Peter Watts' Blindsight is a novel set ~75 years in the future, when advances in neurology and computing have merged to reshape all of human civilization into something only distantly recognizable from the present day. Many people semi-upload themselves and live entirely in a simultated "Heaven", enabled by post-scarcity redundancy of human labor. AIs and AI-like bio-machine hybrids exist, as well as quantum computers and engineering projects on the scale of "seat an energy collector just above the sun and shoot a beam of energy anywhere in the solar system."
So when the entire planet gets paparazzi-ed by alien probes, of course a ship of computer-augmented humans are shot off to see if they can make first contact with whatever's floating out there. Humans, and one genetically-reconstructed "vampire", a formerly-extinct humanoid predator who hunts humans and is allergic to right angles. The book is full of flavorful tidbits like this, keeping the reader off-balance: there's a sense of the riotous diversity of an actual future Earth hovering in the novel's background, weird and akilter and intellectually tempting and forever out of reach. (I went back over my highlighted sections and they seem spoilery or like punchline-giveaways, so
We readers are helped to bootstrap by the fact that the main character, Siri Keaton, is recognizably somewhere on the Autism spectrum (although I don't think it's ever put in those words), and spends a lot of time figuring out what people mean and putting them inside a meaningful context. Also, this is his job --- he is a professional interpreter-and-explainer of complicated ideas.
And there are a lot of very cool, complicated ideas.
The characters and plot are great but Watts' science background shines through the novel, piercing it with incandescent rays of awesome descriptions of how the brain works to build the experience of consciousness. Magnetism, evolution, genetics --- this book s a post-Halloween intellectual goodie bag. I don't want to spoil any bits, but I give it my wholehearted recommendation. The ending was so outrageously magnificent, so transcendently thought-provoking, that I completely forgot all the awesome bits at the beginning of the book. On rereading, the details surprised me and slid into place in the larger picture, invoking a level of delight that was missing on my first pass. (There were also some parts that sounded like dangerously stressed-to-breaking metaphors for science and complicated ideas, which on rereading are not actually being abused in the way I initially thought.)
I've started in on the sequel, Echopraxia.
This post's theme word is xerophyte, "a plant adapted to growing in a very dry or desert environment." Whales might have trouble understanding xerophytes, but they apply for research grants anyway.