Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In Honor of George Carlin

Just a few days ago, I got a rather odd piece of e-mail apparently meant for me even though the salutation read "Dear Mr. Kelly". At least, if it wasn't meant for me, there's some other author out there whose writing is "not a fun place to be", and in which the ocean plays a prominent role. Which, come to think of it, is not especially unlikely.

Anyway, I endeavored to answer this guy's questions, which ranged from specific queries about Hemmingway flashfic to write-your-own-essay questions like "Why does ______ matter?" (I had to cut some corners on that last type, especially when the blank was filled by subjects like "the ocean" and "science fiction".) But the weirdest question of the lot had to be
"What is in your opinion the most important word or if that is to (sic) limited idea in the English language for story making etc . and why so?"
What the fuck, thought I. And therein lay the seeds of my answer:
I don't think there is a "most important word", but if forced to choose, I'd probably pick "fuck". Firstly, it appears in a lot of dialog. Secondly, it connotes mating/sexuality/reproductive behavior— and in Darwin's universe, everything boils down to inclusive fitness, reproductive success. Territorial squabbles, head-butting behavior, social systems: pretty much everything we do, the whole of human drama, is massively impacted by the energetics of reproduction.

Plus, it pisses my parents off something fierce.
A magic word, fuck. A voodoo word, condemned and censured by pretty much every official institution for no real reason anyone can pin down except that, a few centuries ago, this continent was invaded by a bunch of bible-thumping prudes so scared of their own animal secretions that they felt compelled to demonize any public reference to bodily functions. A day barely passes when I don't marvel at this absurdity. Somehow, unlimited and gratuitous use of the word frak is safe for the delicate ears of children the world over— but let fuck pass your lips, although it means exactly the same thing, and the glowering goons from Standards and Practices will have your ass in a sling and your broadcast license up for review faster than you can say "cuntlips". Assuming, of course, that you could say "cuntlips".

Carlin did his best to strip such words of the idiotic power they hold over the brain-dead in our midst. (He also had some cogent and cutting things to say about religion, not that many of the mainstream media types seem to be mentioning that aspect of his routine.) And now he's left us, his noble task incomplete.



Friday, June 20, 2008

From the Air

We are the cavemen. We are the Ancients, the Progenitors, the blue-collared steel monkeys; a thousand interstellar expressways in a thousand derivative works of historical fiction rose by our hands. We're the plot devices to let careless storytellers off the hook. We spin webs across the galaxy and conveniently disappear, millions of years before the real heroes arrive on stage. Oh, I've read the books; I've played the sims; I've watched the wraparounds. I've had plenty of time. I smile at every offhand digression, every throwaway line from bit players wondering what happened to us, where we went, what great filter might have driven us to extinction.

But we're not extinct. We're still out here laying the roads, crawling across the universe like ants, dragging your goddamned superhighway behind us. Don't excuse yourselves with legends of our fall. Don't justify your freeloading by pretending that we just went away, leaving all this miraculous infrastructure for you to play with. If you don't see us, it's because you don't dare look in the empty spaces. If you've forgotten who we are, it's because even now, in all your transcendent post-Human splendour, you're still too frightened to dip your toes into the void where we spend our lives. You're so used to stepping from A to B that you've forgotten the endless, infinite points between. Someone had to blaze the trail across that desert; and we got no help from magic carpets.

You will never catch up. You will always live in our slow, creaking, endless wake. You cannot go anywhere we have not already been.

And if, now and then, you happen to frown at some faint memory— if you ever wonder what you'd see if you bent down and peered into that abyss between the stars— the moment never lasts. You catch yourselves, and laugh nervously, and stop yourselves from thinking such foolish thoughts. Because you know there's no need to wonder. You know exactly what you’d see looking back at you from that place.

You know.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I Am Fundamentalist, And So Can You.

This started out as a post about a recently-reported negative correlation between IQ and religious belief (thanks to Craig McGill for the link). It was going to be relatively restrained by local standards; while it's hard to resist the temptation to rub one's hands at yet more evidence that only Stupid People Have Imaginary Friends, I'd have voiced reservations over the unwarranted conflation of "academics" with "smart people" (believe me, there are as many dumb folks in those hallowed halls as there are anywhere else except maybe Fox News); the use of a single score to measure that multifaceted bag of traits we call "intelligence"; even the sloppiness of some of the third-party coverage (this headline, for example, gets the study's findings completely ass-backwards).

In the end, though, I decided to leave those poor bastards alone and come out of the closet myself.

I use the word "fundamentalist" in the sense promoted by Jonathan Rauch: anyone who cannot seriously entertain the possibility that they are wrong about their basic beliefs. It applies pretty obviously to Biblical literalists and their ilk, but the term is not limited to them. It extends to me. I suspect it even extends to the likes of Richard Dawkins, even though he has stated publicly that he would be willing to change his mind on the subject of God. All it would take, he says, is "evidence".

Which is a laudable attitude, and one that reflects the basic difference between science and religion. The question that's been occurring to me lately, though, is, what kind of evidence would it take to turn me into a believer? How much would be enough? God is such an outrageous proposition from so many angles that almost any alternative explanation would be more parsimonious. Mass hallucination. Brain tumors. The Matrix. Aliens with a propensity for juvenile practical jokes.

Imagine a scenario in which the heavens literally opened up, and a Big White Dude with a Mighty Beard and a flotilla of cherubim stroking His Divine Genitalia stared down at me through the clouds and proclaimed in a mighty voice,

I, God, exist! Take your photographs! Run your tricorder!

Would I believe? Fuck no. This has to be some kind of trick. And no matter how much evidence piles up — a smiley face embedded in pi at the thirteen-trillionth decimal place; a cosmological consensus that yes, there's really only one universe, and it really just does happen to be configured with all its physical constants tuned precisely to permit our existence; the literal appearance of the Four Horsemen — all of that, appearing in the face of such astronomically-massive odds, would still have to be weighed against the likelihood of the alternative.

What are the odds that I'm a brain in a tank or a computer simulation, and some bored undergrad is fucking with my sensory inputs? Pretty damn low. What are the odds that an entire physical multiverse was created by means unknown by an omnipotent omniscient sentient entity that exists eternally, without any cause or creator of its own?

Lower. Way lower. (Or at least, that model raises far more numerous and substantive questions than it pretends to answer.)

The bottleneck here is my own mental processes, my own ability to parse input from the outside world, to trust that said input even reflects an objective outside world. The limits are always in me; the brain contains too many tricks and shortcuts to trust implicitly, especially if it serves up something I consider impossible. Whatever input is thrust into my face, hack will always be a more parsimonious explanation than god.

Which leaves me unconvertible, and reduces me to the status of fundamentalist— and Dawkins' grand pronouncement about "evidence" to empty sophistry.

Sucks to introspect.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Like Many Of My Relationships, In Fact

Just came across this cover art for the upcoming German edition of Maelstrom. It is beautiful, but wrong.

The feel of the piece is great, don't get me wrong. Technically, it's terrific. It even evokes a couple of specific scenes from the very top of the tale. But I'm not quite sure where Lenie Clarke is. Perhaps she was eaten by that Alien V. Predator hybrid down in the lower left corner.

I'd assumed that the armor (complete with Gigeresque back spines) from the cover of Abgrund had been meant to portray Scanlon in his preshmesh outfit. I guess not. Can't be anybody inside this Malhstrom armor but Lenie, and she never overdressed for such occasions. There's a reason I called it a diveskin: she's a "slick back amphibian", remember, with occasional implants and implements protruding to break her lines. Basically I envision her as a black-spraypainted nude with a fetish for chrome piercings. (By the way, it would be a mistake to think you can infer anything about authorial taste in such matters from that description.)

Anyway, bottom line, it's the kind of cover that would catch my eye (in a good way) if I saw it in a bookstore. I would not be embarrassed to be seen carrying it on a subway (although I'd be even more not-embarrassed if a blurb or two should find its way onto all that fiery cloud cover by the release date). And it's light-years ahead of the abomination Tor* inflicted onto Blindsight's hardcover edition.

So this is not a complaint, not by any means. Just commentary.

*Speaking of Tor, I see that they too are releasing a new edition of Maelstrom here in N'Am. Two days before Christmas, in fact. It would have been nice if they could have, you know, told me. But hey, why start now?

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Night of the Non Sequiters

So the CBC pushed, as bullies are wont to do; only this time the rights holders of the iconic "Hockey Night In Canada" pushed back. Now, the game's afoot; Stephen Colbert has promised to make a habit of singing the newly-freed HNiC "while punching beavers in the face!" (oh, and — non sequiters within non sequiters here, but was that Jonathan Coulton backing up Hodgeman on "The Daily Show" the other night or was I dreaming?); the CTV snuck in and handed the CBC its ass on a plate, with a side of egg-on-face; and Canada's national broadcaster is suddenly in need of another National Anthem with which to begin its hockey nights.

Might I propose this heartfelt gem from Warren Zevon.

Seriously. There could be no finer candidate.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

I Still Want My Fucking Jet Pack...

But this will do in the meantime. Emotiv's brainwave-reading products made a brief appearance in last year's flash piece "Repeating the Past", which is set less than ten years from now, so it's nice to see they're still on track.

I bet Stephen Hawking already has one.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Family Values

Screw this. I'm sick of being outnumbered by morons. I'm calling in reinforcements.

Dix has got to have other parents, a father at least, he didn't get that Y chromo from me. I swallow my own disquiet and check the manifest; bring up the gene sequences; cross-reference.

Huh. Only one: Kai. I wonder if that's just coincidence, or if the Chimp drew too many conclusions from our torrid little fuckfest back in the Cyg Rift. Doesn't matter. He's as much yours as mine, Kai, time to step up to the plate, time to—

Oh shit. Oh no.

Please no.

Three builds back, it says. Kai and Connie. Both of them. One airlock jammed, the next too far away along Eri's hull, a hail-Mary emergency crawl between. They made it back inside but not before the blue-shifted background cooked them in their suits. They kept breathing for hours afterwards, talked and moved and cried as if they were still alive, while their insides broke down and bled out.

There were two others awake that shift. Two others left to clean up the mess. Ishmael, and—

"Um, you said—" he begins.

"You fucker!" I shoot from my chair as if springloaded, hit my son hard in the face, ten seconds' heartbreak with ten thousand years' denial raging behind it. I feel teeth give way behind his lips. He goes over backwards, eyes wide as telescopes, the blood already blooming on his mouth.

"You said I could come back—!" he squeals, scrambling backwards along the deck.

"He was your fucking father! You knew, you were there! He died right in front of you and you didn't even tell me!"

"I— I—"

"Why didn't you tell me, you asshole? The Chimp told you to lie, is that it? Did you—"

"I thought you knew!" he cries, "Why wouldn't you know?"

My rage vanishes like air through a breach. I sag back into my hammock, face in hands.

"It was right there in the log," he whimpers. "All along. Nobody hid it. How could you not know?"

"I did," I admit dully. "Or I— I mean…"

I mean I didn't know, but it's not a surprise, not really, not down deep. You just— stop looking, after a while. We see each other so rarely— ten, twenty times in the life of a sun— that you almost forget the difference between misplacing someone for a million years and losing them forever. I might have gone the rest of my life happily thinking that Kai was still alive, that we just kept— missing each other on the duty roster. You know the odds, you know the risks, and after a while it's just so much easier to not bother with the manifest. So you haven't seen her for the past five builds. So he hasn't drawn your shift since Sagittarius. They're probably just sleeping. Maybe next time.

I raise my eyes. Dix regards me wide-eyed from across the room, backed up against the wall, too scared to risk bolting past me to the door. "What are you doing here?" I asked tiredly.

His voice catches. He has to try twice: "You said I could come back. If I burned out my link…"

"You burned out your link."

He gulps and nods. He wipes at the blood with the back of his hand.

"What did the chimp say about that?"

"He said— it said it was okay," Dix says, in such a transparent attempt to suck up that I am certain, in that instant, that my son is most certainly on his own.

"So you asked its permission." He begins to nod, but I can see my own tell in his face: "Don't bullshit me, Dix."

"He— he actually suggested it."

"I see."

"So we could talk," Dix adds.

"What do you want to talk about?"

He looks at the floor and shrugs.

I stand up and walk towards him. He tenses but I shake my head and spread my hands. "It's okay. I'm not angry any more." I lean my back against the wall and slide down until I'm beside him on the deck.

We just sit there for a while.

"They say there's no such thing as altruism, you know?" I say at last.

His eyes blank for an instant, and grow panicky, and I know that he's just tried to ping his link for a definition and come up blank. So we are alone. "Altruism," I explain. "Unselfishness. Doing something that costs you but helps someone else." He seems to get it. "They say every selfless act ultimately comes down to manipulation or kin-selection or reciprocity or something, but they're wrong. I could—"

I close my eyes. This is harder than I expected.

"I could have been happy just knowing that Kai was okay, that Connie was happy. Even if it didn't benefit me one whit, even if there was no chance I'd ever see either of them again. Just the knowledge that they were okay, somewhere— that would make me happy.

"Even the fantasy would."

"So… so you don't check," Dix says slowly. Blood bubbles on his lower lip; he doesn't seem to notice.

"I don't check." Only I did, and now they're gone. They're both gone. Except for those little cannibalized nucleotides the Chimp recycled into this defective and maladapted son of mine.

All those people in cold storage — three hundred? Four? I've met maybe half of them. Befriended a mere handful. I may never meet all the rest. Maybe no one will. How many of us will sleep out our whole lives all the way to heat death, just because our numbers never come up?

All those people and none of them have our genes, not any more. Just Dix and me. We are the only warmblooded creatures for a thousand lightyears in any direction, and I am so very lonely.

"I'm sorry," I whisper, and lean forward, and lick the blood from his bruised and bloody lips.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Jury Duty, Day 3

bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored boredbored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored boredbored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored...

I did, however, get a fair bit of writing done. Including a new, longer-than-usual fiblet. Which I would post now, except someone has just phoned in search of beer and I need a break after all these 'crawlments I've just answered.

So, see you tomorrow.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Jury Duty, Day 1.5

Morning uneventful, with the exception of a brief episode in which some doofus at the next table was heard to opine that "It's just a myth that we're running out of oil" and I practiced my inestimable skills at self-discipline by not throwing a bag of peanuts at his head. Got some writing done on "Pidgin" or "Tardigrade" or "Remus"— the Sunflowers story that the recent fiblets have been coming out of, anyway (any preferences among those titles, btw?).

Buggered off in the afternoon to attend a friend's wedding, at which I'd agreed to serve as ring-bearer only on the condition that I be allowed to raise my hand when the Justice of the Peace reached that point about "If any here know of any reason why these two should not be joined" 1. Idle conversation amongst the assembled prior to the ceremony covered a range of topics including gang rape, alcohol abuse, and the TV series House. Last words spoken by the bride prior to ritual were "Remember: everybody lies," which I assumed was meant in reference to her imminent vows until I realized that I had been screwed and the "if anyone has objections" bit had been deleted from the ceremony. The ceremony ended with the traditional "I now pronounce you married", and a somewhat less-traditional cry of "I change my mind!" from the bride five seconds later.

Went for a gnosh (nosh?) afterwards and met some interesting folks, including the sound wizard who salvaged the mix on Rush's Counterparts album. He tells me both Geddy Lee and Neil Peart are clinical geniuses. (Alex Lifeson, not so much.) Bride wanted to know the spatial radius for allowable infidelity when doing field research; husband pointed out that under Canadian law, someone could be throwing napalm on a helpless victim right in front of you, and you would not be legally required to do anything to stop them or help the victim even you knew the assailant would abort the attack if you asked nicely. This also answers yesterday's unasked question about accessories. Not only is the answer "no", but in Canada we don't even use the word "accessory", preferring instead the more festive "party to the crime". (We don't use the word "felony" either, apparently.)

Also, in this country you apparently cannot legally consent to have your finger cut off.

1Said objection would have been an in-principle observation that Humans — in fact, mammals in general — are not by nature monogamous, and the whole death-do-us-part shtick is more probably rooted in a money grab by religious institutions than in any improbable evolutionary anomaly.


Monday, June 2, 2008

Jury Duty, Day 1.

We begin with an educational video on the Joys of Jury Duty so lame that just watching it made me feel like I was living an episode of The Simpsons. Inspirational music susurrating around the voices of really bad actors wearing head scarves and hard hats, all spouting variants of "When I was summoned for jury duty, I thought, why me? But now I know that there's nothing more exciting than serving the cause of Justice and my fellow Canadians! And even though they don't pay us or give us travel allowances, and even though they'll throw us in jail for six months and fine us $5,000 if we try to skip out, and even though their lawyers get $500/hour while we have to pay $3 for a cup of fucking coffee while trapped in an underventilated corral with four hundred fellow cattle and three hundred fifty chairs and no fucking wireless access, I know that the Justice System of Canada values me, because you can't have a jury without jurors!"

Most telling dialog-based inference to get past the censors: "And it really restored my faith in the Canadian Justice System!"

Right out of the gate, called up to court. Sadly the jury was selected before my name was even called, although I suspect my chances of being accepted were probably pretty low after I pumped my fist in the air and said "Yes! Score!" when they announced that the trial was for First-Degree Murder.

Most unexpectedly heartening moment: When I realized that of the twelve final selected jurors, all of whom were given the choice of swearing on a Bible or merely making an oath of affirmation, every last one of them chose the non-faith-based alternative. I did miss the usual irony of seeing people swearing to tell the truth on a book of falsehoods — in an institution supposedly predicated on the pursuit of fact and empiricism, no less — but I was glad to pay that price if it means that so many of our population have opted out of superstition.

Question Most Regretted For Not Having Had the Chance to Ask: "While I accept the need for secrecy during the course of the trial itself, I think I probably will be talking to other folks about my jury deliberations after the trial concludes, even if it does break your stupid law. My question is: since you now know this, are you not making yourself an accessory by allowing me to continue serving as a potential juror?"


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Don't Mention the War!

Heyne — publishers of the German editions of Blindsight, Starfish, and the eventually-to-be-released Maelstrom — have just closed the circle and made an offer on βehemoth, which they intend to release as a single volume as God (i.e. me) intended. I have instructed my former agent to accept their offer before they change their minds.

So. Every one of my novels, already or soon-to-be translated into German. This is good in a way, but also very bad, because I have now run out of books to pawn off on that particular market.

I should probably write another one.


Continuing Ed

I can almost remember mortality. I lived each day as it came, at the rate of one second per second— because really, what else was there to do?

I can almost imagine immortality: all of infinite entropy stretching out before you, more than worlds enough and time to scale any peak a mind might set for itself. What would it take, I wonder, to provoke such a being to haste? What need to hurry, with eternity to play in? What value could mere moments hold? Mere millennia?

Moments matter a great deal to me. Moments are all I have. Here on Eriophora we exist in some state between those others, one foot in the grave, the other on an event horizon. Tidal forces tear us straight up the middle. I have two or three hundred years to ration across the lifespan of a universe. I could bear witness to any point in time, or any hundred— any hundred-thousand if I slice my life thinly enough— but I am not immortal. I will never see everything. I will never see even a fraction.

I have to choose.

When you come to fully appreciate the deal you've made — ten or fifteen builds out, when the trade-off leaves the realm of mere knowledge and sinks deep as cancer into your bones— you become a miser. You can't help it. You ration out your waking moments to the barest minimum: just enough to keep the mission on track, to plan your latest countermove against the Chimp, just enough (if you haven't yet moved beyond the need for Human companionship) for sex and snuggles and a bit of warm mammalian comfort against the endless dark. And then you hurry back to your crypt, to hoard what's left of a human lifespan against the unwinding of the cosmos.

There's been plenty of time to educate myself in matters of biology. Time enough for a hundred postgraduate degrees, thanks to the best that aeons-old learning technology has to offer. I have never availed myself of those opportunities: they would burn down my tiny candle for a litany of mere fact, they would fritter away my precious, endless, finite life. The vistas of this universe surpass the most sublime religious rapture; mere book-learning would be a dry and dusty garnish to trade for the Cassiopeia Remnant.

Now, though. Now, I want to know. This thing crying out across the gulf, this creature massive as a moon, wide as a solar system, tenuous and fragile as an insect's wing: I'd gladly cash in some of my life to learn its secrets. How does it work? How can it even live in this wasteland of absolute zero, much less think? What godlike intellect must this thing possess to see us coming from half a lightyear away, to deduce the nature of our eyes and our instruments, to send us a signal that we can even detect, much less understand?

And what happens when we punch through it at a fifth the speed of light?


A Word to my Imposter

So it turns out there's this Peter Watts page on Facebook, and it reports on the presence of this Peter Watts character who evidently joined Facebook on April 11 2008, and who posted cover art from my books and also posted, I'm guessing, that sepia-tinged photo of me from Readercon.

The thing is, that person is not me.

I did join Facebook briefly, back when I was with On Spec, because that was the only way to access their Facebook page. However, I shut down my account1 once I parted ways with those gutless wonders, and I'm pretty sure I'd remember if I'd set up a self-aggrandizing shrine within the past two months. (After all, I remember setting up this website.)

I've no objection to anyone setting up a PW tribute page if they want to (although given the pitiful number of people who've signed up, not to mention the negligible level of activity thereof, I might also be inclined to just take a hint and quietly pack the thing up). But I would ask them, please— in fact I would even demand, please— that they use a different name than mine. There are enough real Peter Wattses out there as it is: there's an astronomer, a wine merchant, a New Zealand Artist, Naomi's dead dad, and a drummer to name but a few. I'll go out on a limb and guess that none of us want our names stuck on things we've no connection to. In my own case, it makes me look pretty pathetic if people think I've had to resort to setting up my own fan site.

So please, whoever you are. Knock yourself out; but do change the name.

1 At least, I shut it down insofar as FB would let me; it still greets me by name when I land on a page in its domain, cheerfully telling me that my account is dormant and explaining how to reactivate it, so they obviously haven't purged my personals. The fuckers.