Blindsight by Peter Watts. Tor, 2006.
Along side the human race live vampires - humanoids who became extinct during the Pleistocene era and have been resurrected by modern science. Their predatory habits are kept in check, but their special DNA and vast intelligence aids humanity as it ventures into space.
On Feb. 13, 2082, a shower of lights fills Earth’s sky. The media dubs them Fireflies. They prove to be a signal from an alien source. An exploratory ship is prepared and sent to search for its origin. A crew assembles and includes the story’s narrator the synthesist Siri, a scientist decked out with extensions so grand he hardly looks human, Communications expert Susan James whose brain carries 4 personae, Major Bates the only military member, and the vampire Sarasti, commander of the mission. No one dares challenge his authority! Except for one at a crucial moment.
Their ship Theseus takes them past the edge of our solar system to meet up with a species both belligerent and smart. The crew is on their own. There is no contact with earth from this distance, But their is contact with the nightmarish alien ship which Siri, describes thusly,
Imagine a crown of thorns, twisted, dark and unreflective, grown too thickly tangled to ever rest on any Human head. Put it in orbit around a failed star whose own reflected half-light does little more than throw its satellites into silhouette. Occasional bloody highlights glinted like dim embers from its twist and crannies; they only emphasized the darkness everywhere else.It is huge, and it is growing fueled by particles from the giant, dying sun it orbits.
Susan James uses her communication skills to ping the other ship. It quickly answers and dubs itself Rorschach. A friendly exchange turns ugly as Theseus approaches. Rorschach warns - stay away! Sarasti ignores the warnings, and as soon as it is feasible he has the crew takes a shuttle down to Rorschach. The nightmare escalates.
Watts's descriptions of the most technical subjects is sheer poetry. Each character is fully formed and reacts believably to the most bizarre situations. Siri makes difficult but important changes within himself in order to survive ever changing scenarios. The author has crafted an imaginative first contact, space adventure all the while educating the reader with a fascinating blend of philosophy, psychology, evolution, quantum mechanics, astronomy, and so much more. Quite a feat, Mr. Watts!
James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer have an in depth interview with Peter Watts on their Challenging Destiny site. At the time of this interview Watts was working on Blindsight.