Dec 29 2005: The NYRSF Verdict
Today you don't get viral Internet protocols after all, since a) I still haven't read the original source paper, and b) I'm more interested in bragging about a review of ßehemoth that I just saw in the December issue of the NY Review of Science Fiction. Graham Sleight is one of the few who waited to read both volumes as a single entity before weighing in. I'm glad he did: the review is every bit as positive as any review containing the words "off-putting", "challenging", and the ever-open-to-interpretation "truly evil" can be, and in fact he credits me with an entirely new approach to character development. Which isn't true, but I'll take the kudos. Anyway, I've loaded a couple of brief excerpts onto the relevant "Blurbs" page.
Dec 23 2005: The Hummus Fiasco
Okay, I usually keep this newscrawl scrupulously clean of non-writing-related personal bullshit (with the exception of one extenuating circumstance quite a ways back) because I hate the little shrines-to-self that blogs turn into when you start quoting mother's favorite breadfruit recipe or which Pope your alter ego would be according to the latest Quizilla poll. But sometimes, things must be dragged into the light of day and kicked in the balls for all to ridicule. WHMIS is one of these things.
Not the mooshy middle-eastern legume paste of similar nomenclature, WHMIS actually stands for Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, the proud result of "four years of consultation between government and industry!". If you work in a public place such as a university or museum where "hazardous materials" are present, you have to attend a yearly WHMIS seminar where, for two fucking hours, your intelligence is insulted by a series of Powerpoint slides aimed at imbeciles, each using stock drawings and crude animations to make such points as "You should not eat nuclear waste" and "Never set fire to explosive chemicals". I put up with this as long as I could, until the subject of decal icons came up—specifically, the little decals showing the outline of a compressed-gas cylinder (or a condom—the silhouette was a bit ambiguous) that must by law be affixed to high-pressure gas containers. Then I just couldn't take it any more.
I raised my hand. "Just to make sure I'm not missing anything," I said, "we're talking about affixing a picture of a compressed-gas cylinder onto an actual compressed-gas cylinder, so that people will be able to recognize that they're looking at a cylinder of compressed gas?"
Let's-call-her-Jolene said "Well, when you put it that way, sometimes it might seem like a bit of overkill…"
"Do you know of any cases in which someone who couldn't recognize a gas cylinder on sight was actually helped by the presence of the decal?" And, I might have added, what the fuck are we doing letting such people within a hundred meters of any hazardous material in the first place?
Let's-call-her-Jolene allowed that in all the years of teaching this seminar, nobody had ever raised this question. Shortly thereafter, I had another question, to which her first response was "What's your name?"
"Who wants to know?" I wondered. At which point this grizzled dude whose lab I'm using sold me out by saying "That's Peter Watts."
Let's-call-her-Jolene took it down. So my first day at the Royal Ontario Museum and already I'm on someone's list.
But is it just me, or are some of the rules resulting from four years of consultation between industry and government actually pretty fucking stupid?
I've got to go now and honor yet another Christmas social obligation. Next time I check in, some news about viral Internet protocols that bring Maelstrom to mind…
Nov 28 2005: The NY Shuffle
Some changes to the schedule. Blindsight is now coming out in October '06, not July; this is great because it's closer to Christmas, and summer's generally a dead zone for books that require more than a handful of brain cells to wade through. The Starfish trade rerelease is now coming out sometime in 2007, rather than July '06; this is not great because, well, it would have been nice to have the synergy of both titles released together, not to mention that I now have to wait that much longer for any extra revenue that trickles in. Good or bad, I don't know the whys or wherefors of these changes; I've asked, but have yet to receive a reply. But my editor's gonna be in town in a couple of weeks. I'll find out then.
In related news, finally got my statement of account from the folks at Tesseract. Looks like those guys might be back on track.
Nov 17 2005: Blind Monkeys
Evidently the Canadian National Institute for the Blind has converted Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes into an audio book. Cool. It would have been nice if the guys at Tesseract Books had told me about this (it happened last summer)— but then again, what else can I expect from folks who still haven't sent me a single statement of my account in the three years they've had TMTM in their catalog?
Oct 28 2005: Pillow Talk
Vampire Domestication now moved from In Progress to make room for a humorous bit of frivolity from Blindsight. It is, however, still available here.
Oct 18 2005: Domestic Vampires to Go
In case anyone out there is still waiting for a downloadable version of my Vampire Domestication talk, here's the good news: it's now available as both a flash executable (.exe, zipped) and as a Windows media file (.wmv), and they both run all the way through this time. The bad news is, the files themselves weigh in at 45Megs and 28Megs, respectively. That's quite a chunk of download time for the dial-up crowd. If you're up for it, though, I've added a FizerPharm link over in Shorts (or you can just go directly to the vamp-domestication page here).
In other news, 'Monday Magazine'— a weekly out of Victoria— has reviewed Tesseracts 9 (favourably) and 'Mayfly' (glowingly):
"'Mayfly', by Peter Watts and Derryl Murphy … receives what tends to be the highest praise I give fiction: not only did I enjoy it, but it made me think."
Now if only someone had actually heard of these guys…
Oct 14 2005: Best of a Bad Lot
I'm told that Locus has singled out "Mayfly", the story coauthored by Derryl Murphy and myself, as the pick of the Tesseracts 9 litter. Not that that's saying much: the reviewer's overall reaction to T9 was to be
"…mildly disappointed; not because the stories are bad, mostly they are quite competent, but because there are no really brilliant efforts."
That said, though,
"…several are pretty darn good. 'Mayfly,' by Peter Watts and Derryl Murphy, is my favorite. It's about an attempt to implant an artificial intelligence in the body of a young girl with a genetic defect that caused her brain not to develop. The results are happy for no one: the girl's parents cannot control her, the company that sponsored the research doesn't want to pay any more, the doctor in charge clearly loves the child, but is torn by the agony the child's real AI personality is subject to. A thoughtful and emotionally involving piece of pure SF."
Derryl remarks that this is "better than a kick in the head". But then, Derryl always was an optimist. You can tell by his fiction.
(PS. Apparently 'A Word for Heathens', the latest of my stories to be posted to the Backlist, gave someone a pdf error when they tried to download it. I was unable to duplicate the problem— the file rendered flawlessly on several browsers under both Win98 and Xp— but I've regenerated the pdf just in case, on a different system and have uploaded it again. Hopefully this will solve any problems.)
Oct 9 2005: Fresh-frozen Fiction
Changing of the pixels over in Shorts: today I'm serving up "A Word for Heathens", my "awe-inspiringly pessimistic" alternate-history take on the question: how would Christianity have turned out if we'd figured out the neurology of religious belief back in the time of Constantine? Pretty viciously, I suggest— which is to say, sometimes the butterfly flaps its wings and not much changes at all...
October 5 2005: Bare-footed Reinvention
Saw the most surprising Jethro Tull concert of my life last night. So surprising, in fact, that it's made me break my cardinal rule of keeping-this-newscrawl-strictly-limited-to-professional-matters and let a bit of my personal life spill onto the display, long enough to say:
Hey. You've got to check out this Lucia Micarelli chick.
She hails from Julliard, and she plays the violin. Or rather, she rapes the violin. Or fellates it. Whatever she does to the damn thing, she makes it scream, and she writhes like something damned while she does it. Drop that kind of bow-shredding passion down into the center of a group of old guys who have, let's face it— while consummately professional, and with an immense legacy of brilliant material to draw from— been doing their schtick for going on four decades now. Sparks fly. You ever hear Nocturne fused with Bohemian Rhapsody? Jethro Tull playing Kasmir as an instrumental, with a screaming violin front and center?
We were all on our feet after that one. We had no choice.
I had no idea this woman was touring with Tull. I was expecting just another pleasant evening of old prog-rock chestnuts, marred only a little by Ian Anderson's inevitable straining for those high notes that have been eluding him for fifteen years now. Lucia Micarelli, you've given new life to my favorite dinosaurs. The fact that you're young enough to be their granddaughter only makes it that much hotter.
September 22 2005: I'll Buy That for a Dollar (more)
Done. Finito. "Blindsight" is officially in production.
It almost fell apart there at the end. I seriously considered pulling the plug on the whole project— because having sworn that I would never again see a novel of mine hacked down the middle; having therefore made absolutely certain that Blindsight weighed in around a modest 100,000 words (even though the contract called for 120,000); having seen my editor sign off on my second draft with barely a handful of typos to correct; the last fucking thing I expected was a voicemail from the blue telling me that Blindsight had been pulled from production at the last minute because it was too long.
The first complaint they leveled was that the novel was "close to" 120K (an odd complaint, given that the contract explicitly called for a novel of just that length). Then they counted again and said Sorry, it's only 112K— but it's still too long. If you could cut the technical appendix by about half, that would do it.
My editor was not happy about this— he liked the appendix so much he'd already offered to publish the uncut version in the NY Review of Science Fiction— but this was what Production said needed to be done. So God help me, I did it. I cut the technical appendix by about half.
Then he came back and said, you know how we said that would be enough? Just kidding. Actually, the way he put it was Is there any way to cut 3000 words from the actual text— I don't think so, but you may have an idea.
Think of what this implies. David Hartwell, renowned editor of everyone from Herbert to Heinlein, could not think of any way to further cut "Blindsight". But that didn't matter, because someone in Marketing — some beancounter who probably wouldn't know what to do with a line of prose that didn't contain a decimal point— was now making the editorial decisions.
The official explanation for these repeated not-enoughs is that "Blindsight" contained an unual amount of dialog, which meant more short lines, which meant more white space per page, which meant that a given number of words occupied a greater number of pages than usual. Personally, I'm skeptical; I formatted "Blindsight" myself in exactly the same way that "Starfish" was formatted when it came out, just to check— and sure enough, it occupied fewer pages than "Starfish" would have even if both books were coming out in the same format. (In fact, "Blindsight" is coming out with a larger page size, so its page count would be lower still.) Yes, I know I'm no typesetter, and my opinion is inexpert and weightless. On the other hand, Tor's own expertise has been somewhat wanting in a number of areas (check past entries for examples), so I'm inclined to go with my own numbers on this one.
Happy ending, though. As it turned out, I didn't have to cut that last 3K. Maybe they saved enough by removing page breaks between chapters. Maybe Hartwell finally got someone to listen. The book still isn't as short as Marketing would like— it'll sell for a dollar more than they were shooting at, $US25.95— but at least the novel survives intact. And I don't feel horrendously hard done by over the cuts to the technical appendix. So now all I have to do is get permission from Ian Anderson and Susanne Vega to use their song lyrics as chapter headings. (I've got Ted Bundy in there too, but evidently Fair Use provisions let me quote serial killers without prior permission. Especially if they're dead.)
At this point, two problems remain. Maybe the bookstores won't bother ordering the title because the price is a dollar over the $24.95 "impulse-buy" threshold. Maybe, even if they do, the reading public won't buy it. David Hartwell suggests that we take the hit on the price and try to "sell the hell out of it".
I'm all in favour of that. From what I understand, sales of "ßehemoth" have been crappy.
Sept. 14 2005: The Ever-Growing Chain of Sausage
Added two (2) new sections to the Links page today: "Backlisters" is devoted to other sites that have transcribed my backlist into various e-readable formats, and "Alter Ego" offers up a handful of links relevant to my recent "relapse into Academia".
Don't say I never do anything for you. Just say I never do much.
Sept 6, 2005: For the Children...
So now I learn that "Odyssey" — the anthology of educational juvenile sf to which I contributed a while back — has been selected for something called the "Our Choice 2005" catalog by The Canadian Children's Book Centre. While Julie Czerneda (the editor of said volume) tacked the word "prestigious" onto that evident honor, I remain skeptical of anything with the word "catalogue" in it. Sounds to me like a marketing ploy.
I might have taken a little self-aggrandising bow even so, were it not for the fact that my own contribution to "Odyssey" seems to have been utterly loathed by members of the target audience who found it "horrible", with "no point, and the world blows up at the end." No big surprise there, of course: larvae and I generally hated each other even when I was one myself.
Still to come: judging from a cryptic voicemail just in from New York, Tor Books is preparing to ass-fuck me yet again, this time over "Blindsight". Details as they arrive.
August 28 2005: The Mohn/Watts Tolkien Smackdown
In a token attempt to keep some kind of content flowing, I've posted new archival material over in "Backlist"— to wit, a point-counterpoint disagreement between Steve Mohn and myself over Peter Jackson's cinematic adaptation of "Lord of the Rings". Those who didn't read On Spec last year will find this new, and perhaps even moderately entertaining. Hopefully the rest of you will be a little understanding; it's not easy typing here with this 9" frying pan strapped preemptively across my ass...
August 25 2005: Lesson In Inner City Etiquette #1
One might have a reasonable expectation of privacy at 5:30 a.m. in one's own living room. However, it was at that time this morning when I learned it may not be a good idea to be completely naked when you let in some leather-vested, tattoed, pierced-up dude with a soul patch after finding him pounding on your sliding picture-window patio door. Even if he says he only wants to use the phone.
It can leave a false impression. It can lead to complications.
August 18 2005: Postdoctoral Gel Jock
Been quiet on the 'crawl lately. Here's why:
New gig. Molecular genetics. University of Toronto.
It's pretty cool. I'll be working on DNA-barcoding — a technique pioneered by Paul Hebert of the University of Guelph, which basically amounts to deriving a genetic mugshot of any given species on the basis of a very small snippet of DNA (snippet of choice is the Cytochrome Oxidase 1 gene, but there are others). This technique has enormous potential for biodiversity inventories and conservation work, but of course all it really does is generate knowledge; whether anything useful gets done with that knowledge depends on political will. I tend to be skeptical about that part of the model.
Still. You gotta try, right?
So I'm starting a post-doc under the auspices of Dan Brooks at U of T. I know shit about molecular genetics, so there's going to be a steep learning curve. But there's also a decent salary, and equipment funds, and field work in potentially exotic locales. And after all, biotech and molecular genetics figure prominently in my science fiction; so next time I sit down to write about this stuff, I may actually know what I'm talking about.
Anyway, I'm gearing up for all this stuff, so postings to the newscrawl are going to be less frequent for a while. But they won't go extinct: I've got new links to post, and new documents to set up in BackList. And let's not forget "Blindsight": I'm gonna have to build a whole new series of pages (and a parallel timeline) around that mother over the next few months. And who knows; the science half of this page might really take off after a bit.
So don't stop watching this space. For the next little while, though, one eye will do.
August 9 2005: More Starfish Options
In the time-honoured tradition of if you want something done right, I've added a couple of options to the free "Starfish" download on the Backlist page. Clicking that novel's cover art now bounces you to yet another page, where you can either download the novel as a PDF or as a zipped html file (which I'm told is the optimum source for anyone who wants to translate the book into another format). Alternatively, you can simply read the damn thing online (chapter links are provided at the top of the page).
I'll be doing the same thing for "Maelstrom" eventually, but again, you'll have to be patient. "Maelstrom" has a lot more in the way of complex formatting, so it'll take longer. Plus, I have a life.
August 4 2005: Vamp Executable Fucked
For reasons which remain completely mysterious, the downloadable standalone executable version of my Vampire Domestication talk (previously available through a link on the "In Progress" page) has stopped working properly. It stops running a third of the way in — at a natural break that might be perceived as the ending to a much shorter talk — and gives no error message to suggest that anything has gone wrong. I have no idea how long this has been going on, and I shudder to think how many people might have been refered to this site for its brilliant satire of the Big Pharma, only to find what amounts to an introduction and not nearly so much wit and venom as advertised.
So I'm asking any of you who downloaded the executable; please, please e-mail me here and tell me a) when you did so, and b) whether it ran all the way through. The complete talk ends on the "Future Promise" slide with the line "We can virtually guarantee that nothing will go wrong". The gimped talk ends on the "Something Happening Here" slide, and the line "something that might even qualify as a separate subspecies." If I can find out when this happened, maybe I figure out what went wrong. In the meantime, I have of course disabled the download (the web-based version still works fine).
Again. Please drop a line if you've downloaded the app, whether it worked properly for you or not. I've never asked anything else from you guys.
August 1 2005: Atwood Smackdown
I've started adding nonfiction to the "Backlist" page — the first being my On Spec editorial on Margaret Atwood's infamous "science fiction=talking squids" claims. It's posted on the page itself as html, and also as a pdf.
Speaking of pdfs, I've decided to redeploy "Starfish" and "Maelstrom" as html documents, which (I'm told) are much easier to rip and translate than the pdfs I've offered so far. Hopefully, if anyone out there still wants to transpose those novels, they'll be able to do it from the html without nearly the formatting violence that happened at oh, say, manybooks.net.
Haven't done it yet, but soon. Watch this space.
July 28 2005: From Whore to Slut
It's been a few days now since I stopped selling it and started giving it away (well, Tor's still selling it on my behalf, actually. Guess what that makes them.) Time to collect some preliminary data. My pdf's of "Starfish" and "Maelstrom" have been transposed into:
zipped html, iSilo, and Plucker formats (whatever the hell those are) from MobileRead;
eReader, doc, degenerate pdf, Plucker, iSilo, iSoloX, zText, Rocketbook, TCR, iPod, and Librie (beta), formats (which I don't think is quite as wide a spread as it seems, since half the files have the same .pbf extensions) — not to mention a plain ol' vanilla "read online" option, from manybooks.net; and
my original pdfs at "Publish & Be Damned".
At least, these are the ones I'm aware of in addition to the files available right here.
It's pretty cool if you don't look too closely. Unfortunately, when you do look closely, this is what you see: files stripped of all text formatting. "ßehemoth" spelled "ÃŸehemoth" throughout. Italics gone, centered text gone, different fonts and page numbering hacked to shit. Even the pdfs offered at manybooks.net are screwed up. They could have simply copied my original pdfs as is, but noooo: for some reason they stripped out the text and repackaged back into pdf format but sans layout . The folks at Publish & Be Damned did use my originals (they're stored under "free books", by the way, not "science fiction") , but they don't seem to have honored my request that they link those pages back to rifters.com, which seems like a small enough thing to ask.
Some of the formats seem to work okay. My own pdfs look as intended. Mobileread's html version at least retains the different fonts and italicised text, although justification and page breaks have gone out the window and the ß in ßehemoth renders as a funny little "down arrow" graphic. I can't access a lot of the other formats on my antiquated system, so I don't know how they're rendering. (I'd appreciate finding out.) The versions I have been able to check out range from okay to virtually unreadable — and now I'm imagining all these hypothesised new readers downloading my work and giving up after half a page because of all the hashed ascii.
I guess I was pretty stupid about this. I assumed that if anyone was going to bother translating my stuff into other formats at all, they'd at least respect the layout (insofar as the medium allowed). I'm seriously starting to reconsider this whole experiment. It's too late to put the genie back in the bottle for "Starfish" and "Maelstrom", but if I do try this again I think I'll keep the "derivative works" rights to myself.
July 23, 2005: "Maelstrom" posted, "Starfish" fixed
So it turns out there were a few typos in that "Starfish" pdf I posted the other day— the "ß" in ßehemoth translated as a "9", and a few chapter headings got separated from their contents by page breaks. I've fixed that now, and I've also uploaded "Maelstrom" on the Backlist for anyone who wants to see what happens next. "Maelstrom" was a bit of a black sheep — it was the most infodense volume of the trilogy, and a lot of people felt really clobbered after the seductive insubstantiveness of "Starfish" — but you know, going back over it now, I really think it rocks. There's a shitload of cool ideas in there, and things blow up up real good too. (Treasure this moment; I am not usually given to gratuitous boasting.)
I'm also astonished to discover that some fellow called Alexander Turcic has already converted "Starfish" to a variety of other e-readable formats and posted them at mobileread.com, just a couple of days after I'd made it available. I'd had no idea the book would speciate at all, let alone so quicky. Too bad he got the glitchy version.
I'll eventually post "ßehemoth" here as well, where it will appear to the world for the very first time as it was intended before the lampreys and marketers got hold of it: as a single, integrated volume with its internal balances and arcs unsplit. But that'll be a fairly large whack of effort — and since I have other pressing obligations (yes, Jena, I'm on it) I'll be posting other, smaller pieces in the meantime. A couple of recent stories, and maybe a previously-published essay or commentary here and there.
Because as we all know, the fact that you're even reading this means you just can't get enough of my opinions. Wait'll you see what I have to say about Margaret Atwood...
July 19 2005: "Starfish", gratis
Check the menu to the left. If you've been here before, you may notice that the "Shorts" option has disappeared, to be replaced by "Backlist". That's because I'm no longer just giving away short stories and essays; I've stuck my first novel over there, as a freely-downloadable pdf under a Creative Commons licence. "Starfish" will be back in print a year from now, but hey — why wait? And even if you wanted to wait, why pay?
The way this works is, you download "Starfish" thinking you're getting something for nothing. You start reading it off the screen until you realise, fifty pages in, that your eyes are bleeding from vicarious phosphor burn. So you try printing it out until your printer jams, or runs out of paper, or you just do the math and realise that a free book isn't such a great deal after you've burned through a whole toner cartridge. But by then you're hooked on my deathless prose, so you go out and buy a real copy and I get rich.
That's the theory, anyway. In practice it would work better if the treeware was currently in print, but what the hell; at the very least it's decent PR. And anyway, you guys deserve a break after getting screwed on that whole two-volume thing for "ßehemoth".
Keep checking in. I'll post "Maelstrom" sometime in the next week or two.
July 15 2005: A Couple of Kudos
While perusing the proposed layout for the new edition of Starfish I discovered a Seppuku blurb excerpted from Starlog. I haven't kept up with that magazine since the early eighties; back then, it was an sfnal "People Magazine" — heavy on the TV and movie coverage, glossy and colourful, and as deep as a petri dish. I didn't know they even reviewed books; I'm especially taken aback that they'd review one of mine.
But apparently they did, and positively enough to warrant blurbage. (This is not to suggest that Tor puts only positive blurbs on my books; in fact, they just tried to slip a downright negative blurb onto Starfish. Seems counterintutitive, no? I'll give you the details when I know a bit more myself.) I've stuck the excerpt down at the end of the appropriate blurbs page. I suspect the review may have contained negative comments as well (any claim that "Watts's primary talent is his skill at projecting paranoia" carries with it the implication that his skill at actual story-telling may be secondary); if so, I'll post those as well when I get my hands on the whole review.
Also, I've been told that my short story "A Word for Heathens" got an honorable mention in Dozois's latest "Year's Best Science Fiction" anthology. Whee.
July 6 2005: Blinded by the Sight.
Well, I've just sent the latest draft of "Blindsight" off to Tor. This is officially the "final" draft, but it isn't really. Even if my editor embraces it exactly as is, there's still the copy-edit and galley phases to go through, and I know me. I'll be making changes to the damn thing until they pry it from my cold unpaid hands.
I'm much happier with this draft. At times, when I pick it up and start reading at random I think it's a work of genius. (Of course, other times I think it's pretentious bullshit, but I always thought that. The whole liking-it thing is a relatively recent development. It seems to have something to do with how many hours I've gone without sleep.)
One of the things I've changed is the quotes I'm using as chapter headers. I'm quoting everyone from Aristotle to Ted Bundy (yes, including Jethro Tull), but the story itself takes place in the 2080s— it'd look pretty dated for such a tale to not cite any pithy quotes from later than 2004, hmmm?
So I've made some up. One or two I've even attributed to real people alive today, although they haven't actually said the things attributed to them yet. That should give Tor's legal department something to chew on...
Anyhow, for those of you who are interested, here's some of the things famous people will be saying over the next half-century or so:
"The Glass Ceiling is in you. The Glass Ceiling is conscience"
— Jakob Holtzbrinck, The Keys to the Planet.
"If you can see it, chances are it doesn't exist."
—Kate Keogh, The Case for Suicide
"Grunts know the enemy first-hand. They know the stakes, the price of poor strategy. What do the generals know? Overlays and Tactical plots. The whole chain of command is upside-down."
—Kenneth Lubin, Zero Sum
"Species used to go extinct. Now they go on hiatus."
—Deborah MacLennan, Tables of the Reconstruction
But perhaps the two most essential quotes in the whole book are the real ones that show up on the very front page:
"This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real."
"You will die like a dog for no good reason."
Kind of says it all, huh?
July 3 2005: SF Site Review
Victoria Strauss has reviewed "ßehemoth" on the SF Site. Unlike most reviewers (Gerald Jonas of the NY Times was another welcome exception) she waited to review both volumes as a single novel, and perhaps that's part of the reason she seems to get it on a deeper level than some others have. While many reviewers are content to synopsize the plot and point their thumbs up or down, Strauss sketches out explicit thematic architecture: this is where each character stands; this is how they fit together; these are the threads that arise from their interaction. Lengthier critiques have gone into greater depth (Jan Stinson's retrospective on the whole trilogy, for example), but I haven't seen anyone thumbnail the essentials as concisely as Strauss did.
And it doesn't hurt, of course, that she absolutely loved the book. I've excerpted some of the raves on ßehemoth's Blurbs page if you don't have time for the whole review.
June 22, 2005: Blindsight Cover Art: From one abyss to another.
Overseen while blog-hopping: "Johnny Appleseed was a biological terrorist." I wish I'd said that.
Three pretty baubles from Tor today: a trio of concept sketches, one of which will ultimately form the basis for the cover art on "Blindsight". Tor hasn't told me yet who the artist is, but I really like the work; it's a distinct departure from my rifters covers (which it pretty much has to be, given the change in subject matter, but still — I'm sure a few of you will be relieved that I'm out of that particular rut). I've put them in the gallery (link to left). Check them out. (You may have to scroll down — their thumbnails are down at the end of the array.)
Now if only they'd assign people half as talented at jacket text...
June 20 2005: Revisionist Futurism
Thanks to Jena Snyder's comments, I've considerably tightened and improved that whole "jacket text" thing from the 17th. But rather than print the updated version here, I'm just going to go back and rewrite my previous entry with the updated draft. That way, I'll be spared the embarrassment of knowing that those of you who came late to the party saw me at my not-best.
Sadly, it's too late for the rest of you.
June 17 2005: "Blindsight" jacket text (updated June 20)
I haven't even handed in the final draft of "Blindsight" and already Tor's working up the jacket/catalog text. This is pretty commendable, but the text itself is kind of, well, clumsy and, well, error-ridden. (I'm actually a bit scared to think they'd use it to represent my book in public.) Fortunately, though, Tor gave me a day or two for "comments or revisions". It may not seem like much, but at least they told me about the deadline this time.
So I wrote my own take on the flap text. I don't know whether what follows will show up on the final jacket; in the past the production text has generally been pretty close, but there've usually been little "improvements" inflicted here and there by people who don't appear to have actually read the book. Anyway, for what it's worth, here's my take on the dust-jacket for "Blindsight":
Two months since the stars fell...
Two months since sixty-five thousand alien objects clenched around the Earth like a luminous fist, screaming to the heavens as the atmosphere burned them to ash. Two months since that moment of brief, bright surveillance by agents unknown.
Two months of silence, while a world holds its breath.
Now some half-derelict space probe, sparking fitfully past Neptune's orbit, hears a whisper from the edge of the solar system: a faint signal sweeping the cosmos like a lighthouse beam. Whatever's out there isn't talking to us. It's talking to some distant star, perhaps. Or perhaps to something closer, something en route.
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 some 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.
You send them all to the edge of interstellar space, praying you can trust such freaks and retrofits with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find.
But you'd give anything for that to be true, if you only knew what was waiting for them...
June 16 2005: Better Undead than Unread
It took long enough, but here it is: a zipped, downloadable, standalone executable version of the Vampire Domestication talk (for Windows only, I'm afraid). Be warned: it's five megs zipped, six when extracted. But once you've got it, it can sit on your hard drive forever.
Assuming that's what you want...
June 12 2005: Monkey on the Rack
I've just received a fan e-mail from a guy who picked up my collection "Ten Monkeys Ten Minutes" at — wait for it — the Vancouver International Airport. I made him repeat it, just to confirm the message hadn't been garbled in transit.
Science fiction specialty stores don't even stock TMTM. The very thought of an airport bookstore — a species renowned for loading nothing but King, Ludlum, and Crichton onto their shelves — actually stocking an obscure skiffy collection from a small Canadian press? It boggles the mind. I've had my doubts about these Edge/Tesseract people (for one thing, I don't believe I've actually received an annual statement of account from them, ever) but if they're getting their backlist onto shelves in airports then they've got to be doing something right.
Any corroborative accounts would be gladly received.
May 29 2005: The Sudbury Ambassador
I've just encountered an essay by Dr. David Robinson of Laurentian University. A remix of a piece that first appeared in Sudbury Mining Solutions, it undertakes a "psycho-mythological analysis" of Sudbury—i.e., it explores fictional portrayals of that city. If you're familiar with my books you'll know that significant chunks of both Maelstrom and ßehemoth (including the climax of the whole series) take place in Sudbury. So even though I'm a pretty obscure talent by mainstream standards, you might expect some mention of the rifters trilogy.
Scroll down past the stuff about Northrop Frye, go on past all those descriptors of Sudbury as Shangri-La to be found in Rob Sawyer's work — that's right, keep going — way past the point at which most surfers have given up. And—there:
Hey, he calls the trilogy "brilliant". Says "Watts has produced the best disaster story in years and has remade the distopian [sic] novel." And then goes on to say that in my rifters books, Sudbury is portrayed as "one of the last safe places on earth ... an outpost of civilization ... where science and nature meet. It is a bit better and a bit safer than the rest of the world."
Dr. Robinson's perspective seemed a bit rosier than the one I remembered writing, so I went back to Maelstrom to remind myself how I'd introduced the place:
Sudbury had arrived DOA in the twenty-first century. Decades of mining and a substrate of thin, poorly-buffered soil had seen to that. The Sudbury stacks had been the epicenter for one of the first really big acid blights in North American history. It was a benchmark of sorts.
Not that this was entirely a bad thing. Legend had it that lunar astronauts had once practiced in its scoured gray environs. And the area's lakes were truly beautiful, clear and blue and lifeless as chemically-treated toilet bowls. The substrate was relentlessly stable, planed and leveled by long-vanished glaciers; the west coast could fall into the ocean, but the Canadian Shield would last forever. Exotic alien lifeforms would disembark from tankers or lifters at the Industrial Horseshoe around Lake Ontario, wreak local havoc as they always had, but you'd have to be one tough chimera to get past the acid-washed outskirts of Sudbury, Ontario. Its dead zone was like a moat, a firebreak burned into the countryside by a hundred years worth of industrial poison.
It couldn't have suited CSIRA better if it had been planned. Here was a place resistant to the calamities that threatened the rest of the world, by virtue of having already lost anything of real value.
Oh yeah. That's it all right. A place where science and nature meet.
But you know, Dr. Robinson isn't wrong. Sudbury is shown as a safer place, a better place, than the rest of the world. I'd meant it ironically — see, the planet has deteriorated into such a shithole that even Sudbury looks good by comparison — but it also felt good to center the action in a place so far removed from the usual big-city locales of earthbound pot-boilers. Not everything takes place in New York, or BAMA, or even Toronto. Things change; and in fifty years, while Sudbury may not have got much better, the rest of the planet is bound to get a whole lot worse.
It's like Obi Wan remarked once he was dead. A great deal depends on your point of view.
May 26 2005: Rifter Resurrection
Well, Tor finally came right out and admitted it: Starfish is officially out of print no matter what Amazon.com tries to tell you. The good news is, it will shortly be back in print — circa summer 2006 — as a trade paperback. I'm hoping for a coincident release with Blindsight — now that might generate some synergistic sales...
Even better, if you can't find the book anywhere and you don't want to wait a year for the resurrection, you'll shortly be able to download it gratis from this site. Tor has become considerably less hard-assed about free downloads since Cory Doctorow proved so definitively that you can increase sales by giving your work away. (Of course, it helps if you can write like Cory can; I've got to settle for writing like me.)
It won't happen for a couple of weeks at least; I'm about to move apartments, and after that I'm heading into the North Atlantic for a while, and between those two things I've gotta finish the rewrite on Blindsight. But as soon as I get a free day I'll go back through my files and cobble together nice-looking pdfs of Starfish (and Maelstrom too, while I'm at it), and then you can stare at all those eloquent dystopian pixels until your eyes bleed.
Watch this space.
May 22 2005: Pat York, 1948-2005
Pat York is dead. Car accident. Pat was a schoolteacher and an sf writer whose stories appeared in venues ranging from Analog to Realms of Fantasy, and if you ever ploughed through the Acknowledgments for my last couple of books you will have seen her name there as well. We both belonged to a writer's group that coalesced every summer to workshop at an undisclosed location on a not-so-remote island paradise. She left her mark on my writing, and on that of others with stronger voices. She taught me the right way to do crunches.
Now she's dead, and nobody saw it coming because after all it wasn't one of those "courageous battles with cancer" or "self-destructive spirals into drugs and alcohol" whose endings are signposted so far in advance. It was just a road, and a car, and a roll of the dice in an indifferent universe. It could happen to any one at any time. Last night it happened to Pat York.
That's all she wrote. She is missed.
Later, that same morning (May 14 2005): Yes!
Got it! Vampire Domestication now runs on Firefox and Opera as well. And many effusive thanks to Nathan Bardsley for pointing out a critical backslash in my source code. Once again, check out the In Progress page.
May 14 2005: Sermon on The Count
This took way longer than I expected, and was more stressful to boot — but I've posted a slide-show (Flash required) of the whole Vampire Domestication lecture, its soundtrack completely remastered in the studio. You'll find it over at In Progress. It's a big honking wadge of data (around 6 Megs), and I do go on a bit (35-40 minutes), but you may find it of interest for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I dare anyone to come up with a more plausible biological rationale for vampires; and secondly, if we ever do find these creatures lurking in our genes, does anyone seriously doubt that it'll take Big Pharma more than a couple of weeks to start mass-producing them "for the children"?
Anyhow, if you're interested, there it is. Tell your friends; it'd be a shame if I went to all this work for only the four of us (I'm especially proud of the cheesy corporate cartoons and the Orwellian logos). I'll post a downloadable standalone .exe file sometime over the next few days.
PS. For some reason this doesn't seem to be working on Firefox or Opera, only Internet Explorer. I don't know why; It worked fine on all of them when I tested it locally. And it's already past 1a.m., so I'm going to bed unfulfilled. Ah well. Everyone's got IE anyway. It's virtually illegal not to.
I hate it when this happens. I hate it when a piece of Microsoftware behaves better than the little guys...
May 6 2005: Rrrrr...
Today was the day I was going to make up for my extended silence by posting my Vampire-Domestication talk as a Flash animation — until, tweaking the acoustic settings for just the right ambience, I managed to fry my sound card. (And then, while I was making this entry, my bloody html app froze up — twice, now — so I'm typing this for the third time). This really, really bites.
But as a consolation prize, Derryl Murphy passed on a bit of real-world news relevant to the subjects of mind control, cats, and my rifters novels, so I'm not totally bereft. I post it in the next column.
April 18 2005: Neffies and Indies
Maybe this is some kind of joke, but apparently ßehemoth: ß-Max is a finalist for something called the N3FFYs (that's the "National Fantasy Fan Federation Speculative Fiction Awards" to most of you). I am not quite sure what to make of this. Other finalists in ß-Max's category include C.J. Cherryh, Larry Niven, Terry Pratchett, and Deborah J. Ross — and if I'm reading the "Eligible Candidates" list correctly, the lot of us beat out such luminaries as China Miéville, Neal Stephenson, and Gene Wolf (to name but a few) . To think that anybody might think that half of my novel, chopped off at the midpoint, would be more worthy than, say, The Confusion in its entirety, is deeply disturbing. It makes me wonder if the whole list of finalists might not be some kind of "sample ballot", set up to show prospective votors what a list of real finalists might look like when the voting gets to that stage. I could see ß-Max being listed there as a kind of in-joke, perhaps.
Adding to the strangeness, nobody has actually told me I've made these finals. I stumbled onto the site while ego-surfing. So I'm not sure what the deal is. But I'm prepared to be honored if this is legit.
Also, rifters.com has gotten a fair flurry of hits over the past few days from a site called IndieTorrents.com. I'm curious as to what these folks are saying about me, and why all the traffic — but their forums are locked out to nonmembers, and the only way to become a new member is to be recommended by an extant one, and since we're talking about a BitTorrent site for independent music I seriously doubt I'd warrant membership anyway. But it makes the question all that much more mysterious; why would an "ethical independent music" site link to rifters.com?
That traffic has slowed to a trickle by now, but if you got here from IndieTorrents, how about dropping me a line and filling me in?
April 14 2005: Rorschach Radial
Well, I said I'd post this if I got permission, which I did, so here it is. NOTE WELL: the logo was designed by Chris Knight and belongs to Ad Astra, whose explicit permission you need if you want to market a line of earrings after it or something. (Admiration from afar, on the other hand, constitutes fair use.)
The image doesn't quite do it justice; you're looking at something worn for three days straight, tossed into the dirty laundry bin, retrieved, and then kind of mooshed down onto a flatbed scanner. Wrinkles and the occasional cat hair grace the rendering. But notice the artistic ambiguity: what is this, anyway? SG-1? Moonbase Alpha? 21rst-century Stonehenge? A printed mind-control circuit implanted in someone's medulla oblongata? Could be anything, really; but whatever it is, it's spacey and high-tech. And the whole thing fits nicely over the left nipple, right about where the alligator would go if this was one of those lame-ass yuppie polo shirts from the eighties. It's small and elegant, not like those lurid aprons with Spidey splashed at half-scale from crotch to neckline. You can actually wear this thing in public.
Speaking of lurid t-shirts that splash their imagery across the whole thorax, I cobbled together one of those myself for my first night at the con. I basically just slapped some signage around the glorious artwork Scott Clarke sent me a while back — and while no Knight, I thought it turned out rather nicely:
The subtitle attracted at least one sideways comment from a woman who wondered if I considered myself a feminist. Semantic and sociobiological distinctions followed. But I'm pretty sure that anyone who's read the story (this person hadn't) would get it.
April 12 2005: Ad Astra Post Hoc
Well, I'm back from my Guest of Honour gig. Went pretty well. The Green Room was expertly run and well-stocked with food and alcohol, the VGA projector was available on cue, the panels were fun (although perhaps lacking a bit of an edge — there were a few spots in the schedule where the only choice was between "Costume Sewing" and "General Aviation", not exactly a heart-stopping selection). The audiences were enthusiastic and my reading surprisingly well-attended, given that it took place in a hot and airless little room. My gift basket and complimentary golf shirt rocked — an especially nice surprise, since con t-shirts are generally fun to wear at the time but get you really strange looks the moment you step into the real world. This particular garment was subtle, understated, high-tech, and cryptic. You could wear it in the heart of Bay Street and nobody would bat an eye. (I'll scan the logo and post it here some day if I can get permission from the artist.) I met some cool people, fans I'd only known from e-mail, others I hadn't known at all. Reconnected with buddies and fellow writers who really shouldn't have needed a con as an excuse to get together.
I was a bit worried about the vampire talk. They'd scheduled it on Sunday afternoon, when half the attendees would've left already. Plus they stuck it at the end of two other consecutive vampire-related hours, so even the fang-weenies who hung around might have had enough by then. But I begged and grovelled throughout the weekend to try and get people to come, and a fair number of them did, and you know, as for the others, it was their loss because that talk smoked. I walked out of there fending off the raves with a shovel. Couple of people even wanted to know when I'd be giving it again, so they could come see it a second time. (Sadly, there'll be no second time, at least not as of this scribbling. There's no Vampire Domestication Tour '05 scheduled — although I may post the talk and the complete slideshow on this site eventually, if I can figure out an effective format.)
There was one relative downer about the whole thing. There's this other writer, not sf but horror and porn and whatever paid the bills, who used the con to announce that after twelve years as a full-time author he was cashing it all in and getting a job as a prison security guard. He's been doing this writing thing for longer than me, so perhaps I'm looking at my own future. "Forty-two is no age to be living by the seat of your pants" he remarked — and being five years older than that myself, and with my own butt cheeks starting to show through the fraying denim, I could do nothing but nod and hum and pretend to be suddenly distracted by one of those cute flourescine-haired anime-impersonation chicks that were always wandering the halls. (They seem to be springing up in the wake of the goths like day-glo flowers on a scorched black battlefield. Not that there weren't a few cute goths in attendance as well, mind you. Fraying butt-cheeks or not, I notice these things.)
I also got told I don't look anything like my picture. I'm not sure whether this was a compliment or not, but I've decided to take it as one.
April 5 2005: Vampires in the Workplace
So according to Amazon, Starfish is in print again, and shipping in 1-2 business days. Then out of print. Then in again. Jeez.
But that's not why I've gathered you here today. No, I'm here to point out that there's a whole new thing going on at "In Progress". Those of you who've been following this newscrawl may remember that I'm a Guest of Honour at Ad Astra this weekend (although they still haven't got back to me about the per diem. Actually, they haven't got back to me about much of anything...) Anyway, among my other duties I'm supposed to give an hour-long talk on whatever tickles my fancy — so I thought I'd tell everyone about Big Pharma's incipient Vampire Domestication program. You'll have to go to the con to hear the talk, but I've selected a few of the slides I'll be showing and posted them here.
Unfortunately they've scheduled me at the ass-end of the weekend, when everyone is worn out and half of them have left already. Plus it'll be the third consecutive hour of vampire-related programming, so many of those who remain will be vamped out. I've already been told by several close friends that they have to do their nails that hour and won't be attending.
Their loss, really. This talk is gonna kick ass.
April 1 2005: Heralding Holly
A couple of days back I mentioned Derryl Murphy's Wasps at the Speed of Sound, and commended it to you. And it occurs to me now that Derryl is not the only bud worthy of commendation: Holly Phillips recently came out with In the Palace of Repose (also from Wildeside). I didn't mention it at the time because I had no direct connection with it (this half of the newscrawl is supposed to be all about me, after all), but dammit, the woman can write. In fact, as a fellow author once told me (he remains nameless because I haven't asked permission to quote him), "She's a better writer than you or I will ever be."
I think he's right.
March 31 2005: The fate of all life
Starfish is extinct, according to Amazon.com. Officially "out of print". At least, the mass market paperback is described thus — which is a bit odd, because the the hardcover (which was remaindered years ago) is still listed as an active title.
Ah well. Had to happen eventually. I guess I'll be posting it as a pdf at some point.
March 29 2005: Wasps at the Speed of Sound
Wildeside Press has just released the first collection of stories from my buddy Derryl Murphy. The Canadian sf "community" can be a bit incestuous at times — one of the reasons I've pulled away from it in recent years — but this is one of those Sturgeonesque cases where you can actually make a case for the inbreeding. Wasps' evocative cover art was rendered by the (also-evocative) Elaine Chen (whom I should probably reconnect with soon even though her site's on fucking Geocities, which tries to plant spyware cookies on your hard drive every time you visit); and the introduction was written by me. Not a bad little package overall, with Derryl's own wild-ass ideas front and center. I've posted the intro in Shorts. Check it out. Then buy the book.
March 19 2005: Rave from the Times
Just got a sneak peak at tomorrow's NY Times review of ßehemoth (follow Blurbs to excerpts), and my apprehensions about Gerald Jonas writing "what he thinks is a positive review" have been swept aside like an environmentalist's concerns about Alaskan oil drilling. Firstly, Jonas treated both volumes the way they were meant to be, as a single entity; secondly, having put forward the usual concerns about a two-volume split, he went on to commend Tor and myself for "playing fair" with the readers by warning them about the split up front. Finally, he loved the book. Called it "an ambitious tale of conscience deferred", and praised the "complex moral calculus" contained therein.
In fact, he may have liked it better than I did.
March 9 2005: Beyond Human Comprehension (fictional)
Inspired by today's entry in the Science side of this newscrawl, I've posted a new Blindsight excerpt under In Progress. It's a bit of a father-son moment, followed by an expository dump describing how our hero pays the bills.
March 4 2005: The Solomon Solution (reprise)
Seems while I was out of town Rick Kleffel wrote a commentary for his Agony Column on Tor's lamentable practice of splitting books in two, as they did to my latest. Charlie Stross is the latest victim of this practice (not to mention Gene Wolfe); Patrick Nielson Hayden, a senior guy at Tor, responded— a bit defensively, I thought— on Elizabeth Bear's blog. He wasn't the only one. A lot of people responded, but nobody seemed to address the fundamental dishonesty of the practise. Even if book-splitting is necessary for commercial reasons, you should at the very bloody least tell the reader up front that they're only getting half a novel for the price of a full one. Tor doesn't do this; they'd rather risk leaving the reader feeling cheated than risk losing the sale— and while that strategy makes sense on a single-purchase timescale, it seems really maladaptive over the long term. (Yes, the warning is front and center on both volumes of ßehemoth— but I had to fight for that, and judging by Tor's subsequent releases it doesn't seem to have served as much of a precedent.
Something else that happened when I was away was that I started skimming through the copy of Blindsight I'd printed out for Laurie to read. Changed about three things on the first page, four on the second, snatched it back from her and have been red-lining since. Not quite ready for prime-time after all...
March 3 2005: The Return of the Incredible Lobster Man
Here I am again. My back is the color of a marischino cherry. Someone should invent some kind of, you know, creamy substance that can be spread across human skin to block the harmful effects of the sun's rays. Seriously. I bet they'd make a million.
The Edmonton Journal ran Doug Barbour's review of Seppuku during my absence (thanks to Jena Snyder for sending me the transcript). It glows, and if many of its phrases are lifted whole from Barbour's earlier review of ß-Max, well, how can anyone review the last half of a book without reviewing the first half as well? (Sadly, the question isn't nearly so rhetorical as it should be; lots of reviewers don't seem to have any problem at all.) I'm also told that Gerald Jonas of the NY Times has penned "what he thinks is a favorable review" of ßehemoth (hopefully both volumes, since he never weighed in on ß-Max), although it hasn't run yet. Kind of an ominous phrase, yes? "What he thinks is a favorable review". If a reviewer doesn't know for sure which side his own review comes down on, we'd better brace for some serious ambivalence.
Or maybe it's just my editor playing head games with me; he's got a bit of a rep for doing that. I guess we just wait and see.
Finally, I'd like to clarify some potential ambiguity in my pre-vacation posting about the "fucking weird"ness of retreating to an island paradise in the company of someone who'll be leaving me in a few days. In fact, it wasn't that weird. The trip was planned months before the plug was pulled; the cost was nonrefundable and the tickets nontransferable. We went because the money had already been spent, and because we still care about each other enough to have a good time even in the face of impending separation. And we did have a good time, albeit a sad one in places. Hell, if I was half as much fun to be around for the past year as I was for the past week, it would never have come to this.
Enough. See you tomorrow.
February 19 2005: Tesseracts 9 / Hiatus
Edge has posted info on the upcoming Tesseracts 9 anthology, which contains (nestled among many bright and shiny talents) a story coauthored by Derryl Murphy and myself. A story about children, no less. Here's the cover.
Hmmm. Can't say I'm wild about it. But maybe it's good to go in a new direction. Who am I to say what sells these these days?
In other news, this crawl is going on hiatus for the rest of the month; Laurie and I will be spending that time on vacation in Hawaii. No, this is not a reconciliation; it's just weird as hell. But I'm not proud. I'll take whatever I can get.
See you in March.
February 13 2005: Loon Tunes
There's this book-review website called "BookLoons". Don't know quite what to make of them. They certainly like both volumes of ßehemoth (even not having read Starfish or Maelstrom), but I've resisted mining their blurbs until now because I'd never heard of them before, and I don't really know who they are (beyond "your corner bookstore in the global village"). Also their reviews tend towards synopsis rather than analysis, and they have this really distracting habit of putting various words and phrases in 'single quotes, italics, and red font' for some reason.
However, my publicist at Fenn went out of her way to refer me to the Bookloons review, so who knows. Maybe these guys have some clout after all. Anyhow, I gave in and blurbed 'em.
February 10 2005: Blindsight away
Yesterday I sent Blindsight off to face the judgment of my editor. Still too close to it to make any kind of guess as to what that judgment might be. Maybe it's the best thing I've ever written. Maybe it's just a hundred-thousand-word essay posing as a story. Maybe my characters are quirky, dark, and vibrant; maybe they're just a series of buckets into which I've randomly tossed various tics and dysfunctions. I don't know. The theme is strong, though. The ideas kick ass, and I think the prose is mostly pretty supple. More than that I cannot say.
You can, though. I've been rationing out dribs and drabs of the book on the In Progress page, and in honor of yesterday's milestone I've dispensed another.
Addendum, or something: My entry of Feb 7 might leave the impression that Janine Stinson knows me way better than she actually does. (Don't bother going back to check if you haven't already read it; I've retrospectively revised that entry for greater clarity.) In fact, I've never met the woman; we've only corresponded intermittently over e-mail. This makes her read on Lenie Clarke all the more intriguing, insofar as the attributes she picked up couldn't have been read off of me personally. Her only source of insight was the character itself, and she saw things there that I didn't even know I'd put in. However, I do apologise for the sloppy wording in that (original) entry, and any misleading impressions it may have left regarding my relationship with Jan.
February 7 2005 (edited Feb 10): Stinson Revisited
Walking back home from my belated birthday dinner, Laurie brought up the retrospective Janine Stinson did on my rifters books. "She wasn't describing Lenie at all," she said of Jan's profile of my protagonist. "She was describing you. Replace 'Lenie' with 'Peter' throughout the article and see what you get." So I did. And after switching a few gender pronouns, this is what appeared:
"Peter tries hard to put forth a steel exterior, but actually spends a lot of time feeling very, very scared of his colleagues. He views them all through the lens of his past, which makes getting to know them thorny, at best." I also got: "Deeply conflicted, vengeful, and often indecisive, but never flaky," which I think Laurie agrees with except maybe for the last part. But the bit that really threw me was "Peter has become so emotionally scarred that he has great difficulty in discerning true caring from manipulation" — because yes, that applies to me, but I don't see how anyone could infer that about Lenie because she encountered so little honest caring throughout the story; it was pretty much manipulation across the board. So how could the distinction even appear?
Another thing that throws me is that Janine Stinson and I have never met face-to-face. Her take on Lenie was based solely on what appears in the novels, uncontaminated by any first-hand experience with the novellist. I did, in fact, base large parts of Lenie on a real person, but that person was not supposed to be me. This inadvertent leakage is a bit of a shock. So is the fact that the bit that leaked out fits so seamlessly into a character who is so explicitly fucked in the head.
"You see?" Laurie says, fading before my eyes. "It's you in there. It's all just you."
Jan wrote something else too, about the dread and uncertainty my writing evoked: "How does it feel to walk through life wondering when the rug will be pulled out from under you?" That much was me, at least. Ever since I was a kid, I've wondered that.
Now I know.
Feb 2 2005: Plenty o' something, anyway...
Just before heading off to the airport yesterday, I did an interview with Erik Sofge for an article about authors whose work deals with environmental issues. It's slated to run in a new magazine called Plenty. Judging from their website, Plenty aims to sell environmentalism as a kind of nouveaux-yuppie fashion statement — the subtext being Go green because it's sexy, not because we're all dead otherwise.
Not quite sure what to make of this. Certainly, the regular doom'n'gloom guilt-laden approach doesn't seem to be catching on, and — while the science of our global deconstruction is beyond refutation — most people still couldn't give a shit about gap analysis and fold catastrophes. On the other hand, people do care about sex and shopping; maybe a green Maxim is just what the doctor ordered. It's all a bit reminiscent of Bruce Sterling's Viridian movement, only glossier and more superficial — and again, maybe that's what works. I wish them well.
Still, a big part of me thinks that when you notice your house is burning, it makes more sense to yell Fire!! than to just mention to your roomies how utterly cool and stylish it would be to try out that fire extinguisher in the next room. I suspect some of that stodginess crept into my interview resposes, so we'll see whether I come across as a cool prophet of hip and stylish doom, or as just another pessimistic doofus from the Club of Rome.
Booklist seems to like Seppuku, by the way, although once again virtually the entire review consists of plot synopsis. (I conclude that they like the damn thing on the basis of a single line at the very end, which says that Seppuku "lives up to the promise" of its predecessor.) So maybe I can now safely describe Behemoth as "controversial", insofar as reviewers and readers tend to be a bit more polarised this time around; most reviewers like it (so far at least), while those who don't tend to find parts of it downright objectionable. Whether "controversial" translates into "better selling" I cannot yet say. I suspect not.
On the home front, I'm back under the same roof with my soon-to-be-ex-partner. Laurie remains kind and affectionate, which makes it easier. But the damage is done, and her mind hasn't changed, and very soon now there will be a huge hole in the middle of my life. I have no right to complain. Hardly a hour goes by when memory doesn't confront me with more evidence of how I got myself into this mess, and how courageous and stoic Laurie was to put up with for as long as she did. But I'm going to complain anyway, because I'm human, and I'm feeling sorry for myself.
This is my complaint: in a generally unjust universe in which evil prospers and no good deed goes unpunished, I get to be the token guy who truly reaps what he sowed.
January 29 2005: Life Still Sucks
Still stuck out in Vancouver. Still missing Laurie horribly, and hating myself for what I threw away. But the book is almost done, although it may well be crap given the conditions under which I'm finishing it. And Library Journal really liked Seppuku, which I guess is crawlworthy. Quote posted under Blurbs.
I wanted to keep personal stuff out of this page (hence its title). I've always been impatient with people who blog their hearts all over the noosphere. But then, I've traditionally been impatient with so many things, and look where it got me. God, this is hard — being stuck thousands of kilometers from home, unable to even see her. And when I do go home, it'll be even worse. Then there'll be no excuse for putting off the logistics.
People have been better to me than I had any right to expect. I still have friends out here and back home and in between, and they've helped. People I hadn't even previously met face-to-face have given me their evenings and taken me under their wings (thank you again, Alyx and Kelly). I'm so grateful to them all. I can't imagine where I'd be right now without that support.
But they can't change anything. They can't help me take anything back, or do anything over. It's all still set in stone.
I've lost her.
January 24 2005: Kicked in the Gut
Postings may be infrequent for the next little while. I've just learned that my partner of eight years and I are breaking up, and it's kind of taken the wind out of my sails.
I can't even blame her. I'm kind of a misanthrope, and lately it seems I'm always mad about one thing or another (Tor's behaviour hasn't improved my mood any), and I guess I'm not the easiest guy to live with in any case. Laurie stuck it out for eight years, and she tried so hard, and she was the best thing that ever happened to me. You know the song. You don't know what you got 'til it's gone.
Anyway. I may be licking my wounds for a while.
January 20 2005: Memos from Delugeland
I'm on the West Coast, recovering from three solid days of sinus-clogged misery during which I nonetheless finished transcribing the latest round of edits into Blindsight. The safe house doesn't even get cable, and if it keeps raining there won't be dick-all to do except write. I still wouldn't show the whole thing to anyone on pain of death, but I'm optimistic. Give me a week.
Another Seppuku review, from SciFi.com (don't count on that link for too long; it'll move to Science Fiction Weekly by next week). It's no rave— in fact, I've excerpted wordier "con" quotes than "pro" ones for the Blurbs page— but it's well-written and thoughtful. It's another "nice, but not as good as the first two" review. Also another "too bad Tor had to split the book" review, only Witcover is more explicitly critical of this practise than other reviewers have been, and I applaud him for it.
It's also another "Whoa, Watts crosses the line with this sexual sadism stuff" review, which (along with Kirkus) makes two of those so far. (Three, if you count my first-ever one-star reader review on Amazon.com, but I generally leave those reader reviews off on their own.) Maybe I should start worrying about that. I've already explained what I was trying to do with those scenes. Maybe I don't do it very well. The problem is, when you don't do a car-chase scene or a space-battle scene well, people just shrug and call you a hack. But blow a violent - sexual - sadism - as - metaphor - for - the - behaviour - of - multinational - corporations - in - the - third - world scene, and people are liable to think you're jerking off all over the keyboard when you write your novels.
For the record, I do jerk off all over the keyboard on occasion. But I never did it while writing any of those scenes.
January 16 2005: Go West, Old Man
Those to whom I owe e-mails may have to wait for a bit — I'm gone for two weeks to an undisclosed location (in Vancouver, but that's not disclosing much), in search of solitude to finish off Blindsight. Hopefully I'll be able to update this newscrawl from there (ever the optimist, I'm bringing my ftp and HTML apps), but no promises; the computer I'll be using runs XP, and we all know what that means
Maybe, if I have the time and the balls, I'll look up this John Burns character and buy him a drink. I've finally excerpted his review of ß-Max in Blurbs after sitting on it for a while because, well, I didn't quite know how to parse it. It was clearly not a rave—Burns raved about my other books (even Ten Monkeys, which hardly anyone else even noticed), but he's decidedly cool to the "interior drama" of ß-Max. At the same time, what he seems to be saying is I'm not really into this jazz stuff, which is different than as a jazz album, this sucks. So it's no recommendation, but it's no thrashing either, and am I just full to the brim of back-rationalisation or what?
Anyway, I think I've managed to disentangle the positive from the negative, and I've presented them both as is my usual schtick.
Wish me luck in the ftp department. If I have none, see you in February.
January 11 2005: Trib Review / Shades of Grey
The San Diego Union-Tribune likes Seppuku, which is nice. They do complain about the difficulty of jumping between two halves of a bisected book, delivered six months apart, which is understandable. And looking back over the ßehemoth reviews I've seen to date, I note that most of the negative comments concern the same complaint.
I blame no one for complaining; I complained myself, not that it did any good. But at the same time, I'm not responsible for Tor's marketing decisions, so I've decided on some chromatic editorialising. Grumbles about the two-volume release are now rendered in grey type on the ßehemoth blurbs page; still plainly visible (since they're both pertinent and justified), but faded— to reduce their visible impact next to criticisms that take my actual writing to task.
I hope neither of you think this is too self-serving. It does, after all, make that glorious Kirkus review jump right out at you...
January 8 2005: "A world turned up to eleven."
I seem to have grown on Rick Kleffel; he was underwhelmed with Starfish at first glance, but over time he seems to have turned into a major fan of the trilogy as a whole. He's just posted some glowing remarks about the rifters books in general and ßehemoth in particular on his Agony Column site. I especially like the part about being trapped in a room with Hannibal Lecter and 500 cups of coffee. That's going onto my Blurbs page for sure.
Kleffel's remarks also set my mind at ease insofar as I'd wondered if the ending of ßehemoth might be too mindlessly cheery and optimistic. I've been half-expecting people to accuse me of selling out. But at least as far as the Agony Column's concerned, that doesn't appear to be an issue.
Also, I never knew Chris Moriarty was so hot.
January 7 2005: Home.
I've posted the last of the stories from Ten Monkeys, a lost tale from the rifters saga. Check out the "Shorts" link.
January 5 2005: Reasons for Misanthropy (Part 351)
This fucking tsunami. Blogs littered with links to charities and big-hearted banks. Entire A-Sections of newspapers, day after day, devoted to Catching The Wave. Every country, every media outlet, competing to see who can climb higher on the bandwagon (Five Canadians Confirmed Dead, the Toronto Star gasps. FIVE!!!) Governments from municipal to global, endlessly one-upping each other with aid and expertise, desperate not to lose the Charity Race. (There's even a teensy rifters angle — some guy over on soc.history.what-if describes an alternate timeline in which Arthur C. Clarke, inspired by a copy of Starfish, throws his weight behind an improved Indian Ocean early-warning system which goes online in time to save thousands.)
Enough to warm the cockles of your hearts, eh? An estimated 150,000 dead so far, most of 'em not even God-fearing Christians and look how much we're doing to help 'em anyway. What an inspiring testament to the essential goodness of the human spirit.
Except a hundred fifty thousand is pretty small potatoes next to the cool million (actually 937,000, but you get the idea) hacked to death during the Rwandan genocide. You remember the Rwandan Genocide, don't you? When all these self-same media outlets and government agencies looked nonchalantly up at the clouds, whistling and twiddling their thumbs, and saying "Let's not be hasty, master hobbit" while Romeo Dallaire fought to keep the blood from bursting through the dike? Where were your fucking dedicated A-Sections then, you assholes? Where was the spirit of International camaraderie, who was racing to the pocketbook back then? You couldn't even be bothered authorising the use of the resources you already had on-site. Your leaders wouldn't even use the word "genocide" for fear that it would commit them to actually do something.
You know what I think? I think tsunamis are safe. You can pull out all the stops over natural disasters and feel good about yourselves because it's not your fault. 'Twas God, not Man, that killed all those poor bastards in the Indian Ocean, so you can all dogpile onto the relief effort and pat yourselves on the back with a clear conscience.
Genocides, now—those are a bit more problematic. You don't want to admit that human beings could do that to each other. You don't want to face the possibility that you could, under the right circumstances. The mere thought violates this whole elaborate model of self-affirmation you've built around yourselves. Darfur, the Nazi Holocaust, the abuse of children by kindly Men in Black and the carefully-worded collatoral damage that accompanies every incursion of big guns into small countries—shit like that blows through all your careful contrivance like a hurricane through a house of cards. So you deny. You look away. And afterwards—when it's far too late to do anything, when the evidence has grown so massive and undeniable that not even Helen Keller could fail to see it—you wring your hands, and beat your chests, and call out How could this happen? Why didn't anyone see it coming?
So enjoy your natural disasters while you can. Think of this latest one as a belated Christmas gift from the Almighty, one last opportunity to feel good about yourselves in the aftermath. Because the very concept of a "natural" disaster may be on the way out. The next tsunami may not even be a function of tectonic slippage; it just might arise from a chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf breaking off in the warming air and dropping into the Antarctic Ocean.
I'll be interested to see if anyone's willing to step forward and take responsibility for that death toll when it happens...
Click here for 2004 Newscrawl entries
Dec 5 2005: At least we're getting laid.
So, monogamy's old news: that's vassopressin, and at least amongst some mammals fidelity to your mate depends on how much of it you have cruising through your bloodstream. (Ever current, I stuck a scene into Blindsight where the protagonist's father snorts aerosolized vassopressin to keep himself faithful to his manipulative bitch of a wife.) But that's just a cuddle hormone. If you want real, unadulterated True Love, you're talking about a different molecule entirely, a protein called NGF (Nerve Growth Factor). These guys at Pravia University have shown— at least, according to the mainstream outlets— that when you're really in love, your levels of NGF go through the roof. And after a year, tops, you're out of love again, and sure enough, levels of NGF have dropped off.
Well, maybe. It's plausible enough, I guess; certainly, love doesn't last (all those poor bozos who've been with the same partner for twenty years may still call it love, but even they have to admit the thrill died early). And of course love ultimately reduces to neurochemistry, insofar as all human behaviour does. But still: NGF does a lot more than correlate with feelings of romantic horniness. It's involved in the development of sensory neurons, for example. It's involved in the healing of wounds and the transcription of ribosomal proteins. So it seems unlikely to me that NGF is some kind of "love molecule", no matter what Yahoo! calls it, More likely it's just one of a suite of chemicals that increases when sexual romance throws your whole metabolism on its side. It's correlation, not causation.
Not that I've read the original paper, mind you. It's much easier just to sit here and pontificate. And besides, there's much more heartening news on the sexual front: it seems that we artistic types get laid more often and more variously than the rest of you. There may even be a reason for it, one that combines sociobiology and neurochemistry together into a single wondrous thread:
It's because we're fucking crazy.
Nov 28 2005: T. Rex, T. Soprano
Cool molecular evolution take-home fact of the week: the first serious mistake Crichton made in Jurrassic Park involved the extraction of dinosaur DNA from Costa Rican amber. The oldest amber in Costa Rica is only 30-40 million years old, far too young to contain dinosaur remnants.
But the cool point of the story isn't what Jurassic Park got wrong, it's how the story would have gone if they'd got it right— if Crichton had sent his diggers to that part of the hemisphere where the amber was really old enough to turn the trick. If he'd been truly interested in veracity, if he'd really done his homework, he would have sent his expedition to the ancient sedimentary beds of— wait for it—
Yup. The wilds of New Jersey. Now wouldn't that have been exciting to watch unfold on the big screen. If HBO is anything to go on, the predators up there would have had velociraptor for an hors d'oeuvre.
Nov 15 2005: Prototype Rifter Tech
Twin bits of background ambience for you: according to the Drudge Report (which deals largely in its own brand of speculative fiction, but this particular item seems to be plausible enough), Honeywell has built a prototype flying spybot; while in the opposite direction, the US Military is funding research into an artificial gill to enhance the underwater capabilities of their divers.
There are rudimentary similarities between these real-world technologies and those portrayed in my rifters novels— indeed, these links were pointed out to me by others for exactly that reason— but I can hardly lay any great claims to prescience in either case. (In contrast, recent sightings of some Scottish dude who seems to have thrown off the AIDS virus bear a striking resemblance to elements of Gibson's "Virtual Lght".) My botflies are pretty similar to any number of sfnal surveillance floaters scattered throughout the literature (not to mention television shows and first-person shooters), and required no great leaps of predictive insight. As for the gill— well, my rifter implants operate on a whole different principle anyway. Gills filter dissolved oxygen from the water; the rifter electrolysis assembly cleaves its oxygen right off the water molecule. In fact, I remain skeptical that an artificial gill built along conventional gilly principles will work all that well for humans anyway. Sure, they work for fish and invertebrates, but those dudes have far lower metabolic rates (and thus, lower oxygen demand) than we do. The gas-exchange area for a gill supporting mammalian metabolism would be huge, unless they cranked countercurrent exchange rates through the roof. You could increase the functional exchange area by moving the liquids on either side of the membrane past each other really fast, although that would also increase the energy cost, reducing the advantage gas diffusion had over active electrolysis in the first place.
So I'm doubtful. I'd be more willing to bet on this Israeli invention that sucks oxygen from water via an induced vacuum than on Honeywell's attempt to tweak a technique optimised for cold-bloods. Then again, what's my opinion next to the blinding expertise of an industrial community that paid fifty grand for a toilet seat?
Nov 6 2005: Pride. And Prejudice. And Inclusive Fitness.
An intriguing piece in the NY Times this weekend on the subject of "Literary Darwinism". This is not, contrary to what you might expect, some half-clever reference to the back-stabbing behaviour of the literary community. Rather, it is a literal and legitimate sub-branch of sociobiology (or "evolutionary psychology", as certain ball-broken academics renamed it after one too many postmodern yahoos equated E.O. Wilson with Adolph Hitler because it was easier to sling epithets than learn the difference between empiricism and opinion) (but I digress). The premise is that the fictional characters of classic literature resonate with us because they behave in accordance with hardwired mammalian truths that we all know in our bones (even if that knowledge is hysterically repressed by one too many ignorant postmodern— well, you get the idea). In other words, to describe "Pride and Prejudice" as a fluffy romance is to miss the point: it's actually a thought-experiment in human behaviour, an exploration of kin-selection, mate choice, and inclusive fitness. And it doesn't matter that Jane Austen had no formal background in biology, or that terms like "kin selection" and "sneaky fucker hypothesis" hadn't been invented back then. Austin was qualified, as are we all, by virtue of being a mammal herself; it takes one to know one. And sociobiological terms are, after all, only labels hung upon behaviours older than the dinosaurs. Austin speaks of roses while we might talk of precopulatory bribes, and maybe she didn't know how many other species, from the arthropods on up, offer gifts to potential mates in the same way. Tomaeto Tomahto.
It's a cool field of study, and a cool overview by an author who evinces a healthy skepticism (the field does seem to be more rife with hand-waving and plausible conjecture than with hard data, sometimes). But there is at least one point that both the Literary Darwinists and their chronicler agree upon, and I can attest to its truth from first-hand experience:
Those who mix literature with biology tend to spend a lot of their time unemployed.
(Thanks to Lisa Beaton for the link.)
Oct 14 2005: Move Over, Jurassic Park
Cloning dinsoaurs by recovering fossilised DNA: it was a very cool idea at the time. But last week I attended a lecture up at the University of Toronto (quick recap: doing a post-doc there), and discovered a way wilder approach to the same problem. It involves chickens.
The thing is, dinosaurs didn't just go extinct. A bunch of them evolved into a variety of other birds and reptiles, the descendants of whom are still around today. So all those dinosaur genes are still floating around, actively coding away, in a range of species. Sure, they've changed over the past hundred million years or so— but they've changed in different ways for each descendant lineage, right? And if you take any given gene in a particular dinosaur descendant (a chicken, say), and compare it to the corresponding gene in a bunch of other descendants (pigeons, alligators, finches) what you get is a bunch of variants that have all descended from the same ancestral gene. And since each evolved differently, you can compare those differences and work backwards, step-by-step. You can backtrack the path that gene took over time, and ultimately converge on what the ancestral gene must have looked like. Look up phylogenetic analysis, Maximum Likelihood, and Maximum Parsimony if you're interested in the jargon, but the bottom line is you don't have to recover broken-down DNA from some musty old chunk of amber: you can figure out what the gene looked like and build it from scratch in the lab, all shiney and new as the day it first evolved. (Actually, you'd have to build three or four possible variants from scratch, because there's always some ambiguity over whether a particular base pair flipped this way or that in days gone by; but so what? Build all possible variants, test 'em all out, see which work and which don't.)
Evidently this hasn't been published yet, and they've only done it for one gene that codes for a visual pigment in archosaurs. But even that modest start has yielded some surprising results— because if these preliminary findings hold up, archosaurs a hundred million years ago had night vision comparable to that of modern mammals. Conventional wisdom holds that we mammals owe our visual acuity to an extended nocturnal habit, which we adopted to avoid all those hungry dinosaurs that were presumably limited to the daylight shift. Now though, at least one species of dinosaur had eyes as sharp as ours. Maybe they were stalking us by moonlight all along.
Fluke? Artefact? Paradigm shift? Who knows? We need shitloads more data. The problem with real science is, sometimes it's too damn slow.
But if you can do it with one gene, you can do it with others. You can do it with the whole damn code. I say we'll be extrapolating flesh-and-bone T-rexes in the lab inside three decades. Any takers?
Sept 28 2005: Great Balls of Tentacles!!!
OMG!!! Live Giant Squid caught on film! In his natural habitat! Going after food!
Sept. 13 2005: "Most of Science is Wrong"
First up, a general observation: if you don't watch The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, you really should.
Next, a specific one: you should especially watch The Daily Show this week, during their four-episode series of specials, "Evolution/Schmevolution". God help us, we have now reached the point where a troop of NY comedians are our best last hope against the Neocreationists.
Finally, the real subject of this posting: a lot of talk in the noosphere about this article from PloS (Medicine). Most scientific research, as it turns out, is "wrong". That's the way even science journalists are phrasing it, although that in itself is wrong; it's more accurate to say that the findings of most scientific research will be subsequently disproved.
No great surprise among scientists at this revelation, one of whom described it as a "trade secret". Bullshit. This isn't some unspoken shame that we've agreed to stow in the attic, as though it were some drooling Creationist cousin, when the company arrives: it's the very heart of how science works in the first place. If no findings were ever contradicted, if old results were never superceded by new ones, then knowledge itself would stop progressing. That's the nifty thing about science: unlike religion, it's self-correcting.
If you don't read the actual study — if you merely read all the stories about it— you'll come away with the sense that these guys somehow embarked on a massive survey of published results, tallying up the ones that were wrong vs. those that weren't. Nah. This study was theoretical; it consisted entirely of arcane letters representing "P-values" "Type 2 errors", and "bias". What the authors showed is that statistically-significant findings in the tech lit will be wrong more often than right simply as a probabilistic function of the way statistics works.
They then went on to list the various things that exacerbate this tendency: small sample sizes. Insufficient replication. Inconsistent methodologies. Bias. Well, duh. The only result that surprised me was that intensively-studied subjects in hot fields might be especially prone to error, not despite their high degree of replication, but because of it. Even there, though, I should have seen it coming. When you have a shitload of studies focusing on the same thing, the chances that at least one will find a "significant" result through random chance goes up, just as the chance of snake-eyes does when you increase the number of dice rolls. But even these results are ultimately self-correcting— because if it is such a hot topic, then all those other labs that didn't find significance are going to jump up and publish their negative results if for no other reason than to shoot their rivals down before they can suck up all the grants and glory.
That's another cool thing about science. It doesn't just withstand the venal spite and selfishness of the Human condition; it actually depends on it.
August 31 2005: "When the Levee Breaks..."
Start by building a city in a swamp. Below sea level. On the flood plain of the biggest river on the continent, in the middle of a hurricane belt. Then systematically destroy the surrounding wetlands, which would have served as a buffer against flooding. Then, in a nicely ironic touch, tie a very large chunk of your local economy into the extraction and export of greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels.
Now go hang out on Bourbon Street, and sip proprietary drinks from those souvenir glasses that look like long-necked hand grenades. Hum loudly (but no early Led Zeppelin, please) should anyone be uncouth enough to mention Global Warming.
I don't mean to sound heartless, but what the fuck did they think was going to happen?
Of course we've been down this road before, and I should have gotten used to such chronic stupidity by now. We are after all talking about a country in which frighteningly close to half the population (42%, according to a study released just yesterday) hold "strict creationist views, agreeing that 'living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time'", and in which nearly two thirds believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. Next to that kind of thinking, the folks who decided to set up shop in the Big Easy look like Mensa candidates.
So now the looters loot and the refugees starve and everybody left alive down there ends up with a Guiness-record case of dishpan hands. And since hardly any of them seem inclined to connect the dots between Katrina and this whole Climate Change thing, here's an interpretation y'all might be more inclined to take seriously: Maybe God is trying to tell you something.
Was it Heinlein who described "stupidity" as the only universal capital crime?
August 6 2005: I don't like spiders and snakes...or blacks...
Pursuant to that biology-of-racism thread we were pursuing a while back: you all know about operant conditioning, right? I show you a picture of a butterfly, and give you an electric shock. After a few iterations you go Wahhh!! every time you see a picture of a butterfly, for a while at least. If I don't keep up the reinforcement— if I stop delivering the electric shocks — the aversive response extinguishes after a day or so.
Now I show you a picture of a snake, or a spider, while giving you an electric shock. And again you go Wahhh!!!, only this time, when I stop delivering the shocks, it takes a lot longer for the aversive response to disappear. It's not that we're intrinsically afraid of spiders and snakes compared to birds and butterflies; it's that we're intrinsically more predisposed to be afraid of them if we have an excuse to be. If we associate a blue jay with a bad experience, we forget about it after a day; if we associate a pit viper with one, we hold a grudge for a lot longer.
From an evolutionary perspective it makes perfect sense; throughout our history one group of organisms has sometimes proven to be dangerous, and another group hasn't. Of course we'll be primed to be less forgiving of the dangerous ones.
Now say you're a white guy, and I show you a picture of a black dude while delivering electrical shocks. Or vice versa. Wahhhh!!!.
Guess which group black/white falls into.
The authors of this study point out that the different races of Humanity evolved recently, and in relative isolation; it doesn't make sense that blacks would have a specific bias against whites or vice versa, since the two groups haven't been in contact for long enough for such responses to hardwire. It's more likely that we humans have a kind of general predisposition to fear anything that looks "different" from us — the tragedy being that a fear response motivates the individual to avoid the stimulus, not to learn more about it. Fear promotes ignorance — and in fact, the same study shows that when blacks and whites fuck each other (in the positive sense), the bias disappears. So it's not as though we're born racists; rather, we're born vulnerable to racism, and that vulnerability can be eliminated by the simple expedient of hanging out with the other group. (The response may not even be inherent; the authors didn't control for cultural artefacts, so this could be a case of social, not genetic, evolution.)
The study didn't go far enough for my liking. If we are only equipped with some general bias against "the other", not a bias against specific racial groups, then that bias should also be evoked by characteristics we've never encountered before. So why didn't they repeat the experiment with pictures of green- or purple-skinned people?
It would have been nice to take that next step. But hey: isn't it nice to see some hopeful news from the Human Biology guys? Maybe the key to ending racism is as simple as legislated interacial dating.
I'd be up for that.
August 3 2005: Immortality though blood-sucking.
A friend just passed this on to me; it first appeared in Nature last February, when I had other things on my mind. Ignore the technical giberish if you can. Look past all the talk about proliferative myoblasts and 5-bromodeoxyuridine injections and heterochronic parabioses. Look only to the bottom line, which is: these guys reversed ageing in old mice by exposing them to the blood of young ones.
They don't say it in as many words, of course (actually, they say it in a lot more words, and longer ones to boot.) Technically, they spliced together the circulatory systems of old and young mice; decrepit muscle and liver cells from the seniors "regenerated" as a result.
Dudes and dudettes, this is life-extension by ingesting the blood of the young. This is mouse vampirism. And there's no reason to think that mice are especially blessed in this regard. If it can work with them...
I can't believe this wasn't all over the news.
July 18 2005: Brain-splice Etiquette
This week's Science contains an interesting opinion piece on the ethics of splicing human brain (stem) cells into nonhuman primate brains. I use the word "interesting" loosely — for although the issues it raises are hugely intriguing, one thought kept recurring as I read it:
This would be a lot better as science fiction.
Green et al. certainly covered a lot of bases. How much cognitive enhancement does it take before you're no longer dealing with a gorilla, but a person? What are our moral responsibilities to such a creature? Should we ban the technique entirely, on ethical grounds? Would it be even more unethical to not elevate our cousins to full personhood status if we had the ability? Is Every Stem Cell Sacred? Would enhanced sentience be a burden or a gift?
But they avoided a lot of issues as well. Who's to say that gorillas aren't already people, in any meaningful sense of the term? What are these morals and ethics you're talking about anyway — do they even exist as anything beyond a means of exerting social control? The authors cite everything from the Old Testament to Kant and Singer, but what results is somehow less than the sum of the parts. I mean, here we have an issue that should be the very essence of addictive late-night debate, and somehow Green and his numerous coauthors turn it into a game of semantic hairsplitting over how much a marmoset skull would expand to accomodate a hungry-man helping of human neurons.
They didn't cite Brin's Uplift series or Foster's (somewhat lesser) "Cachalot", both premised upon covilizations in which such enhancement had become the norm. They didn't cite Bruce McAllister's beautiful short story The Girl who Loved Animals, in which the similarities between apes and humans are illustrated by the perfect device of having one give birth to the other. They told no tales and spun no metaphors; they just spouted facts and made claims that are not nearly so axiomatic as they seem to think. And while they didn't exactly bore me, they certainly didn't entrance me in a way worthy of the subject matter.
Ethics. Morals. Insofar as such things can exist, they exist as human constructs; and that's what are missing in Green et al.'s piece. Science fiction would have done a better job. In fact, this is exactly the sort of thing that science fiction is ideally suited to do. Mainstream literature can't handle these ideas; if it tried, the scientific content would pollute it from the outset, turn it into science fiction despite itself. And science isn't really up to the task either; science is designed to strip fallible humanity away from the data, leave the patterns beneath uncontaminated by bias or belief. But these complex, illusory things called ethics and morality— they're nothing but institutionalised bias and belief. Strip the Humanity from them, as Science would do, and there's nothing left to explore. Only science fiction, perched on the interface between science and humanity— the literature that explicitly exists to explore the impact of one on the other— is up for the challenge. If it's done right.
Besides, Dr. Greene: who do you think you're kidding? The ethical treatment of simians with human brain cells? Look around, dude. Catch a newscast.
We don't even give a shit about the ethical treatment of actual Humans.
July 15 2005: Be it ever so Humble
Here's a nice Canadian success story with a personal angle: a suitcase-sized orbiting telescope called MOST (or, "The Humble" to its friends) which, despite being dirt cheap and having a mirror no bigger than a dinner plate, kicks the asses of much larger telescopes at planet-finding and even atmospheric analysis of said planets, thanks to a specially-designed Canadian gyroscope. And what gives it special relevance here is that the leader of the MOST project is astronomer Jaymie Matthews from UBC, the self-same guy who's helping me make sure my science isn't too egregiously wrong in "Blindsight". (He also proved to be a great pizza-snarfing and beer-drinking buddy back in January, when I was going through some very rough times on the domestic front.) The Humble won't keep its edge forever — a bunch of pricier latecomers are already jumping on the bandwagon — but for a while, cheap and duct-taped Canadian science was way out in front. I raise a glass.
July 11 2005: Whores In Close Harmony
An interesting article in the Toronto Star this past weekend on the whole cell-phones-cook-your-brain debate. Turns out that the vast majority of peer-reviewed studies that received funding from the phone companies themselves found no significant biological effects at all; only 19% of industry-funded studies found anything to write home about. Non-industry-funded studies, in contrast — those funded by governments and academic institutions — found significant effects 81% of the time.
Can you say "biostitute"? I knew you could.
This article has a bit of personal resonance for me. I've heard this song before; I've even sung it myself, albeit in a different key. Researchers quoted in the Star article found themselves under industry pressure to downplay and change their results — so was I, back in the mid-nineties. Researchers cited in the Star article found that their results were being, shall we say, edited without their knowledge or approval. So did I. And claims of political interference were dismissed as "pure nonsense" by an industry spokesperson — almost exactly the same phrase used by Andrew "Detritus" Trites of UBC to dismiss misgivings I'd spoken of during an interview with a Vancouver community paper just last year.
The researchers in the Star article worked for cell phone manufacturers; I worked for a consortium of marine mammal scientists funded mainly by the US commercial fishing industry, who did not stand to benefit from too impartial a look at the relationship between their activities in the North Pacific and the coincident decline of Steller sea lions in the same area. Those sea lions declined so drastically — the population dropped by 80% in a couple of decades — that they're now classified as "endangered" under the Endagered Species Act (a designation that imposes restrictions on fishing activity in their habitat). Only one accredited scientist fought against that designation. One guess.
Of course, the fact that some scientists are willing to whore their credentials for industry should surprise no one, any more than the revelation that politicos and corporate hacks rewrite legitimate science to suit their own bottom line. (The current Bush Administration has been particularly active in this regard, as anyone with even a glancing familiarity with Climate Change issues knows too well.) What strikes me, though, is that whores for such widely diverse commercial interests use such similar phraseology in their whitewashes. It's almost as if every industry's-bitch on the planet receives a copy of the same playbook the day they sell out.
If so, it must be outselling Rowling. (It's sure as shit outselling me...)
June 28 2005: Hibernating Humans Within the Year
It seems like only yesterday we had hibernating rats, coaxed into suspended animation by the judicious application of hydrogen sulphide. Now we have dogs, resurrected after hours of actual clinical death. Different strategy this time: the CSRR guys used the ol' hypothermia chestnut, and temporarily replaced the dogs' blood supply with an icy saline solution.
They say they'll be doing this to us in a year or so.
In case anyone but me is keeping score, I kinda hit 0.5 on this one. My undead astronauts do not use extreme cold to enter torpor, but there's obviously some kind of body-fluid replacement going on:
"Your own cadaverous body reflects from the mirrored bulkhead opposite, a desiccated lungfish waiting for the rains. Bladders of isotonic saline cling to its limbs like engorged antiparasites, like the opposite of leeches. You remember the needles going in just before you shut down, way back when your veins were more than dry twisted filaments of beef jerky."
Or am I reaching? Maybe I'm reaching.
Thanks to Andrew Fergusen for the link.
June 16 2005: Half a Brain
Something else that happened while I was in transit: this woman graduated from high school after having had half her brain cut out as a child. Evidently this is the only way to cure certain forms of epilepsy, and those who've been following the progress of "Blindsight" may remember that the protagonist of that book suffers from exactly this condition. But so far I haven't been able to find out why half the brain has to be removed — why not simply isolate it by cutting the corpus callosum? Wouldn't that shortcircuit the feedback cycle just as effectively? Do they remove the tissue to prevent alien hand syndrome — in which case, doesn't that imply that they're throwing away a sentient entity?
I should know this stuff. I don't. If someone out there does, drop me a line.
June 10 2005: Deep Thought in a Decade
Been offline for a while, moving house. How the future has moved in the meantime.
For one thing, there's this first attempt to model a working human brain, right down to the molecules. It'll be ten years in the making, they say, and at the end of it lies vindication or irrelevance for the church of so-called "Strong AI"— the belief that our souls are deterministic processes, that consciousness is a function not of meat or motherboard but of the operations that take place within them. According to this paradigm, working consciousness could emerge from ping-pong balls rolling down logic gates made from habitrail tubes just as inevitably as from electrons running along dendrites; all that matters is that the respective components behave the same way in the context of their own substrates.
If that's true, then this simulation will be an intelligent, aware entity in its own right. I wonder how much thought Markram and his colleagues have put into this.
Of course, the Quantum- Consciousness people could be right instead — in which case a simulation model of a human brain is about as likely to wake up as a simulation model of a small intestine would be to actually digest something. The idea that consciousness is essentially quantum in nature does have a certain sexy appeal, but I don't trust my own affection for it. I suspect a lot of us are drawn to that theory because neither consciousness nor quantum mechanics make any intuitive sense. They're both wild, ungraspable, central, and indisputably real elements of existence. It just seems natural that two such insanely paradoxical phenomena should be connected in some way.
But natural isn't necessarily logical. We're pattern-matching machines, we are. Our brains insist on finding patterns even where none exist. Trust only in the empirical, folks.
Ten years before we have that answer. Hot damn. That's almost tomorrow.
May 26 2005: The Flip Side of Mother Love
Researchers at Arizona State University have published a study suggesting that humans are hardwired for racism, an adaptive evolutionary strategy to protect the tribe against "outsiders". This seems like such an incredibly common-sense proposition that I would have never have accepted the story's claim that it is "contrary to what most people believe" — but for the fact that when I wrote a story predicated on this very premise back in the nineteen-nineties, I could barely even get fiction magazines to acknowledge receiving it, much less getting it rejected. Even the magazine that finally did publish the damn thing (On Spec) only did so after taking it to someone who worked at the Alberta Human Rights Commission, to make sure they wouldn't get nailed for publishing "hate literature". Even then, the editors were careful to mischaracterise the story's protagonist as a "monster" in their introduction, and one editor had their name removed from the masthead of the offending issue even so, evidently from fear of being found guilty by association.
Guilty of what, you ask? Why, guilty of promoting racism. Because in that day and age (and maybe in this one; I haven't put it to the test recently) there is only one thing that you can say when writing about racism: that it is bad, bad, real bad for everybody. Don't presume to portray racists with more than room-temperature IQs; don't ever suggest that racism might be a naturally evolved state of the human condition. People might get the wrong idea, might think that if you're saying it's "natural" you must be saying it's "good" (because after all, Human nature is just so intrinsically redolent of creamy altruistic goodness, hmmm?).
Anyway, the story is "Fractals: or Reagan Assured Gorbacev of Help Against Space Aliens", and you can find it under "Shorts" (or just by clicking on the preceding link). And I'm glad that finally, we're allowed to talk about this stuff out here in the real world.
May 23 2005: Mapping the Mind, Daily Update
It's almost not worth reporting any more, the frequency with which we're nailing down the nature of our humanity. We've known for years that the anterior cingulate gyrus is the site of moral reasoning (which, by the way, is neither moral nor reasonable). Just last month we learned to read minds so effectively that we could tell what the brain had seen even when the brain itself didn't know. And now, we know where irony and sarcasm reside. Turns out they're prefrontal. Pretty sophisticated wiring up there, far less primitive than the ACG. That's way down on the ground floor.
So sarcasm and irony are more advanced traits than religion and morality. No surprise there, but it's nice to get empirical confirmation.
May 17 2005: The Future is Soggy
A lot of us don't believe the future's arrived yet, no matter what century it is. We disbelieve, despite the continuing onslaught of headlines about clones and mind-reading computers, because that one tell-tale event that says "You're in a science fiction world" just hasn't happened yet. That seminal marker varies from person to person. For some, it would be sexbots; for many, the advent of the personal jetpack. For me, though, the future will finally arrive in 2008: with the completion of an underwater hotel/casino/apartment complex complete with "deluxe apartment blocks, 2,000 hotel rooms, a shopping mall and a 4,000-seat performance hall". Hell, why not just call it what it is: an underwater city. How cool is that?
A shame, though, that none of us eking out a marginal existence writing about the future will ever be able to afford to even visit the place, let alone live there...
May 6 2005: Sex Kittens and Alley Cats
Go to the Salvation army thrift store and buy an old copy of "Maelstrom". Or just hop over to the Maelstrom part of this site (leaving your browser open to pop-ups) and hang out there until the Spartacus Society graffiti starts appearing. In either case you'll learn about Toxoplasma, a parasite of rats and cats which alters host behavior as a reproductive strategy. (It reprograms rats to lose their fear of cats, so they can get eaten more easily.) You'll read dark paranoid ruminations upon how commonly this microbe can be found in Human hosts, and how its genes have been coopted by The Man to better control His employees right down at the neuronal level.
Then go over here, and marvel at my clear-eyed and dystopian vision — for dudettes and doodlings, I have called it again.
Short version, Toxoplaz does in fact get into humans, primarily through contact with cats. It changes human behavior. It makes women sluttier and more gregarious, while it makes men scruffier and more cantankerous. And it's so prevalent in European populations (up to 90% in France and Germany) that there's some talk that it even contributes to "national character". There is no known cure.
Scruffy and cantankerous cat lovers. Could the circumstantial evidence be any stronger?
April 22 2005: Closer, Undead, to Thee
Oh man, it's hard to stay ahead of the curve.
The astronauts in Blindsight resort to a novel twist on the ol' suspended animation riff: they take their lead (and a few genes) from vampires, and sleep out long journeys in an undead state. I envisioned this as a noncryonic, metabolically-induced form of hibernation, similar to the torpor that chipmunks and lungfish fall back on to wait out hard times. The idea was that pretty much any mammal could do the same thing, with a nudge in the right direction. (I posted a scene that went into this a bit on my "In Progress" page a while back — too late, you missed it.)
And now some guy has put a mouse into a state of suspended animation for six hours, and brought it out the other side with no ill effects. Metabolic rate down by 90%. Core temp 2°C above ambient. They basically turned a mammal into a cold-blooded hibernator, and already there's talk of applying it to space travel.
They used no cryonic sleight-of-hand. They did it with hydrogen sulphide, a toxic gas that reduces oxygen demand by reversibly gumming up certain metabolic pathways (basically, as I understand it the system doesn't need as much fuel if most of it isn't working anyway). (Coincidentally, hydrogen sulphide also serves as the primary energy source for ecosystems on hydrothermal vents. Which as you may have surmised made it especially dear to my heart even before this breakthrough.)
Blindsight invoked leuenkephalin as its hibernation handwaver-of-choice. I didn't see the sulphide angle coming at all (who would? It's a toxin, and it smells terrible). But the book isn't out yet, and judging from the voicemail my editor left the other day it's in need of major revisions anyway (I fucking knew it), so it should be simple enough to work it into the next draft. Hell, given the whole rotten-eggs angle I may even insert a fart joke or two.
In the meantime, even if I got the details wrong, I'm kind of proud I even saw this coming in its broader strokes.
April 17 2005: Cursing the Darkness
Usually this column talks about nifty scientific advances, large and small, that push back the darkness.
Today it admits the darkness is winning, and it does so in the wake of two other, vastly more prestigious voices admitting the same thing. This month's Scientific American opens with an editorial entitled "Okay, We Give Up"; it apologizes to the public for succumbing "to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists." It pleads guilty to unforgivable bias in favor of evolution (and against Creationism): "As editors," it admits, "we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence."
It was an April Fool's Day joke, of course, but it was far from a frivolous one. The Editorial in the April 8 issue of Science — "Twilight for the Enlightenment?" — makes the same point, but cannot bring itself to laugh. "Alternatives to the teaching of biological evolution are now being debated in no fewer than 40 states," it reminds us. "In several school districts, geology materials are being rewritten because their dates for Earth’s age are inconsistent with scripture." And I've previously cited the terrifying 2003 survey revealling that nearly half the US population still refuses to accept evolution, nor can correctly answer the question "How long does it take for the Earth to complete a circuit of the Sun?", even when that question is presented in multiple-choice format.
It's the evangelicals, people. They're running that big overmuscled superpower down there, because the voters want them to. The voters actually elected — unto the most powerful office on the planet — a man who thinks the jury is still out on natural selection, who takes his marching orders from an imaginary friend who tells him that Human Life Begins The Moment The Bra Is Unhooked. All the way from the Oval Office down to ground level, intelligence and education are demonized; stupidity lauded. And the most recent evidence to this effect is the new show "Revelations" from NBC, a series about the End of Days in which scientists and doctors walk around dimly-lit sets shining flashlights up their noses — the better to cast their faces in an appropriately demonic light, while slavering at the prospect of descending on some innocent scripture-quoting coma victim to harvest her organs. All that stands their way is a nun and a priest, hopelessly outnumbered, all that sex-abuse nonsense forgotten as they face down the greater threat.
On occasion, mysticism and spirituality have been done right. Early episodes of "X-Files" managed to balance on the interface between the power of scientific enquiry and the endless unfolding mysteries that continue to challenge it. Scully was both a rigorously-minded skeptic and a practicing Catholic; Mulder wore a tinfoil hat, but had no time for organized religion. Now there was a show — before it turned to crap — that celebrated the unknown without admitting to the unknowable, celebrated both mystery and intelligence.
But "Revelations" is smug pap, hand-fed on a plastic spoon to yokels who know that their opinion on any subject is way more valid than that high-falutin' doubletalk from those fancypants eggheads wasting their lives in university instead of getting down and dirty with Scripture. There is no doubt in this show, no mystery. We know who's got the right answer right off the top. It's only a question of how long it'll take that brainwashed physicist to see the error of his ways and turn to the Lord. It's an idiotic show, and it'll probably do just fine in the ratings. Which wouldn't bother me at all if it were just another dumb TV series, instead of an index of the collective mindset.
There's a scene, early in the pilot, when our suspiciously-attractive lead nun is bearing witness to a miraculous shadow-puppet reenactment of The Crucifixion. "Look!" she cries as the silhouette of Jesus wriggles on the cross, "he's turning his head to look at us!" And you know, I even saw it myself, although my interpretation was a bit different. I saw Jesus not merely turning his head, but shaking it.
And rolling his eyes.
April 7 2005: Dibs.
In Blindsight, my protagonists are plagued by a variety of hallucinations and mindfucks which descend upon them whenever they foray into an alien artefact called Rorschach. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, they think; the artefact is a hotbed of interacting scale-invariant magnetic fields, which can generate everything from olfactory hallucinations to religious rapture. But the hallucinations persist even after they shield themselves inside Faraday cages — and they speculate that something might be subjecting them to ultrasonic pulses, which can generate similar effects.
Well, that whole ultrasonic brain-hack idea struck me as pretty damn radical; I just recently came across it myself in the technical lit. But it turns out that the idea has been around for so long that — get this — Sony has patented a device that uses ultrasonics to implant sensory experiences directly into the brain.
They claim they did no experiments to justify this patent. They say it was merely prophetic hypothesising, of the sort you might encounter in a science fiction novel, say. But there's a whole other element to this that they haven't mentioned. If ultrasonics can noninvasively implant sensory experiences into someone's brain, what's to stop them from implanting opinions? Motives? Plans? What's to stop someone with a sonic squirtgun from turning some kindly little old lady into a kamikaze killer from across the room, after she's passed through security?
I think I've got my next novel.
March 31 2005: Either/Or/And
A computer reads a paralysed man's thoughts and operates machinery at their command. Thirteen hundred more scientists decry the ongoing destruction of the planet, to a world that no longer gives a shit because they didn't listen the other times and now it's too late to stop it anyway. And the day's top stories still revolve around this insane squabble over a brain-dead vegetable who hasn't qualified as a human being for fifteen years. (I remain astonished that anyone with more than a room-temperature IQ would be unable to grasp that basic fact— although in Dubya's case, he might be acting on some gut-level realization that protection of the permanently vegetative is really in in his own best interest...)
What genius savantes we are, and what fucking morons. I still can't decide whether to stand in awe of our inventiveness or wish someone would just push the button and leave everything to the cockroaches.
March 9 2005: Beyond Human Understanding (real)
Blindsight is narrated by a "synthesist", an interpretor of other people's cutting-edge discoveries who cannot, ironically, understand the very truths he describes. Throughout the course of the book doubts are raised whether anyone can — science has delved into regions which the human mind never evolved to deal with, and the freaks, retrofits, and AI's designed to plumb those depths have a real problem reporting their findings back to the barely-intelligent creatures who built them.
Well, it's kinda happening now. Over the past few years, proofs of mathematical theorems have begun to appear using computer calculations so lengthy and complex that no mere human could ever hope to understand them. How, then, can anyone verify the proof? Well, mortals can't; but other computer programs ("proof assistants") can. Although controversial, they're starting to have an impact, and an article in Science — an easily-understood article, for a change — can be found here.
Siri Keeton, Blindsight's synthesist, basically represents an attempt to get humans back into this loop, at a time when the loop itself has become far longer. He uses information theory the way the rest of us use fight/flight, he reflexively rotates arcane topologies from superhuman minds down into Readers-Digest versions that other humans can grasp. (You know how four-dimensional objects like Tesseracts and Klein Bottles can be flattened down and portrayed, sort of, on a two-dimensional sheet of paper? Same thing.) Think of him as a human "proof assistant", with emotional issues. Or think of him as a Chinese Room. Either way, he knows not what he's doing.
March 7 2005: Population Dynamics of Medieval Manuscripts
Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker contains an interesting definition of Life: "information shaped by natural selection". I like it so much that I've both used it during my brief undergraduate-teaching career, and made it a central tenet of my rifters novels (in which I described seething virtual ecosystems in the Internet, evolving at blinding speeds via purely Darwinian principals).
I rave about Dawkin's definition and its digital applications elsewhere in this crawl; here, I just want to bring your attention to a different riff on the same tune. Turns out you can use biological models to describe the "population dynamics" of ancient manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages. The population of manuscript X experiences a "birth" whenever some guy in a monastery transcribes a copy of it; it suffers a "death" whenever a copy is destroyed.
Of course, here in the 21rst Century we have no idea of when any particular document was born, or when it was destroyed — any more than we can track individual births and deaths in most animal populations. Biologists get around this by using a demographic snapshot of what the target population looks like now, and back-calculating to how it must have looked in the past using models that infer historical birth and death rates from the present age structure. This is what Cisne and his buds did to their populations of surviving manuscripts, and while the approach appears to have its flaws, it's a damned fascinating fusion of biology and art history (and who'd've ever thought those two could mix?). It would serve as an almost perfect metaphor for Dawkins metaphor, if it didn't fit so literally.
The above links take you to .pdfs of the original articles in Science. If you find that stuff too dense (I know I do, most of the time), here's the BBC report on the same work.
Click here for 2004 Newscrawl entries