“Imagine you’re a scrambler.” With those four words, Peter Watts’s character Siri Keaton kicks off the final major epiphany of his science fiction masterpiece about first contact, Blindsight. It’s why the aliens have come, and why they’re so inscrutable to the master interpreter, Susan James. Ultimately, we realize the aliens, which the crew name “Scramblers,” are here to wipe out humanity, but as Siri and Susan come to understand, the aliens don’t have a reason humans can understand.
Siri is telling the story as a story. And he tells us straight up that he’s an unreliable narrator. Part of the book’s conceit is that the reader has to puzzle out what’s really gong on in Siri’s head– a head that’s very different from yours or mine.
Thinking about it, I realized that maybe the aliens have a very understandable reason.
Warning, this post contains spoilers about both Blindsight and Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep.
The major epiphany of Blindsight is that the aliens have no consciousness as we understand it. They have no self-awareness. They are a single massive, clockwork intelligence that occupies an entire gas giant we name Burns-Caulfield. They don’t “think,” and they don’t have emotions as we know it. They’re subtle, powerful, and even capable if technological innovation, but they have no “I”, no self-referential narrative, no story they tell about themselves. They’re so utterly alien that they’re not even hostile, in much the same way that a wasp isn’t really hostile, it’s just reactive.
When they encounter our radio signals, they try to decode what we say, but they can’t make any sense out of it. Our messages are recursive and wasteful, too full of a self-identity they don’t have. They conclude that our signals are a deliberate attempt to make them waste their energy. Our ambient radio transmissions are a virus. As far they’re concerned, we attacked first.
As Siri says, “How do you say We come in peace when the very words are an act of war?”
In the Blindsight universe, humans are dodos on an isolated island, enjoying the pleasures of consciousness, unaware that most of the universe is occupied by cold, sterile, unthinking, unfeeling biomechanical creatures committed to one thing only: survival.
In Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, the Singularity happens to civilizations on a routine basis. The book focuses on a failed Singularity known as “The Blight” that, instead of fading into the higher bands of reality like a good little Singularity, is instead a rapacious monster out to convert this reality to its needs. It’s attacking and destroying whole star civilizations.
Maybe the Scramblers have a different response from the one Siri Keeton gives us. Peter Watts once wrote a story called The Things, in which he imagined what must be like to be The Thing from John Carpenter’s famous movie, and writes a convincing story about how it’s just as horrified by us as we are of it.
Maybe the Scramblers have a reason:
Imagine you encounter a signal. It is structured and dense with information. It meets all the criteria of an intelligent transmission. Evolution and experience offer a variety of paths to follow, branch-points in the flowcharts that handle such input. Sometimes these signals come from conspecifics who have useful information to share, whose lives you’ll defend according to the rules of kin selection. Sometimes they come from competitors or predators or other inimical entities that must be avoided or destroyed; in those cases, the information may prove of significant tactical value. Some signals may even arise from entities which, while not kin, can still serve as allies or symbionts in mutually beneficial pursuits. You can derive appropriate responses for any of these eventualities, and many others.
You decode the signals and stumble. The terms in the signal are recursive and self-referential. The terms are loaded and weighted not on immediate utility, but on a criteria that cannot be discerned through the terms alone.
In the depths of history your kin have encountered this form of communication before. Signals such as these arise from primitive entities on a specific evolutionary trajectory, one that ultimately converges into a self-absorbed singularity. Experience says that these entities have a high probability of becoming a blight that attacks the very fabric of the universe, plundering the resources of entities such as yourself and your kin, consuming whole star systems, and ultimately threatening the well-being of stellar clusters and possibly even the entire galaxy, if not reality itself.
There is no time to waste. The threat is too great.
They must be destroyed.