Peter Watts, why couldn't you have written a more cheerful book? Did your parent's remove the happiness centers of your brain to make room for the writing modules? This story takes a group of post-humans, their vampire captain, and a plucky AI on a voyage to make first contact. The tale is exciting, complex, technical, and very readable, which is what earns it the four stars. The unraveling mystery of first contact is always a good story setup, the translator-narrator provides a good excuse to interview characters and illustrate concepts, and the aliens are well designed and sufficiently alien.
Unfortunately, I must remove half a star because of three problems: 1) the grimdark 2) the horrible, horrible events that happen and 3) the junk science/plotting mixed in to make things more grimdark. In particular, the vampires were a bridge too far, which makes sense when you think about it since vampires hate crossing bridges. If there was some easy way to get super-speed and intelligence and stasis, evolution would already have arrived at it. Overall, it is a bit like reading Nietzche in that you already agree with/understand the ideas, and the writing is technically superb, but the general tone is so off putting and the ideas are presented in such a negative light that you can't fully recommend it. I like my sci-fi in the vein of Ian Banks, where the drones make it out in the end (or at least have backups), and everyone lives happily ever after. Anyway, I'm off to try some of Watts' other books. I'm told they are much more cheerful.