Hugo-nominated Blindsight by Canadian author and former marine biologist Peter Watts is easily one of the best hard SF novels written in the last ten years - and I would argue that it is one of the best ever written. It is a First Contact novel of the finest quality, though in tone it has a lot more in common with Alien than E.T. In it, a crew of heavily-modfiied transhumans form the crew of the spaceship Theseus, sent past the edge of our solar system to investigate the presence of an alien craft which sent 65,536 probes shooting through Earth's atmosphere, scanning the planet in depth. They find that the aliens are even stranger than anyone ever imagined.
Here's a teaser from the back jacket copy:
So who do you send to force introductions on an intelligence with motives unknown, maybe unknowable? Who do you send to meet the alien when the alien doesn't want to meet?
You send a linguist with multiple personalities, her brain surgically partitioned into separate, sentient processing cores. You send a biologist so radically interfaced with machinery that he sees x-rays and tastes ultrasound, so compromised by grafts and splices he no longer feels his own flesh. You send a pacifist warrior in the faint hope she won't be needed, and the fainter one she'll do any good if she is. You send a monster to command them all, an extinct hominid predator once called vampire, recalled from the grave with the voodoo of recombinant genetics and the blood of sociopaths. And you send a synthesist, an informational topologist with half his mind gone as an interface between here and there, a conduit through which the Dead Center might hope to understand the Bleeding Edge.
And that's just it: Every aspect of this novel deals with questions about consciousness. It doesn't just savor the discovery of aliens who are really alien. It attempts — successfully — to extrapolate on what people who alter the shape of their minds to perform better in a particular area might actually be like. We are living in time where our understanding of the brain is expanding rapidly, and the questions that Watts deals with in this novel may soon be relevant in our day to day lives. How will people who are electively neurologically atypical cope? What will their internal lives look like? Will they still, really, be human at all?
Blindsight delves into these questions while simultaneously delivering an engrossing, highly enjoyable story of space exploration. Watts uses real science, for lack of a better word, religiously; even the so-called Icarus Drive that powers the Theseus, which uses antimatter and some quantum-teleportation stuff, comes with footnotes pointing at articles in Nature, Science, Physical Review Letters, and others, even ("everyone and their dog," according to the author) IBM. That's another thing I should mention: The science in this book is not only meticulously detailed, Watts includes every reference, just like a good peer-reviewed academic. He links to 144 of them, as a matter of fact. The author, a marine biologist ("in recovery" as he is fond of saying) has obviously made a lifelong study of neuroscience and related topics, and it shows as he both uses his knowledge of current scientific theory to both inform and inspire his work.
Let it not be said that the book is dry reading, either. Peter Watts wields prose like a barbed knife, sharp and vicious. His writing tends to lead the mind along an elegant path that make the story compellingly readable, as if the book prepares your mind for input, forcing it to be read. I read the entire novel in one breathtaking sitting, and it's still one of the most re-readable books I've encountered. Is there horror in this book? Absolutely. Is there beauty and wonder in this book? Absolutely.
If there is one failing this book has, it is that it does its job too well: Do not read it when your faith in humanity is at a low ebb. It has also been criticized for being confusing; this is largely due to the fact that the narrator is not a reliable witness. The narrator is, at the end of the book, having a personal crisis brought on by his unique neurophysiology, and so the conclusion is told from a perspective that is challenging to understand.
Blindsight is available on Amazon in both Kindle and dead tree format. Peter Watts has a website with a tremendous wealth of background information on the Blindsight universe, including the PowerPoint presentation (!!) that was given to executives of the corporation that created the aforementioned formerly-extinct hominid predator. A second book set in the same universe, Dumbspeech, is forthcoming in 2013 and covers the events that take place on Earth during the Theseus mission.
If you enjoy Blindsight (and any EVE player should), you can also find electronic, Creative Commons-licensed copies of his entire back catalog on his website as well.