Writhing in the dark,
Fibonacci twists & curls,
inside lies madness.
The Human species is on the edge of the Singularity, or maybe even past it already. The Icarus Array has begun beaming particles, using quantum teleportation to effectively create a Post-Scarcity economy on Earth. Homo sapiens vampiris has been found in the past, cloned, & brought back to life. Many Humans have moved into Heaven-- a virtual environment-- & the rest struggle to find some use for themselves. Some heavily modify themselves, ripping out chunks of their brain to graft machines in place, swapping eyes of jelly for cameras, fumbling fingers for hydraulics. The casual use of neuroscience to create euphoria, joy, compatibility, & memory manipulation is commonplace-- some take it so far as to induce multiple personality complex in order to specialize their brain for any given task. Between all the weirdness-- AIs so advanced that they insist they have answered the most difficult philosophical questions, but they can't explain it to the apes, creatures on the bleeding edge of state of the art that calling them human is questionable, Vampires who are so deep in predatory genius that eye contact makes most people wet themselves-- are the Synthesists, the jargonauts, the science shamans. Our protagonist is one. He takes what the post-humans are saying, models it & translates it, then interprets it for the mortal meat-- all without understanding it.
Of course...all this is background, hardly germane to the story at all, if you can believe it. The plot of the book is First Contact. 65,536 meteors come flashing through the sky all at once, synchronized & the Earthlings go "what was that?" They fling out some probes & they get lucky. They find something. & so a ship is sent-- Theseus-- to deal with the situation however might be appropriate. It takes the book about fifty pages to get kicking; the first small chunk is saturated in the details, starts without explaining anything. It is an ice patch, but once you get to page fifty things really start cracking. I was a gleeful convert. The crew of the ship is pretty much your "unlikely band of misfits," except the social schizophrenia of Earth means they are fairly typical-- in that everyone who isn't the "odd man out" back home has either jacked into Heaven as an obsolete ape welcoming illusions or become a terrorist bent on unjacking everyone else. Very few people are actually useful, actually relevant, so that is who ends up being sent. Siri Keeton is our viewpoint-- or hopelessly damaged viewpoint. He really displays the bleak angles of the world. Born with severe epilepsy, he is given a radical hemispherectomy as a child. That is, they cut out half of his brain-- it is a thing. He enters the story as the outsider extraordinaire; part autistic, part sociopathic, we are introduced to him as he goes Ender Wiggin, brutalizing the children bullying a little boy he recognizes intellectually is his friend. Siri's disconnect makes him the perfect Synthesist for the team. Isaac Szpindel is the most cyborg'd of the team-- he is the biologist, the doctor. Stammering & stuttering, as the bits of his limbic system that might regulate that sort of thing have been integrated with fiber-optics & wireless uplinks. The Gang of Four is Susan James & her personae-- foul mouthed Sascha, sweet Michelle, hard-working Cruncher-- the linguist(s) of the crew. Amanda Bates is the soldier, along with the drones-- the grunts-- that do the actual fighting, moving at speeds humans aren't meant for. Jukka Sarasti is the Vampire. Sorry, I mean the leader. He's in charge. & then of course there is Theseus-- a ship capable of practically anything. Sitting in the Icarus stream, it soaks up the telematter & is capable of producing...well, anything given enough time. Wired up enough to be aware, Theseus is flung out past the Oort cloud, past the edge of the solar system.
This book is spooky. I mean, really. The stage is set at Big Ben, a black body gas giant without a star, a rogue planet in the Big Empty. It is there that the crew encounter Rorschach. A torus made of spikes, a vast "crown of thorns" the size of a city, & growing. Each coiled spine is like a giant large hadron collider-- the whole thing is a vast nest of cyclotrons, dozens of kilometers across. It is bleeding a magnetic field like you wouldn't believe, & I will tell you this-- the crew ends up inside of it. Which is terrifying. Meat has some advantages over technology-- sure, you'll get radiation sickness & die, but the ship can fix you up before that, & the probes keep shorting out. Well, biology has some advantages, but it isn't immune. When you apply magnets to the brain...things start fizzling out. You start hallucinating. You get delusions. Parts of your brain shut off, like the part that interprets the data coming in from your eyes. Parts start spazzing out, like the bits that modulate fear. & well what you get is a horrific haunted house. Are you seeing that nightmarish creature scuttling toward you, or is it another hallucination? Is it crawling up your leg, are you making first contact, or are the neurons in your head misfiring?
Perhaps the most compelling creation in the book are the Vampires. Watts creates them as an extinct subspecies, extinct by the time Humans started really kicking with civilization. Vampires are hominid predators unable to synthesize γ-Protocadherin Y, a Human protein, they were forced to obtain it by making Humans a sizable portion of their diet. As Vampires hadn't gone far enough off the phylogenic path to have reached a population equilibrium-- that is, they were evolutionarily close enough to Human to still breed at the same rate, unlike something like gazelles & lions that fall into a 100:1 or better ratio-- they found a new way to adapt-- hibernation. An incredible undead-like state, lasting decades...which also left their prey time to forget that they existed. Because of differences in neurostructure, Vampires are capable of mental feats that Humans can only dream of, with an extra hundred IQ points being the least of it. Vampires can, for instance, hold both version of a Necker Cube in their mind at the same time-- they can see both sides on top. Or at least they could, were it not for the fatal flaw that rendered them extinct...they go into seizures when they see right angles. Crosses, sure, but windows too, or doors. Since right angles are pretty rare in nature, this only became a problem when Humans started making them. In the future, when Vampires are brought back from extinction they have the γ-Protocadherin Y problem fixed, & take "Anti-Euclidean" supplements not to go grand mal. Watts doesn't lay off on the spookiness of them, though. They aren't tame; Jukka Sarasti is a predator, & everyone on the ship is instinctively afraid of him. They ought to be. He uses Chernoff faces to display statistical information-- rather than bars & pies, he looks at bigger noses, wider jaws. Why are the faces screaming in pain & terror? Oh, that just makes him feel at home. One point of order though-- I find it hard to believe that a species with reflective eyes, carnivore optimized digestion & widespread neurological & biochemical changes would still be classified as a subspecies. I don't buy Homo sapiens vampiris; heck I might quibble over Homo vampiris, give them their own genus.
I grabbed this book because a scientist recommended it as "hard SF" in an article I read somewhere. I would counter by saying that you should read this book more as a treatise on philosophy of the self & of behavioral ethics. This book is definitely smart, & it assumes the reader is as well. It won't slow down to bring you up to speed with too much exposition, & you won't get one over on it. I disagree with some of the conclusions on consciousness that the narrative comes to, but then, I think that the concept of the individual is one that needs taken apart, first. The ethics of First Contact though are really fantastic. Fittingly, in the end I ended up shelving it next to Iain "El Bonko" Bank's Culture novels. How do you behave when you meet something that is genuinely alien? You think Game Theory is helpful? They talk about it. Linguistic modeling? On top of it. The thing is...well, the unintelligible Von Neumann machine is growing. Maybe, if you act now, you can destroy it, but if you wait a week it will be impervious to anything that Earth can throw at it. Sure, we all would prefer a nice handshake...& if the alien is so strange, maybe our habitats don't even overlap! Then again, that might be beside the point; what if they are just here to bulldoze for raw matter? What if they just decide to be hostile because technology implies belligerence? What if Sagan is wrong & this is like Colombus & the indigenous people of America? Or worse, like humans meeting the dodo? Or worse, like photosynthesizers spewing oxygen & wiping out all kinds of anaerobes? What if you can't understand each other? Or what if it understands just fine already, & hates what it sees? Watts is on point; you'll have to wake up early in the morning to get something past him. The heavily annotated afterword is testament to that-- seventeen pages with a hundred & thirty-three footnotes!