Here by Richard McGuire (2015) 304 p.

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I recently moved into my own apartment for the first time, a one bedroom place in a two-storey complex at the edge of St Kilda Junction. St Kilda is one of those inner city Melbourne neighbourhoods currently in a state of flux, as developers buy up properties, demolish them, and build a new tower as high as they can under the council regulations, to the very edge of the property line, full of as many rabbit warren apartments as they can to flog off to Chinese buyers or our own home-grown all-Aussie negative-gearing baby boomer caste. There are no less than two huge, loud construction sites outside my bedroom window.

My building is from the 1950s. It occurred to me the other day that I will probably be one of the last people to live here; I give this place another ten years before a developer tears it down and throws up something fifty storeys high (which, before I start sounding like a writer for the Age, is exactly what should exist in a location like this). But how many people have lived here before me? How many families, couples, young single professionals?

Even if the building itself goes, this space will endure. People will still live in this same air, whatever kind of building surrounds it, just as the indigenous Kulin people lived here for tens of thousands of years before us. It’s just a patch of ground, but those generations stack up. In the tiny space of my living room, how many human stories have played out over tens of thousands of years? How many arguments, insults, first kisses, agreements, fistfights, break-ups, deaths, murders?

Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here takes place entirely within a single room in a house somewhere in the north-eastern Unites States. The setting is static, but it ranges enormously over time, from the primordial swampland of 3 billion BC to the far future of the year 22,000, when strange new megafauna roam across a tropical landscape. Most of Here focuses on the 20th and early 21st century, when the house exists, and we see a parade of those seemingly banal events that make up a life: children playing, people dancing, lost keys, parties, family photos, sickness, birth, death, and the whole gamut of life.

None of this is chronological (McGuire apparently considered having the publication process jumbled, so that every reader would have a unique book with a different progression) and neither are the years separated. Different panels show different events unfolding in different years; a woman scrubbing the floor on all fours in 1986 is juxtaposed against a wolf in a forest with a fresh kill in its jaws in 1430. A woman reads on a couch in 1999 while a pair of Native Americans make love on the forest floor in 1609. A man practices his golf putting in 1958 while people in radiation suits inspect a desolate landscape in the 24th century.

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There are no distinct narratives to follow; no names, no families we can trace through the house as they grow and pass on. The constant cutting and chopping and the blurry, pop-art nature of the illustration make this impossible, and in any case this wasn’t McGuire’s intention. “Graphic novel” isn’t the right word for Here; neither is “comic,” not that I’m prejudiced against the word. Here is a creative work unlike anything else I’ve ever seen; a wholly original and fascinating concept executed beautifully. What seems at first an amusing gimmick develops into a meditation on space and time, the indifference of the planet, and the impermanence not just of our own lives but the human species as a whole. Here is one of the most unique things I’ve read in years.

Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine (2015) 121 p.

Killing and Dying

Adrian Tomine wasn’t a name I knew before I heard of this acclaimed comic collection, although I quickly recognised his drawing style: he’s one of the most regular cover artists for The New Yorker, and has a distinctive style of understated, pastel, almost motionless scenes which manage to capture those small, revealing moments in life. (My favourite is probably the central one here.)

Killing and Dying takes six of Tomine’s short comics and puts them in a collection that’s sad, funny, and surprisingly moving. Tomine has lived in New York for more than ten years, but nearly all of Killing and Dying is set in the drab California landscape of his youth, a perfectly rendered place of quiet suburbs, freeways, and cheap apartment buildings. (I love the cover: that bleak little Denny’s squatting at the edge of an intersection beneath a smoggy urban sunset.) If there’s one word to describe Tomine’s stories, it’s “subtle.” Comics are of course an excellent medium for subtlety, with all the unspoken details the artist can leave in the background, but Tomine is particularly good at it. The title story, “Killing and Dying,” is about a nervous teenage girl who decides she wants to try stand-up comedy, and her parents’ differing reactions to this – until about halfway through, when you suddenly realise it was a different kind of story all along.

The only problem I have with Killing and Dying is a problem I have with most of the comics and graphic novels I read, which is that it’s far too short. But it’s a beautiful book – both for its stories and as a physical hardback – and well worth your time.

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976) 242 p.

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The position of women science fiction is a Hot Topic in the Discourse, because in spite of heavyweights like Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood, there’s no denying that it’s a genre heavily tilted towards male authors. So it’s great to see that writing stilted, awkward and crummy science fiction novels isn’t the exclusive province of semi-autistic male writers.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is the 1977 Hugo winner and a fairly colour-by-numbers post-apocalyptic dystopia, split into three parts. The first takes place as global society is crumbling, and a tight-knit family with a farmland valley somewhere in the Appalachians resorts to cloning to keep their numbers up in the face of declining fertility. Why exactly a clan of hillbillies had so many esteemed scientists among their number to kickstart that process is something I’ve already forgotten, which is part of the problem. In a novel attempting to convey the creeping horror of having members of your family endlessly duplicate themselves, it helps if the characters are not in the first place so paper thin: wafer thin, tracing paper thin, the kind of paper they print Bibles with thin. In any case, this is one of those apocalyptic novels that suffers from First Act Syndrome, when all the characters who weren’t worth the effort to remember vanish after the time jump anyway, and the valley has become the domain of a weird new society of clones.

I could go on but there’s not much point. There’s lots of spiritual guff about the power of nature, I guess some Soviet-era hysteria about the fascism of empowering society over the individual, some weird obsessions with incest. It’s not completely unreadable, but it is completely unmemorable (I’ve already forgotten the main character’s name) and it slots in perfectly alongside all those other mid-century sci-fi novels which are more interested in exploring an idea than telling a story or painting interesting characters, yet still doesn’t do any of those three things particularly well.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990) 399 p.

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This was possibly the first “grown-up” book that I ever read, back when I was about ten or eleven. I must have read it quite a few times following that but I certainly haven’t glanced at it since my early teenage years, so I thought it was worth a re-read to see how it held up.

We all know the story, obviously. The interesting thing is how the book diverges from the film, which has a strong Spielbergian touch, with lots of wonder and joy and a happy ending. The book is much darker.

The opening is very well done, told from the point of view of an American nurse working for a year in a remote village on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. A helicopter from the island off-shore where an American company is building “a new resort” arrives in the middle of a thunderstorm, carrying a badly injured worker. The other workers claim he was run over by a backhoe, but the nuse suspects the injuries are actually from an animal mauling. The man breathes the word “raptor” before he dies, and after the company men leave with his body, she asks another nurse if the word means anything in Spanish. The nurse is attending to a childbirth, and is upset to hear the word, since it’s a Central American superstition – a raptor is an abductor, a demon who kidnaps babies. The American nurse, as an afterthought, checks the word in her English dictionary and is surprised to find it there:

raptor \ n [deriv. of L. raptor plunderer, fr. raptus]: bird of prey

Which, I mean, even before the movie became so famous, the book is called Jurassic Park and has a picture of a dinosaur on the cover. But I still thought it was a very creepy and effective opening.

It later becomes a little ridiculous as characters completely fail to twig what’s going on. Dr Alan Grant is staggered to find dinosaurs being cloned on Isla Nublar, despite being a palaeontologist receiving funding from a genetic engineering company, who was sent fax evidence of what appears to be a dinosaur corpse found on the coast in Costa Rica, has had the company’s lawyers call him about said dinosaur corpse sounding very concerned, has seen the construction plans at Isla Nublar for what appears to be a large game park with very high fences and large moats, and has been invited down to it for the weekend because it would be “right up your alley.” Like… come on, man. And towards the ending of the novel, characters’ actions become increasingly random and motiveless.

This is often the problem with airport fiction – the sparse dialogue, the characters used as chess pieces, the plot as a machine to drive the novel in the direction the author wants it to go regardless of how little sense it makes. What it adds up to, in the latter stages of the book, is a thriller that’s not very thrilling. A film is always going to find it easier to create a sense of terror and suspense, but in this case the novel and the book aren’t even remotely close.

Spielberg was interested in telling an exciting story; Crichton is more concerned with exploring the ideas and the ramifications of cloning extinct species, both scientifically and philosophically. Writing a thriller comes second. Which is not to say that Jurassic Park is not a thrilling book – I found it quite compelling and page-turning, at least in the first half, despite having read it probably a dozen times as a kid. It’s just deeply flawed, and the film is far superior. The novel’s pace is too often interrupted by clunky (and sexist) characterisation, exposition, awkward info-dumps, authorial lectures masquerading as dialogue (especially from Ian Malcolm) and a lack of consistency in how dangerous the dinosaurs are supposed to be. It annoyed the hell out of me, for example, that even after the carnage unleashed on the characters by the raptor attack near the climax of the novel, Grant and Ellie and Muldoon and Gennaro still go off hunting for the wild raptor nest – and enter it – with the casual attitude of a Sunday stroll.

Having said all that, I still like it. Jurassic Park a great piece of airport fiction – a gripping novel which is easy to read and difficult to put down. The movie is unquestionably better, but the book is still worth reading – especially given that it has a very different ending.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (1989) 355 p.
Discworld #8 (City Watch #1)

guards guards

This is the book Pratchett advised new readers to start with; this is the beginning of the City Watch arc, the strongest thread in the Discworld series; this is the introduction of Sam Vimes, who may be “the most fully realised decent man in modern literature.” This is, in short, the highlight of the first ten books in the series.

The Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork was a proud institution, once upon a time, before the Machiavellian new ruler Lord Vetinari seized power. In an ironic joke mentioned in most of the books up to this point, Vetinari effectively legalised crime: allowing the thieves and the assassins and the beggars a certain quota of permitted activity, overseen by their powerful guilds, while also making them responsible for any unlicensed crime. While this resulted in a much safer, more predictable and prosperous Ankh-Morpork, it also sidelined the City Watch. By the time of Guards! Guards! the Night Watch has dwindled to just three men: the weaselly Corporal Nobbs, the overweight Sergeant Colon, and the wretched drunk in charge of them, Captain Sam Vimes.

The novel kicks off with two separate threads. The first is a shadowy secret society intent on restoring Ankh-Morpork’s “rightful” ruler to the throne; a collection of self-entitled idiots and half-wits manipulated by a leader who is far more intelligent and dangerous. Their plan involves magically summoning a long-extinct dragon to terrorise the city and leave the populace desperate for a hero – but as is always the case with man messing around with things he was never meant to understand, events go quite differently.

The second is the journey of young Carrot Ironfoundersson, a human raised in the mountains by dwarves, whose father – the local dwarf king – wants to send him off to the city to learn to live amongst his own kind. His father consults the only human he knows, the local trader Varneshi:

“I have heard that dwarfs go off to work in the Big City, ” said the king uncertainly. “And they send back money to their families, which is very commendable and proper.”

“There you are then. Get him a job in, in -” Varneshi sought for inspiration – “in the Watch, or something. My great-grandfather was in the Watch, you know. Fine job for a big lad, my grandad said. ”

“What is a Watch?” said the king.

“Oh,” said Varneshi, with the vagueness of someone whose family for the last three generations hadn’t travelled more than twenty miles, “they goes about making sure people keep the laws and do what they’re told.”

“That is a very proper concern,” said the king who, since he was usually the one doing the telling, had very solid views about people doing what they were told.

Varneshi provides Carrot with an ancient copy of The Laws and Ordnances of the Cities Ankh and Morpork, which the young lad dutifully learns off by heart on his journey to the city. The opening of Guards! Guards! is something of a fish out of water comedy, as the naive young Carrot learns how to be a policeman in a very different city to the place he imagined – a difference apparent before he even arrives:

He’d expected high white towers rearing over the landscape, and flags. Ankh-Morpork didn’t rear. Rather, it sort of skulked, clinging to the soil as if afraid someone might steal it. There were no flags.

Carrot’s determination to thrust his own ideas upon the city, however, strikes a chord with Captain Vimes: “a scruffy collection of bad habits marinated in alcohol.” By all accounts Vimes should be an unlikeable character – cynical, bitter, jaded and pathetic. But he’s admirable because he has an internal dignity, because the reason that he’s cynical and bitter and jaded is because he’s right. He hasn’t made it far in life because “every time he seemed to be getting anywhere he spoke his mind, or said the wrong thing. Usually both at once.” He’s a man of principle, and – as the book goes on – we see that he’s actually very good at his job; a keen observer and smart detective. He’s a character who, though it gains him nothing, still goes to confront the master of the secret society near the climax of the novel, and can give a speech like this:

“You can’t give me my job back,” repeated Vimes. “It was never yours to take away. I was never an officer of the city, or an officer of the king, or an officer of the Patrician. I was an officer of the law. It might have been corrupted and bent, but it was law, of a sort.”

By the closing books of the Discworld series Vimes will have gone from rags to riches, obscurity to prominence; he will be second only to Vetinari as the city’s most powerful figure. Yet he remains fundamentally the same man as the drunk in the gutter at the beginning of Guards! Guards!: a watchman, a police officer, a damn good copper. A sentry in the night, protecting the city from itself.

The ensemble cast of Guards! Guards!, who will remain the crux of the City Watch for many books to come, are also wonderful. There’s the disreputable, larcenous Corporal Nobbs, whose pay Vimes docks “for being a disgrace to the species;” Fred Colon, the red-faced man who will “automatically gravitate to the post of sergeant” and, if he hadn’t joined a quasi-military organisation, would have been a sausage butcher; Lady Sybil Ramkin, Vimes’ future wife, who has the careless attitude towards her property and her appearance that only the truly rich can get away with; and of course Carrot, the Watch’s new recruit and very possibly Ankh-Morpork’s long-lost true king, who is much sharper than he appears underneath a veneer of honest simplicity.

The characters are a huge part of why Guards! Guards! works so well. But it’s also tightly plotted, has high emotional stakes around the city’s peril, and is hilarious. I’d completely forgotten this joke but it’s one of my favourites in the series so far, as typical pulp fantasy heroes descend on the city in answer to the call for someone to kill the dragon and start talking about how hard the trade is these days:

“Monsters are getting more uppity, too,” said another. “I heard where this guy, he killed this monster in this lake, no problem, stuck its arm up over the door-”

“Pour encourjay lays ortras,” said one of the listeners.

“Right, and you know what? Its mum come and complained. Its actual mum come right down to the hall next day and complained. Actually complained. That’s the respect you get.”

Guards! Guards! simply works. It works really well: the characters, the plot, the pacing, the jokes. It’s the first really great Discworld book, surpassing both Mort and Wyrd Sisters. It’s actually quite surprising to me that Pratchett didn’t revisit the characters again (in their own book; I think they make cameo appearances for a while) until #16, Men at Arms.

In any case, Pratchett knew his own work. Guards! Guards! is the perfect starting point for a new Discworld reader, because aside from being the start of a major story arc, it encapsulates what the series does so well (and, down the line, does even better): a compelling plot with brilliant characters, sparkling dialogue, and wry observations about human nature seamlessly mixed into the prose. Highly recommended.

Rereading Discworld Index

The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America (2008) 365 p.

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I first heard of Andrew O’Hagan the way most people probably did, from reading his brilliant profile on Julian Assange which was published in the London Review of Books in February 2014. O’Hagan was contracted as Assange’s ghostwriter for an autobiography which never ended up happening, but it meant he became close to the man in 2011 and 2012, before he went into the Ecuadorian embassy, and the resulting profile is probably one of the best analyses of a living person I’ve ever read. Neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic, it’s a deep, thoughtful and above all sincere analysis of a person – the kind of piece only a novelist could write.

I read a lot of O’Hagan’s other pieces after that, because he has a good and honest writing style and is unafraid to inject his own biases and opinions; I also noted that one of his novels was longlisted for the 2015 Booker. The Atlantic Ocean is just something I picked up because it was on sale at Readings, and despite the thematic linking of America and Europe in its title, it’s a mostly unconnected collection of essays O’Hagan published between the early 1990s and mid-2000s. They cover topics ranging across British farming, Marilyn Monroe, the assassination of JFK, begging, Michael Jackson, George Bush, and dozens of others.

There’s a clear-cut difference between the essays in which O’Hagan discusses things from a distance – often the sort of extensive reviews the LRB publishes when it really wants to discuss a broader issue through the lens of a couple of books – and those in which he draws on his own life experiences and puts himself firmly into the story. The latter are usually far more interesting; there’s a solid piece about the murder of James Bulger in which he reflects on how violent and cruel children can be, and another comparing the lives of two soldiers (one American, one British) who both died on the same day in Iraq. There’s also a piece on Hurricane Katrina, in which he follows a pair of Southern men who want to travel to Louisiana to help people, and in which he curiously keeps himself out of the narrative entirely despite being right there working with them in the disaster zone. I prefer essays by anybody, I think, to involve a personal element; there’s no such thing as a truly disengaged journalist.

Overall this collection mostly fell flat for me, but I think I’ll read one of his novels. And if you never got around to reading his piece on Julian Assange when it got all that buzz two years ago, I thoroughly recommend it.

30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account by Peter Carey (2000) 248 p.

Peter Carey was born in country Victoria and raised in Melbourne, but it’s clear from many of his novels that his heart truly belongs to Sydney – even though, as he explains in the opening to this book, “I did not come to live in Sydney until I was almost forty and even then I carried in my baggage a typical Melbournian [sic] distrust of that vulgar crooked convict town.” (The fact that he misspells Melburnian is perhaps the best proof that he is a proper Sydneysider.) Carey ultimately settled in New York City, but 30 Days in Sydney – part travelogue, part memoir – details a month he spent revisiting his adopted hometown in 2000, the city’s Olympic year.

In both fiction and non-fiction, Carey has a way of beautifully capturing a place. I’ve been to Sydney for perhaps three cumulative weeks in my life and can’t really claim to know it, but the way Carey describes the place makes it stand out in my head as clear as anywhere I’ve ever been: the lush subtropical heat, the parks of palm and fig trees, the huge sandstone cliffs along the coast, the “great height and dizzy steel” of the bridge, and the dazzling expanse of the cerulean harbour itself, the greatest natural anchorage in the world, branching into a thousand secret coves and inlets.

Much of the book is fictionalised; Carey gives all his friends false names, and their conversations have that same wonderful patter as the characters in his novels; rambunctious people ear-bashing, arguing, cutting across each other – garrulous figures who never fail to say what they think. Like Mark Twain, Carey is a writer who will never let the truth get in the way of a good story. One of my favourite stories in 30 Days in Sydney concerns a pair of houses on Pittwater, a semi-wild part of Sydney’s urban fringe, where Carey and some of his friends lived for a number of years. In 1994, during a dreadful bushfire season (and after Carey had moved to New York), those two old houses full of so many wonderful shared memories came under threat as the fire front came down the peninsula:

With the red glow of fires all about them, Sheridan and Jack had stayed there one last night. They cooked a final meal, and at half past four in the morning, as the fire jumped the last break and spread in a great whoosh across the crowns of eucalypt, they boarded Jack’s rowing boat, pulled off into the bay, and watched the houses burn.

A moving image – probably embellished, but who cares?

Carey touches many other things throughout the book: Aboriginal dispossession, the corruption of the New South Wales elite, the experiences of early settlers, the Rum Rebellion, the Blue Mountains, sailing (including the dreadful storm of the 1998 Sydney-Hobart yacht race, in which six people died) and quite a lot more, considering it’s a short book.

Actually it’s 248 pages, but I read it in two days, since Carey is so wonderfully readable. I imagine you’d get less out of it if you weren’t at all familiar with Sydney, but I loved it.

In The Heart of the Country by J.M. Coetzee (1977) 139 p.

For a 139-page novella this was a hell of a slog. I’ve always found Coetzee, for a Nobel Prize winner and a man very clearly smarter than the rest of us, to be a surprisingly accessible writer: his prose is crisp, clear and concise. In The Heart of the Country, his second novel, this is unfortunately not so. It tales place on an isolated farmstead on the South African veldt, the narrator a young woman whose father is having an affair with the wife of his black farmhand. The novel’s style has a dreamy, unreal aspect to it, often bordering on stream of consciousness, and it can be difficult to tell what’s real and what’s a daydream or a fantasy. I hugely admire Coetzee as a writer, but as I said, this one was a slog.

HMS Surprise by Patrick O’Brian (1973) 379 p.

I’ve been enjoying the Aubrey-Maturin series thus far, but this was the first instalment that gave me a real inkling into why the series is so loved; why writers and readers from Philip Reeve to Jo Walton to Christopher Hitchens don’t just recommend it, but rave about it. A series of novels, I suppose, has the same advantage that a TV series has over a film: you have a greater amount of time to spend with the characters, and become more comfortable and happy with them.

After returning to England from the naval action at the climax of Post-Captain, Dr. Stephen Maturin is disappointed to discover that his name has been dropped at a large and insecure meeting by a newly appointed member of the Admiralty who should have known better. This seemingly minor indiscretion sets off a chain of events (largely off-screen) which results in Maturin being captured and tortured by the French in Port Mahon (Jack’s old haunt from Master and Commander), necessitating a rescue mission. This sounds like the set-up for the entire book, but it’s actually done and dusted in the first hundred pages; the bulk of HMS Surprise is about a long voyage to Kampong in what was then Malaya, going via Brazil, South Africa and India – the first voyage in the series which takes us away from the familiar waters of Europe and plunges out into the broader oceans of the world.

HMS Surprise is my favourite of the series thus far, for a number of reasons. It leans far more heavily to the Maturin side of things (espionage, adventure, travel) than the Aubrey side of things (naval battles, ships, ladder-climbing, prize money). I know I have no right to complain about naval battles in a series of books about navy ships in the Napoleonic wars, but I was secretly pleased that not a single one took place in HMS Surprise, until right at the end when Aubrey has to defend a fleet of East India Company ships from attack. The novel works very well as a single adventure – not in the sense that you could read it as a stand-alone book, but in the sense that it feels like a well-contained little package, much like the long sea voyage it covers.

It’s also the first book in which I’ve been deeply impressed with O’Brian’s prose style. He’s always been a good writer, above and beyond what one might expect from naval historical fiction, but so many moments of HMS Surprise were well-captured enough to really stick out in my memory: Stephen standing at the edge of the water at an Indian funeral pyre; the lonely, feverish death of the ambassador on a nameless island at the edge of Sumatra; Stephen’s hateful duel and the cardiac surgery he performs upon himself with the help of a mirror; his horrible heartbreak on Madeira, walking alone up the slopes of the volcano to lie in the snow in the shadowed ridge.

One moment that particularly struck me was a sequence in which Stephen asks, in the middle of the Atlantic, to be rowed out to a rocky islet to inspect the birds there. No work is supposed to be performed on a Sunday, but he is loved enough by the crew that a lieutenant named Nicolls takes him out anyway, and they speak about the isolation of life at sea and Nicolls’ estrangement from his wife. He is miserable because he had no letters from her at Gibraltar, but Stephen says he had none either, because their own vessel likely overtook the mail ships, and reassures Nicolls that they will probably both have mail waiting for them in Rio. While they are on the islet a storm strikes, and Nicolls is washed out to sea and drowned. Later in the book, in Rio, Jack gives Stephen his letters. Stephen asks if there were any for Nicolls, to which Jack replies, “Nicolls? No, I don’t think so,” and the conversation immediately moves on to something else. It’s a subtle, easily overlooked, and terribly affective moment; the sort of thing O’Brian deftly accomplishes.

As I said: the best in the series so far, and I look forward to the next one, The Mauritius Command.

Blindsight by Peter Watts (2006) 381 p.

Back when I was slowly trying to read my way through all the Clarkesworld issues, one of the stand-out stories was Peter Watts’ “The Things,” a retelling of the John Carpenter classic The Thing from the point of view of the shapechanging alien which terrorises Kurt Russell and his companions in a remote Antarctic research base. Telling a well-known story from the point of view of the monster feels as eye-rollingly predictable as having characters turn out to be God or Hitler or Adam and Eve, but I was surprised by how well Watts handled the concept. Speaking as the Thing, he narrates from a mindset that is so different, so fundamentally alien, it doesn’t understand that it’s hurting its victims.

The same basic puzzle of perspective lies at the heart of Watts’ novel Blindsight, in which the human race is shocked in the late 21st century by the sudden arrival of thousands of alien probes, which capture and transmit an analysis of Earth and then burn up in the atmosphere. “Caught with our pants down,” as the protagonist Siri Keeton puts it, the human race scrambles to prepare for what they assume is incoming first contact. Blindsight follows a crew of five cutting-edge transhuman scientists as they emerge from hypersleep at the edge of the solar system, sent to investigate a mysterious signal coming from a previously undiscovered gas giant. Upon finding the gas giant being terraformed by a fleet of self-replicating drones, and a smaller alien object orbiting around it, the crew begin the frightening process of figuring out if the aliens are friend or foe.

Blindsight is very much hard science fiction. Not in the classic sense, which always makes me think of 1950s stuff about physics and chemistry and the speed of light, but in a more modern scientific sense: Watts is fascinated by questions of consciousness, artificial intelligence, psychology, evolution and xenobiology. How much you’ll get out of this book is dependent on how interested you are in those things yourself, and in particular, how much you can tolerate long passages of exposition about them. I found the opening half of Blindsight quite compelling in an Alastair Reynolds sort of way: alien mystery, creepy goings-on at the very edge of known space, a sense of horror and dread at the danger the universe might contain. This waned as the book went on, especially as Watts became more focused on the interactions and reactions of the crew. Character writing doesn’t have to be your strongest point in the science fiction game, but it does if you’re going to spend this much time around them, more so if you’re going to insert lengthy flashbacks to your main character’s failed romantic relationship. There are ultimately at least two plot twists in Blindsight, but I didn’t find them all that shocking, because by that point I’d sort of lost the thread of Watts’ hypotheses.

The other thing that bothered me was the vampires. In the world of Blindsight vampires are a long extinct apex predator which humanity has revived by gene splicing into functional sociopaths and high functioning autistics; walking computers, tightly-controlled monsters. There’s nothing supernatural about them, really, but it still felt uncomfortably pulpy every time the word came up in a story about spaceships and aliens; crossing the streams, so to speak. It felt even weirder given that they have nothing to do with the broader plot, although Watts did end up tying them in thematically at the end. Still, it didn’t sit right with me.

If none of that puts you off, check it out – Watts released it under Creative Commons license, so you can download it for free. He’s a talented writer in a poetic sense; it’s just a shame it tends to get drowned out under the weight of all this scientific theory. And certainly read “The Things,” which is up there with Jeff Vandermeer’s “The Third Bear” as one of the best short stories I’ve read in Clarkesworld.

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