Thursday, December 28, 2006

A New Twist on Naturally Evolved Vampires

I've just read a first contact novel called BLINDSIGHT, by Peter Watts. It's not quite like anything else I've ever read, packed with enough ideas for three or four SF novels. A starship is sent to investigate an alien artifact that has attacked Earth for unknown reasons. The commander of the team is a vampire, a member of a species (or possibly a human subspecies) recreated from extinction through genetic engineering by using DNA from sociopaths and autistic savants. The team's linguist harbors a "gang" of artificially created multiple personalities. The narrator lost one hemisphere of his brain to radical childhood surgery for the correction of epileptic seizures, an operation that left him incapable of empathy. The aliens, with biology partly based on starfish, turn out to be intelligent without consciousness. The most provocative theme of the novel is the question of whether consciousness is truly an evolutionary advantage or, rather, a meaningless epiphenomenon that actually handicaps the organism burdened with it. This suggestion, to me, tips the story in the direction of horror. If this attempt at describing the book's plot premise doesn't come across as very coherent, blame me, not Peter Watts. This novel stretches and challenges the reader's intellect. Every time I thought I knew what was going on, a few pages later I lost my footing again. And the characters' vocabulary is as advanced as you would expect from geniuses who are experts in highly specialized scientific fields. Naturally, my main interest was in the evolution and biology of the vampire. But he's only one strand in the plot. The author's afterword to the book discusses some of the science behind the story, including a few pages about vampires, but this explanation only scratches the surface. I wanted more details, a chapter's worth of exposition at least. (I'd like to read similar essays about the physiology and psychology of the other characters, too. This is one book in which I'm more interested in the background than the story.) For that, one has to visit the website:

Unfortunately, there's no text to read. What you do get is a very clever slide show, a simulation of a pharmaceutical company's history of how the vampire race was recreated, with a detailed description of the biological basis of vampire traits. For example, they feed on human prey because the vampire's body lacks a vital protein that must be taken from human victims. They have an aversion to crosses (which, the voice-over points out, is far from solely a Christian symbol) because of a brain glitch related to their superior pattern-recognition abilities. (For example: When we see five or six marbles, we instantly "just know" it's five or six. We don't have to count. If we see fifty-five marbles, we can't tell how many there are without counting. A vampire can.) The right-angled figure of the cross causes neurons in the vampire's brain to fire improperly, causing massive seizures. As solitary, territorial predators, all vampires are sociopaths. They can't even endure the company of same-sex members of their own species. There's lots more information in the website slide show, all delivered in the bland voice of an accomplished PR man yet blithely spouting the most appallingly amoral pronouncements. Hilarious in a subtle and dark fashion.


  1. Anonymous12:57 PM EST

    Hmm, I'll pass. Don't like vampires. I think they're icky.

    Kimber An

  2. Anonymous6:49 PM EST

    Except for the salt vampire on Star Trek, of course.