emotive but without cognitive content. The cognitive part of story telling involves dramarising action and falling action. The protagonist is out to accomplish some goal meaningful to him; the antagonist puts obstacles in the way. Conflict. The protagonist (in a comedy) succeeds or (in a tragedy) fails. But if he succeeds, he must succeed for a reason, usually a virtue, if only persistence. If he fails, he must fail for a reason, usually a character flaw, a tragic flaw.

But in order for there to be meaning in the plot, the characters have to inhabit a meaningful universe. Unfortunately, the universe postulated for BLINDSIGHT is a meaningless universe. It is a Chinese Room universe.

Now then, I think any reader, no matter his opinion on such high matters as necessity and free will, materialism or realism, will feel cheated by this book, merely because the basic rules of story telling are violated. There is no plot conflict, no resolution, nothing the main character does means anything, nothing anyone does means anything, the plot points contradict each other blatantly, stupid things happen for no reason, and nothing comes of them.

The basic rule of writing is known as the gunrack rule. If you show the readers that there is a gun in the gunrack in scene one, the gun must be fired by scene three. Otherwise, leave the gun out of the scene. It serves no point; it is distracting.

Peter Watts violates this over and over again.

  • Example: in the opening scene one of the character announces that mission control betrayed them: they’ve been suckered. Nothing comes of this. Nothing at all. It is not as if the characters thought the mission was meant for one thing and found out it was another. So why put in the line where the mission crew are told they’ve been “suckered”?
  • Example: There is a scene where one character hallucinates seeing a bone in the ship’s wiring. Nothing comes of this.
  • Example: there is a scene where an intense magnetic field makes another character think she is dead, even though she is still able to talk and move. Creepy, no? But nothing comes of this.
  • Example: the aliens threaten one particular crewmember with violent death. Nothing comes of it. Instead, another crewman dies. Nothing comes of it. Why put in the death-threat? What point did it serve?
  • Example: the main character deduces that the soldier is going to mutiny. When the vampire does die, the soldier claims to the innocent of mutiny, and the main character (I think) believes it. So, what was all that false foreshadowing for? Unless the soldier was also unaware of her own decision to commit mutiny? In which case, who cares?

When I say nothing comes of it, I mean specifically that if an Evil Editor had swapped that event with any other event, earlier or later, no reader would be able to tell. Each event was merely there for mood. If the meaningless bone hallucination had come before or after the meaningless death threat, there would have been no difference to the plot.

Now, in addition to these violations of basic rules, that might annoy any reader, there were particular things that will only annoy readers who share my personal tastes and opinions.

For example, I personally find radical materialism, the idea that our brains are empty of self-awareness and free will, an idea not worth dwelling on. It is worth exactly ten seconds of thought. In ten seconds, you can say, “A man who says ‘I have no free will’ if he is telling the truth, was compelled or programmed to say those words, and therefore he is not, in any meaningful sense, telling the truth. On the other hand, if he is lying, he is also not telling the truth. Therefore the statement is false.” In five seconds, you can say, “A man who says ‘I have no awareness’ is not aware of what he is saying. The statement is less than false.”

Now, as a science fiction premise, I don’t hold a grudge against radical materialism. Heck, I do not believe that people can actually read minds, but that does not mean I won’t read SLAN or GALACTIC PATROL or watch Mr. Spock do the Mind Meld; I do not believe in life on Barsoom, but I will still read A PRINCESS OF MARS. But, as a science fiction premise, I do take exception to an author who will not follow through with his premise.

Here is an example of a failure to follow through: if the aliens are defined as being a “Chinese Room” and they tell the humans (even if they don’t understand what they are saying) to stay away, then we have to assume that the meaningless words are connected to equally meaningless actions, but that those words are actually connected!

I mean, a sign that says BEWARE OF DOG is not written by the dog. The dog does not understand the sign. He is a dumb animal. The sign does not understand the words, It is an inanimate object. But the sign is warning you that the dog will bite you, and, if the sign is true, the dog will indeed bite you if and when you ignore the sign. In other words, just because you run across a piece of alien technology that it running on autopilot, and the autopilot has been programmed to warn you away, it simply does not follow, it simply makes no sense, for any characters to conclude that the autopilot is a liar. Whoever programmed the autopilot has done it for a reason.

Even if, in some incomprehensible way, the autopilot programmed itself, or is just operating on instinct, it still would have an incentive to tie its (to it) meaningless words to its operations, in order to operantly condition any intruders to behave as expected. It should shoot intruders when it says “Stop or I’ll shoot” in order to make the energy it took to utter those words be useful–even if it has no idea of what it is saying.

Just because you are talking to a Chinese Room, and the you hear it say, “Stop, or I will shoot” one cannot conclude that the room was not also programmed (at the same time it was programmed to talk) to shoot you if you don’t stop.

Let me explain the Chinese Room reference:

Robert Searle asks the following question: suppose you had a room that could pass the Turing Test. Written questions in Chinese are passed into the mail slot of a room, and, after a while, a written answer comes out, and the Chinese reader is satisfied that the answers are intelligent. Inside the Chinese room, however is nothing but a series of filing cabinets cards on which are written Chinese characters, and a notebook or set of notebooks with a set of rules. In the room is a man who does not read Chinese. The rules tell the man when he sees a note, and the first ideogram is a (to him) meaningless squiggle of a certain shape, to go to a specific cabinet, open a certain file, go to a certain page, copy the character written there, go to another page copy that character, and so on.  The rules can be as complicated as you like. The man sees the second ideogram of such-and-such a squiggle, he is to go not to file A but to file B, open folder 1, copy page 3, and so on. 

We can easily imagine the opening of any such a bit of “Chinese Room” dialog. If ideogram A means “How are you?” open file 1, page 1, where is written ideogram B, which means “I am fine; how are you?” To the man in the room, the conversation is without any understanding. Ideogram A provokes reaction B. That is all the dialog means to the man. To the Chinese speaker, however, the Chinese Room seems quite polite. When you ask it “How are you?” the empty room replies “I am fine, how are you?”

Does the man walking from file to file understand Chinese, no matter how intricately the rules are that he follows? The answer is no. Do the filing cabinets understand Chinese? No. Searle argued that a computer that could pass the Turing Test was nothing more or less than a Chinese Room, something that reacted but could not act, something that looked like it understood, but did not understand.

Now, much ink has been spilled over the meaning of the Seale thought-experiment, and, in my humble opinion, all of it wasted ink. Searle (and his supporters) say that the thought experiment proves that the man in the room need not understand Chinese in order to pass the Turing Test. This means that the Turing Test does not actually test for consciousness. Turing (and his supporters) say that the room “as a whole” (whatever that means) “understands” (whatever that means) the Chinese language, and that it means nothing in particular the man himself does not understand Chinese. Does one braincell in the brain of an English speaker understands English? Both are missing an obvious point. Both are arguing about whether a letter understands what is written in the letter. Whoever filled the filing cabinets and wrote the grammar rules for the Chinese Room understands Chinese. The letter-writer understands the letter, not the piece of paper.

Turing and his meditations on whether computers would be aware if they seemed to an observer to be aware never seems to rise above this crudest imaginable materialism: they never seem to contemplate that computers have to be programmed by someone. The Chinese Room is not “polite” if rule one is to answer meaningless squiggle in file A “How are you?” with meaningless squiggle in file B “I am fine; how are you?” : The only person who is polite is the Chinaman, whoever he is, who wrote the ideogram, not meaningless to him, that he placed carefully and deliberately in file B. If the Chinaman, without any notice to John Searle (or whoever the poor boob is trapped in the Chinese Room) had written instead, “I am fine; you are a swine!” then the “Room” would be impolite.

The real question about the Chinese Room is whether or not speech that is not rote speech can be reduced to an algorithm. The real question, in other words, is whether John Searle, trapped in the Chinese Room, merely by following even absurdly complex rules of sentence construction, could coin a new term, or use an old word in a poetical way that showed insight, a new meaning not present before. Now, neologisms can indeed be coined by rote. Children make such coinages, usually in the form of cute mistakes, all the time. There is no reason the Chinese Room could not put “Ize” in file 5, and establish rule 101 “add file five to any word X” where the rules of X include those words we want to turn into verbs from nouns. “Nounize” “Vulcanize” “Paragraphize” are all coined terms that I have here and now Turingized. You might be able to guess their meaning. I have meaningized them.

Poetry is a different question. The whole point of poetic expressions is that a new aspect of meaning has been brought out of an unusual use of a word, or out of a new phrase. If it is something you can reduce to an algorithms, it is not poetry. Indeed, the thing that makes you wince when I use the term “meaningize” is the very lack of poetry in that coinage; it is a mechanical, predictable, soulless.

Which brings us back to the problem of setting your story in a soulless Chinese Room sort of universe.

Having a main character who thinks that he is a Chinese Room is interesting. He is a man with a severe psychological problem, sociopathy, which he wrongly explains away with a delusional belief, the belief that he had no self-understanding and no free will. Making the main character a man who claims to have no self-understanding and no free will is a bold and amusing move. Then the character development rests on when and how the crazy main character breaks out of his delusion and realizes he is a human being, with free will, responsible for his actions, and able to change the plot and bring it to a conclusion.

In this book, this sort of happens, and then we are cheated. Instead of some sensible reason for the main character to snap out of his delusion, the author merely asserts that a vampire attack will snap you out of being sociopathic.  Okay; whatever. Once you are snapped out, something is supposed to happen. Instead, everybody dies, and so who cares? They do not even die for any particular reason.

To add insult to injury, if the author steps out from behind his Wizard-of-Oz curtain and announces (as Peter Watts does in an appendix) that the main character is right, and that there is no such thing as free will (his exact words “free will looks pretty silly”— albeit Watts admits that scientific opinion is divided on this point), then the author, in effect, tells you that his story has no drama.

When the character has a false opinion that the narrative in the story shows is false, we can assume the writer is trying an ‘unreliable narrator’ technique, one which such authors as Gene Wolfe expertly handle. But when the author has a false opinion that the narrative in the story shows is false, we can only wonder whether the author understood the point of his own story.

(In the present case, if the point of the novel is that running your mind on autopilot, seeing with Blindsight, is superior to having free will and human emotion, the logic of the story should demand that the demented main character not only NOT be snapped out of his emotionless detachment, but that he act and operate better in this sociopathic state than he acts when he has emotions.)

I have a second pet peeve with the determinist, fatalist, materialist, ‘Chinese Room’ view of the world.

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Hobbes, Calvin, Lucretius and Peter Watts are correct, and that there is no free will. In the same way and for the same reason that a robot judge would have to be programmed to find a robot criminal guilty, even if neither of them had free will, so too would robot authors have to tell their robot audiences stories about characters with free will even science proved that free will is an illusion.

The reason: there is no drama, no tension, no human feeling, no story, if there is no free will.

If a nature documentary describes an inanimate natural process with vivid detail, and fascinates the viewer with the magnificence and mathematical intricacy of the inanimate world, no matter how good the documentary is, as a drama, it sucks. We can watch a crystal growing or a volcano forming, but even if the crystal breaks or the volcano erupts, there is no drama because there is nothing at stake. There is nothing to gain or lose.  Where there is no life, there is no pain. Where there is no free will, there are no moral quandaries.

What kind of character can live in a Chinese Room universe? Only someone who accomplishes nothing, whose life means nothing, whose death means nothing. Only a sociopath, a vampire, a traitor, a madwoman, or gibbering alien shapes who human-sounding words are meaningless.

I submit that an intensely nihilistic world view, a “Blindsight” world,  necessitates (1) intensely dislikable characters and (2) no plot and (3) no character development. Why? Because anything else will make a mockery of such a world. If the characters were likable, that would make their lives meaningful. If there was character development, that would make such themes as sin and redemption or heroism and sacrifice satisfying and meaningful. If there were a plot, that would make such themes as the little tailor who kills a giant, the self-made man who works hard and earns his just rewards, or the cunning detective who solves the crime and brings the wrongdoer to his just rewards, again, satisfying and meaningful.

Suppose you read a scene where a little girl cut her sandwich in half and offered half her lunch to the little black girl that everyone else in the nursery school was picking on. That small act is only meaningful if the little girl is not a meat machine programmed by cell-malfunctions to suffer an epiphenomenon of kindness. If the girl is a meat robot, then her little act of kindness is not only meaningless (a vending machine that accidentally gives you two candy bars is not being kind, it merely slipped a gear), it is actually pathetic, something to evoke scorn and pity, because the foolish girl performs and meaningless act to which she wrongly ascribes meaning, wrongly gives herself credit, and wrongly learns the meaning of kindness.

Any reader touched by a scene featuring a simple act of kindness will instructively rebel against any nihilistic theme present in the story around. Any artist might be wary of such a jarring note. So, in a nihilistic universe, the writer is better advised to have all his characters be pukes, and all their actions pointless.

Which is exactly what Peter Watts did in BLINDSIGHT.

Final thought:

At the same time I read BLINDSIGHT, I was also reading THE CUBE AND THE CATHEDRAL by  George Weigel. Weigel makes the argument that Europe, by rejecting Christianity, not only rejects its own past, and the fountainhead of its greatness, but undercuts the necessary foundations for the post-Christian Enlightened secular world view. In sum, the argument is that if Europe rejects Christianity in the name of tolerant equality extended to all races, it unwittingly rejects any good reason to embrace notions like toleration, equality, and universal brotherhood, because these things are unique artifacts of the Christian world view and make little or no sense outside them. 

The contrast was instructive. Weigel was talking about the moral atmosphere of an age. The Judo-Christian worldview, whether true or not, lends itself to the drama I mentioned as an example above, a schoolgirl sharing her sandwich with an outcast. Such acts of charity are of paramount importance to the Christian myth and Christian moral reasoning. On the other hand, the moral atmosphere that breathes out of the Chinese Room is deadly. Whether radical materialism is true or not, it is moral atmosphere conducive only to a remorseless Darwinian and Marxist power struggle, or to Nihilist emptiness. The utterly pointless and utterly self-destructive acts described above are the perfect example of the moral reasoning of creatures seeing with blindsight.

The world view that starts by rejecting the supernatural as superstition, ends by rejecting human nature, human feeling, human reason and all human matters as immaterial. There is no room for God — but there is also no room for Man. In the Chinese Room, there is no room for charity.

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