I am a long standing fan of science fiction, it is the genre of choice for intelligent and educated people, and it is the new literature for the 20th century and beyond, however, finding good SF (never used the 'term' Sci-Fi, it is an abomination) can be challenging. In recent decades, in my opinion, too many SF authors have done no more than rehash old ideas and rework existing themes. There are exceptions to this of course, Greg Egan comes to mind. With this in mind it is a pleasure to find a new author with new works, which push the boundaries. Such an author is Peter Watts.
Watts, by profession, is a marine biologist. According to his website bio (rifters.com) he has had a varied career, which was part of the reason he decided to turn his hand to writing. His first novels centred around human exploration and exploitation of the mid-21st century oceans. His latest novel, the subject of this review, is set later in the 21st century with its action taking place in deep space.
The story begins with the detection of an alien artifact at the outer edge of the solar system, and a very public scan of the Earth. This discovery compels the Earth's leaders to launch probes, and then a fully kitted out hi-tech space craft, to examine the artifact. Let it be clear that the background Earth civilisation is totally super science, a trans-humanist geek daydream come to life: advanced AI, virtual reality, genetic enhancement, uploading almost ready to go, it is all there. Way to go. Lets try and hang in there until then.
Most of the action takes place on the ship and the alien 'space craft'. I am not going to give away too much here but there is some serious, out there science, discussion of the nature of intelligence, consciousness, evolution, advanced science and humanity. The conclusion to all this is that (SPOILERS AHEAD) elsewhere in the galaxy (very likely the universe) evolution has produced intelligence, but not self-awareness. That is to say the aliens are very intelligent, but have no individuality, but it is not a 'hive mind', a stock SF concept, these are non-aware, intelligent creatures, motivated purely by instinct. The analogy used to describe the alien presence is a 'dandelion seed'. Watts, in the novel and in an appendix, does point out that self-awareness is not necessarily a survival trait—as he asks, what is the survival value in stopping to appreciate a sunset? I can also add that the crew members themselves are a rather diverse bunch of people, by 20th century standards they would be regarded as freaks.
At the novel's conclusion only one member of the crew is still alive (as far as we know). This lone individual heads back to Earth with a first hand account of humanities meeting with the aliens, and the sad understanding that we could be in conflict with the rest of life in the universe. (END OF SPOILERS).
The novel is hard core, hard science fiction. The wikipedia entry for Peter Watts describes him as a biological version of Greg Egan. If you like this sort of thing you will like this novel, and vice versa for all you soft-core fantasy readers. There is a sequel underway, a novel which reveals what happens on the Earth during the time period of the alien encounter. Here's hoping it does not take too long to appear. It will be a good story.
One thing you might want to know is that Watt's work is available on his website, free of charge, as well as available in the more traditional paid formats (paper from amazon and other retailers). If you do download and read Watt's work on an ereader (as I do) consider making a donation. There is an option for this on his site.