Readings: Peter Watts’ “Blindsight”

The book of the month for August in my Goodreads book club is Peter Watts’ Blindsight.  Since I was the one to suggest it, I get to lead the discussion.

Peter WattsFirst, the obligatory bio: Dr. Peter Watts is a Canadian science fiction author and by profession a marine mammal biologist.  Watts obtained a bachelor’s of science degree in 1980 and a master’s of science degree in 1983, both from the University of Guelph, Ontario, and a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC from the Department of Zoology and Resource Ecology in 1991.  His doctorate thesis, should you want to read it, was entitled “Hauling out behaviour of harbour seals, Phoca vitulina richardsi, with particular attention to thermal constraints” (PDF).

In his personal life, he made a splash in recent years for a couple of unusual incidents. In December 2009, what should have been a routine border crossing turned into a big deal at the U.S border. Watts was returning to Canada via the Michigan border after helping a friend move house in Nebraska. After border guards asked to search his car, Watts got out of the vehicle and questioned what they were doing – and immediately was pepper sprayed, handcuffed, and placed under arrest. Witnesses in the car with him said he did nothing more than question the guards; he did not attempt to attack them. Nevertheless, he was charged with felony assault against a federal officer (and eventually released on foot, in his shirtsleeves, in a snow storm!)

The officer later admits in court that he has punched Watts. A jury found Watts guilty of obstructing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer  He faced a maximum sentence of two years in prison.  Watts blogged about his sentence saying that because of how the law was written, his asking: “What is the problem?” was enough to convict him of non-compliance.  In April 2010 he was given a suspended sentence, and a fine. However, due to immigration laws, Watts’ felony conviction prevents him from re-entering the United States.

Then in February 2011 he contracted necrotizing fasciitis (“flesh-eating bacteria syndrome”) during a routine skin biopsy on his right calf.  He has blogged in some detail about the ordeal, including photos of the medical procedures which saved his leg and the associated skin grafts.  Not for the faint of heart.

Later that year he got married to Canadian fantasy author Caitlin Sweet.  I can only hope that this marks the end of a string of awful luck.

Second, my impression: To say that Watts does not suffer fools gladly is an understatement.  He’s about as acerbic and even cantankerous as Harlan Ellison — and in my opinion, he’s often right.  He also has a dry, sardonic sense of humour that reminds me of of the better days of Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven’s (like RoboCop).

Blindsight: coverThe writing: Blindsight uses the conventions of a first-contact tale to explore the nature and significance of sentience.  Watts makes his novels and short stories available free online under Creative Commons license.  Various formats are available, check the individual pages for each work.

Watts’ books are probably the “hardest” science fiction we’ve looked at in this reading group.  In the fantasy spectrum, he sits at the end where the speculative reality is anchored as convincingly as possible in the developing edge of today’s science.  His previous novels, the Rifters series, are closer to his original love since they deal with underwater life forms; Blindsight was his first foray into space travel fiction.

Awards: The novel was no. 3 for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2007, as well as being a finalist for the Locus Science Fiction Award, the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the Geffen Award for Best Translated Science Fiction Book.  In Poland, the book has been very successful, winning the Sphinx award for 2008 Foreign Novel of the Year and the 2008 Katedra award for Best Foreign Fantastic Book (both awarded by popular vote).  In March 2011, TOR Books readers voted Blindsight to #4 on the list of best SF/F novels of the decade opening this millennium.

The Internet footprint: Although Blindsight originally received critical approval, Watts’ name remained relatively poorly known and sales were originally modest.  Interestingly, he credits his decision to release the book free online under CC license for rapidly tripling his print sales.  This decision, and his visible presence online, has resulted in gradually becoming known and acquiring dedicated fans.