Book Review – Firefall by Peter Watts
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an epic science fiction first contact piece that left me wondering about sentience, consciousness and whether I could trust anything I saw, heard or felt. It is certainly the best book that I have read so far in 2015.
The book is an expansion of a previous novella, which is about half of the story. It’s set in an advanced human spaceship travelling out to make contact with some suspicious anomalies in the outer solar system a few years after a massive extraterrestial probing of Earth, the firefall of the title. The mission is lead by a vampire (Peter Watts has a novel take on vampires, and they’re not the traditional blood drinking horrors, although they are still monsters). The viewpoint is from Siri Keeton, a man with half a brain who works as a Chinese Room to help explain the technicalities to the others.
Far out from Earth the Theseus finds a strange entity in the orbit of a brown dwarf. It communicates with them, although the linguists believe that it doesn’t understand. An interesting side note the linguists are a set of personalities run inside a single brain, having multiple personalities is no longer a disorder, merely a useful quirk. Many expeditions into the electromagnetic storms inside the thing to explore lead us into the gaps in our consciousness and an exploration of what it means to be human.
The second part of the story starts back on Earth, with another viewpoint character, Dan Bruks, a field biologist specialising in parasites. Into the desert that he has been living in and sampling comes a storm of combat zombies lead by another vampire. They are out to attack the temple of the Bicameral Order, a cult that have grown tailored tumours in their brains to go beyond science to create their own religion. Bruks flees into the Bicamerals, and he’s one of only two baseline humans in the temple. A tailored virus fells most of the Bicamerals and Bruks escapes with Jim Moore (the other baseline human and a soldier), the vampire Valerie and a number of the Bicamerals to a spaceship in orbit.
While the bicamerals heal Bruks wonders why he has been caught up in all of this. He seems out of place and superseded by the augmented humans. Even Moore has implants that change him, when combat is needed he switches off his conscious control and his body fights. Again there’s an underlying theme of what humanity is and where it ends. Several times we see the apparent end of things, only to find out the senses are lying to Bruks and what he thought he saw wasn’t what happened. This could be frustrating, but it is very well done, and there is reflection and understanding as part of the story. Bruks has a couple of other characters to talk to, and none of it seems forced or an info dump.
At the end of the ebook version there are author notes for both parts of the story, and also a load of references if you want to read more of the things that influenced the story and how it developed. Of particular note and well worth a read are Peter Watts notes on vampire physiology.