Today’s Book: “Blindsight” by Peter Watts
The Plot: Mentally augmented scientists investigate the source of a mysterious alien signal.
Autistic Character(s): None, but see below.
I’m departing from my usual formula today and reviewing a book with neither an autistic author nor autistic characters. Why? Because, despite the aforementioned lack, this is a book that keeps coming up every so often in discussions of autism in SFF. It shows up on lists of books with autistic characters, it gets recommended to autistic friends, etc. Not super often, but not just once, and not in just one way. So I want to talk about why that is, and what an autistic reader might get out of this book, and why I disagree in general with how people are going about things here.
The character in this book who’s most often described as autistic – or as an unintentional autistic stereotype – is the narrator, Siri Keeton. Siri is not ever described in the book as autistic. Instead, he has a different form of neurodivergence – he was severely epileptic as a child and underwent a radical hemispherectomy. In Siri’s case, the missing half of his brain was replaced with computer circuitry, though in Watts’s fictional future, having such circuitry in one’s brain is not uncommon.
(Siri, by the way, has nothing to do with the iPhone app of the same name, which came later.)
I am not a neuroscientist, and the research I did into hemispherectomies while writing this review was fairly perfunctory. According to what I have read, though, the primary side effects of hemispherectomies are to do with partial paralysis and vision difficulties on the side corresponding to the side of the brain that was removed–not with personality change. Because of brain plasticity, sufficiently young children who get hemispherectomies actually have a fairly good prognosis.
However, for some reason–possibly the computer circuitry–Siri isn’t described as having motor, vision, or cognitive difficulties. Instead, his primary symptom is difficulty feeling or understanding human emotion. Life feels flat and colorless to him, and he has difficulty with empathy or with relating to why people behave in the way that they do. In childhood, he has violent episodes which are attributed to his lack of empathy, and his mother–a noxious, manipulative narcissist–wails about the difficulty of raising a child who lacks the expected mother-child emotional bond. As an adult, he struggles to connect to anyone at all.
Although Siri has difficulty relating to people’s emotions, however, he uses his circuitry to become quite good at learning and analyzing these emotions by rote. In fact, he is so good at this and so perceptive of the small details of people’s expression that he is hired as a “synthesist”. His job is to analyze the speech and behavior of the enhanced humans who are on the mission with him, and report them back in a form that normal humans can understand.
At this point, you might understand why so many people read Siri as autistic. Autistic people often have trouble understanding NT people’s emotions. Many of us end up learning to “fake it” and interpret emotions and facial expressions by rote. Many of us have a flattened or seemingly under-responsive affect, or alexithymia which prevents us from noticing or understanding our emotions. Some of us struggle with violent meltdowns when overwhelmed; some of our parents feel intensely beleaguered and victimized by having to care for us; and most of us have trouble understanding how to form close relationships with NTs, even if we want to.
In fact, there is enough rough correspondence that it feels very plausible Watts might have been influenced, in his portrayal of Siri, by previous acquaintance with autistic stereotypes – even if it wasn’t his conscious intent.
So why do I adamantly believe that Siri Keeton is not autistic?
First, because if Siri was autistic, he would say so. He’s not exactly under-informed about neuroscience, nor shy about discussing the neurodivergence that he actually has. Watts clearly knows what autism is–it’s mentioned briefly once or twice, albeit in problematic ways–so if it was his intent for Siri to be autistic, there would be no reason to hide that information or to disguise it as something else. There’s also no reason to “explain” Siri’s state of being using autism, when there is already a different explanation for it plainly stated in the text.
Second, and even more importantly, because Siri’s resemblance to an autistic person start to unravel when you look at it closely.
Siri’s emotional flatness more closely resembles depression combined with alexithymia than it does autism. While some autistic people experience few emotions, and many have difficulty adequately describing or understanding their emotions, it’s not very common for autistic people to be truly emotionless. It’s much more common for autistic people’s emotions to be odd in ways that NTs have trouble understanding. We might express emotions oddly, by using body language or stims rather than showing a lot on our face, which leads NTs who overrely on faces to underestimate how things affect us. We might show things on our face, but in an atypical way. We might not understand the things that NTs are expected to do or say when they have certain emotions, and be left feeling emotions without knowing what to do about it. We might have very intense emotions–distress, pleasure, excitement, enjoyment, pain, fear, confusion, disgust–which confuse NTs because the things that elicit these emotions are not what an NT would expect.
I know a lot of autistic people who have plenty of emotions thankyouverymuch, but who are accused of being emotionless because they don’t show socially expected emotions at socially expected times and ways, and aren’t even sure how to do so. I don’t find these people emotionless or difficult to read IRL (even though I have trouble reading many NTs). But apparently, to NTs, they are flat and baffling.
Siri’s emotions have none of this oddness, none of this nuance or hidden-ness that I’ve come to expect from other autists. They just aren’t there, or perhaps, aren’t accessible in a way he can describe.
On the other traits from the list, Siri fares slightly better. In fact, his reliance on rote processing to understand NT emotions–and subsequent ability to do so better than the average NT–is one of the things that the book does rather well. Many autistic people do use this kind of ability to help us navigate the world. It’s nice to see an author acknowledge that these methods can be effective, even highly effective, even without an intuitive understanding of why things work the way they do–and even though it doesn’t solve all social problems. In fact, some of Siri’s descriptions of how this works seem to have been lifted straight from real-life autistic people’s descriptions:
I’d spent my whole life as a sort of alien ethologist in my own right, watching the world behave, gleaning patterns and protocols, learning the rules that allowed me to infiltrate human society.
(It should be noted that, towards the end of the book, there is considerable doubt raised as to whether Siri’s synthesist abilities are as effective as he thinks they are. To Watts’s credit, he does not attribute this doubt to Siri’s neurodivergence, but to a belief that no one can really ever be sure what other people are thinking, and to Siri’s usual synthesist protocols being compromised as he gets more and more personally involved in what’s going on, thus falling prey to wishful thinking, projection, etc.)
The kind of social problems that Siri does wind up with are a mixed bag. Some, I found quite relatably sad. Others… Well. Let’s just say that for someone who supposedly knows so much about how NTs interact, he shows a really remarkable inability to understand that people in romantic relationships might desire tenderness, or affectionate words, or anything at all beyond the most reductive possible variety of evo-psych bullshit.
Then again, plenty of young male Aspies in real life are taken in by MRA evo-psych bullshit of even worse types, and Siri can hardly be said to have had healthy relationships modeled for him growing up. (Spoiler: it’s a Peter Watts book: EVERYONE is maladjusted.) So I may be protesting too much on that point.
My biggest problem with the reading of Siri as autistic, though, is not to do with how these traits apply to him, but with all the traits that don’t apply and aren’t even mentioned.
You don’t get autism in real life by taking a regular person and removing certain things. You don’t go into an NT’s head, cut out the bits that handle social/emotional processing, and get an autistic person by doing that. Despite certain corporate logos, we are not NTs with a piece missing.
Instead, an autistic brain–even a “high-functioning” autistic brain (although functioning labels are problematic)–is wildly different from an NT brain on many axes that don’t reduce to missing traits. Senses are hyper- or hypo-sensitive or both at once, or different in even weirder ways. Communication is not just flattened, but different and quirky or difficult or selectively impaired in ways that go far deeper than a lack of social skills. Interests are intense, passionate, and often aligned in directions that make no sense at all to NTs. Movement and expression is not just flattened, but different; stereotypical flapping is of course not the only way to stim, and some people suppress all their noticeable stims, but nearly every autistic person, in their natural state, will not move like an NT. I could go on. There is a wildness to autistic brains, a weirdness (if “weird” is not too pejorative a term), a set of ways of being and doing and thinking that are not just NT ways with pieces missing, but their own ways.
It’s exactly this qualitative different-ness that is missing from Siri.
It’s also exactly this qualitative different-ness that people ignore when they spin the worst forms of propaganda about autism. When people talk about autistic people as incomplete NTs, as having no emotions or awareness, as being missing some essential part that would allow us to have Real Feelings and Real Empathy…
Siri Keeton is portrayed as being closer to that description than actual autistic people are.
I have a few additional points to make before we wrap up this review. First, I focused on Siri in this review because most of the fan discussions I’ve seen center around Siri as a supposedly autistic character. That’s not the only way to discuss autism in the context of “Blindsight”. In fact, the Wikipedia–somewhat inexplicably to me–describes not Siri, but the book’s vampires as autistic. (Yes, there are vampires. In space. Long story.) This is so baffling to me that I’m not sure what to say about it, except that the vampires really do not strike me that way, and apart from their lack of desire for social contact, I’m not even sure why anybody would read them that way. To me the vampires (and, please note, I liked the vampires) struck me as being something more like superintelligent predatory animals in human form.
The second point is that, according to many sources (I’ve seen this attributed to Watts’s own notes, but haven’t managed to track that part of the notes down), Siri is not meant to be an autistic character–he is meant to be a philosophical zombie. Not to spoil too much, but there is a lot of really interesting stuff in “Blindsight” about consciousness, and about whether or not consciousness is necessary for intelligence, or whether it is desirable at all. A philosophical zombie, or p-zombie, is not a Night of the Living Dead style zombie. Rather, it is a hypothetical living person who acts exactly like any other living person, but who has no actual consciousness. It’s not spelled out in the text itself, but the theory is that Siri is an unreliable narrator, and is actually a p-zombie for most of the book until another character violently awakens him.
I actually find this theory even harder to swallow than the one about vampires, for a number of reasons. First of all, if Siri used to be a p-zombie, then how exactly is he able to describe experiences that he had before being awakened? One answer is that, since p-zombies are outwardly indistinguishable from living people, they can describe events in a way that makes them sound conscious. But this answer is rather vacuous, in my opinion, because if that’s what Siri is doing, then we’re not really reading a book about unconscious p-zombie Siri; we’re reading a book about the conscious person that p-zombie Siri is pretending to be. There is no discernible difference between that book and a book in which Siri is conscious. You could maybe describe Siri as having had a somehow lesser or inferior or shallower version of consciousness, but to say that there was no consciousness just makes no sense.
Second, if Siri is supposed to be a p-zombie, then this makes it EVEN MORE problematic to call him an autistic character. Because autistic people are not p-zombies. But there are an awful lot of people who would like very much to say that we are, or that we don’t have emotions or reactions (just because you can’t read our damn facial expressions), or that it’s not possible we could understand anything (because some of us can’t talk). Or any number of other statements which boil down to the argument that we’re not people and it doesn’t matter how you treat us.
If the first thing that you think of, when trying to imagine how a p-zombie would live, is autism because of what these people say about autism… Then that’s a problem.
(Thinking that you can somehow just suddenly make a supposedly non-conscious person conscious, by violently attacking them, is also pretty gross.)
Third, like I said, I’m not an expert on radical hemispherectomies, and the focus of this review series is on depictions of autism. But I’m pretty sure that stating you can become a p-zombie because of having a hemispherectomy is even more offensive to people who have had this procedure than it is for autistic people.
Pretty sure that goes for the other inaccurate depictions of the results of a hemispherectomy, too.
If you want to read about the experiences of radical hemispherectomy patients in real life, a good place to start might be the Hemispherectomy Foundation.
The Verdict: Not Recommended
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