Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Cornucopia of Covers; a Call-out for Cash

First up we have Alejandro Terán's Alienesque cover for the Spanish edition of Blindsight, coming out, oh, I don't know, probably next year sometime. Next we have Franz Vohwinkel's cover for the German mass-market edition of βehemoth (thanks to "Useless Surfer" for pointing it out), which is evidently being called "Waves" over in Deutschland. And finally, an unknown artist's cover for Prime's upcoming "Best of the Year" collection for 2009 — the headline names from which we can probably infer either that Swanwick, Vinge, Stross et al didn't write any short stories this year, or that Prime couldn't afford their rates. (The story for which my own name is going up in lights is "The Eyes of God", originally published in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2.)

They're all pretty good covers, methinks.

On an unrelated note, a few days back someone made a donation to the Niblet Memorial Kibble Fund under the alias "". Not surprisingly, when I tried to drop a note of thanks to that address, it bounced. So if you're out there, Dr. No: thank you.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

High-Concept Low-Brow

It's credibility of a sort, I guess. The Sydney Morning Herald has just published a John Birmingham piece which jumps off from the teenybopper suckfest "Twilight" to dip its toes in the whole pop-culture vampire mystique. And what should appear, mixed in with all the Buffy and True Blood callouts, but a whole paragraph devoted to the vampires of Blindsight:
In author Peter Watts's hard-science space opera, Blindsight, Dracula's children aren't disguised at all; they're reborn from ancient DNA samples and put to work by humanity, which needs their superior physical and intellectual skills to face off a universe full of even scarier monsters. It all sounds like a low-brow spook'n'shoot, an ill-advised cocktail of the undead and laser beams. But it's high-concept low-brow, with Watts providing reams of credible-sounding scientific "research" in a "Notes and References" section that recalls nothing so much as the early work of the recently departed Michael Crichton.
Birmingham evidently didn't realize that those "references" are real, but that's cool. I don't even mind being compared to Crichton; I actually quite like a lot of Mikey's "early work"— and hey, if a critic in a mainstream newspaper thinks the shoe fits, maybe some publisher might notice a vacant niche waiting to be filled...

What I do find a bit odd, though, is that Blindsight got as much attention it did (not that I'm complaining). Beyond the obligatory commentary on the Twilight novels, the article focuses almost entirely on cinevision: Buffy, True Blood, even some pretty strained references to Borgs and zombies. The only non-Stoker, non-Meyer book to get any attention is some vampire-gumshoe novel by Charlie Huston. And while I'm never one to turn down free publicity, I seem to remember some guy called Matheson doing something along the same lines a while back— something that can hardly have fallen out of the public eye so soon after Will Smith poked it back in there — not to mention a more recent vampire riff by that Butler chick. And there's no way I wield a fraction of the influence of either of those authors, even on their bad days. So I'm wondering why Blindsight made Birmingham's cut, when I am Legend and Fledgling didn't. It obviously isn’t a function of either literary quality or sales.

You know what that leaves. Cover art.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Avast! Here Be a Blindsightinator for Ye!

Aye me hearties, be ye rememberin' that time in Blindsight when Rorschach, she be putting the sun in scurvy Szpindel's eyes?

"Argh, I be seein' naught," Szpindel be sayin', his timbers a'shiver.

"It be the EM fields," James be barking. "That be how they signal. The briney deep, she be fulla words, she be—"

"I be seeing naught," Szpindel be saying. "I be blind as the skipper with his patch on the wrong eye!"

"Yar," Bates be lassooing the capstain. "That be a pretty mess— blast those scurvy rads…"

And then when they be hiding below decks, Szpindel be putting words to it…

"Ya reached for it, ya scurvy dog. You near be catchin' it. That not be blind chance."

"Argh, not blind chance. Blindsight. Amanda? Where be ye, wench?"


"Aye. Nothing be wrong with ye receptors," he be saying. "Eye be working right enough, brain not be seein' the signal. Brain stem, he be mutineer. Arrgh."

Now those buggering cabin-boys from Denmark, they be laying claim to me booty. They be putting out "Action-blindsight in two-legged landlubbers that be having compasses on their skulls, Arggh", and they be staking their claim last winter in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They be asking me to be hanging their guts from the crowsnest, they e'er be blackening my horizon.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Living in the Past.

Most of you here have read Blindsight. Some of you have made it almost to the end. A few have even got as far as the references (I know this, because some of you have asked me questions about them). And so you might remember that old study Libet did back in the nineties, in which it was shown that the body begins to act on a decision a full half-second before the conscious self is aware of having made the decision. A lot of Blindsight's punchline hung on this discovery— because obviously, whatever calls an action into being must precede it. Cause and effect. Hence, the johnny-come-lately sense of conscious volition is bogus. We are not in control. I mean, really: a whole half a second.

Half a second? Chun Siong Soon and his buddies piss on Libet's half a second. Nature Neuroscience just released a study that puts Libet's puny electrodes to shame; turns out the brain is making its decisions up to ten full seconds (typically around seven) before the conscious self "decides" to act.

Ten whole seconds. That's longer than the attention span of a sitting president.

It all comes down to stats. Soon et al took real-time fMRI recordings of subjects before, during, and after a conscious "decision" was made; then they went back and looked for patterns of brain activity prior to that "decision" that correlated with the action that ultimately occurred. What they found was a replicable pattern of brain activity that not only preceded the decision by several seconds, but which also correlated with the specific "decision" made (click a button with the right or the left hand). (Interestingly, these results differ from Libet's insofar as subjects reported awareness of their "decision" prior to the activation of the motor nerves, not afterwards. Whereas Libet's results suggested that action precedes conscious "decision"-making by a very brief interval, Soon et al's suggest that actual decision-making precedes conscious "decision"-making by a much longer one. Bottom line is the same in each case, though: what we perceive as "our" choice has already been made before we're even aware of the options.)

This isn't exactly mind reading. Soon and his buds didn't find a circuit that explicitly controls button-pressing behavior or anything. All they found was certain gross patterns of activity which correlated with future behavior. But we could not read that information if the information wasn't there; in a very real sense, your brain must know what it's going to do long before you do.

Obviously this can't be the whole story. If the lag between processing and perception was always that long, we would feel no sense of personal agency at all. It's one thing to think that you told your muscles to leap from the path of an approaching bus when the time discrepancy is a measly 400 millisecs; but not even organisms with our superlative denial skills could pretend that we were in control if our bodies had leapt clear ten seconds before it even occurred to us to move. So I would think this is more proof-of-principal than day-in-the-life. Still. As IO9 points out, given these results, how long before we can do without that stupid conscious part of us entirely?

Wired's online coverage is a bit more defensive. They bend over backwards to leave open some possibility of free will, invoking the hoary old "maybe free will acts as a veto that lets us stop the unconscious decision." But that's bogus, that's recursive: if consciousness only occurs in the wake of subconscious processing (and how could it be otherwise? How can we think anything before the thinking neurons have fired?), then the conscious veto will have the same kind of nonconscious precursors as the original intent. And since that information would be available sooner at the nonconscious level, it once again makes more sense to leave the pointy-haired boss out of the loop entirely.

But I'm going to take a step back and say that everyone here is missing the point. Neither this study nor Libet's really addressed the question of free will at all. Neither study asked whether the decision-making process was free; they merely explored where it was located. And in both cases, the answer is: in the brain. But the brain is not you: the brain is merely where you live. And you, oh conscious one, don't make those decisions any more than a kidney fluke filters blood.

(Oh, and I've figured out who the Final Cylon is. For real this time. Romo Lambkin's cat.)

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Friday, March 14, 2008

In Praise of MPD

This month's New Scientist carries an opinion piece by Rita Carter, author of the imminent Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality. She's not the first to argue that multiple personalities may be adaptive (the whole backbone of the eighties' MPD fad was that they served to protect the primary persona from the stress of extreme abuse), nor is she the first to point out that MPD is just one end of a scale that goes all the way down to jes' plain folks adopting different faces for different social contexts (what Carter calls "normal multiplicity"). She does, however, suggest that "normal multiplicity could prove useful in helping people function in an increasingly complex world"; which raises the possibility that what we now think of as "pathological" multiplicity might prove useful in a hypercomplex world.

Cue the Gang of Four.

This is one of the themes introduced in Blindsight that I'm going to town on with Dumbspeech (okay, okay: State of Grace): that humanity is, in effect, splitting into a whole suite of specialized cognitive subspecies as a means of dealing with information overload. (You can see the rudiments of this in the high proportion of Aspies hanging out in Silicon Valley, perhaps.) But I've never encountered this Carter person before. Judging by her brief essay, I can't tell whether she's actually on to something or whether she's just putting neurogloss lipstick on the trivially obvious fact that it makes sense to behave differently in different situations (rather like making the Atkins Diet sound all high-tech and futuristic by describing it as "hacking the body").

Anyone here read her books? Are they any good?

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Is this theory of yours accepted by any respectable authorities?

The long-awaited new Neuropsychologia's finally on the stands, and it's a theme issue on — wait for it — consciousness! Lots of articles on blindsight, interhemispheric signaling, anosognosia, all that cool stuff. And nestled in the heart of this month's episode is a paper by David Rosenthal entitled "Consciousness and its function".

Guess what. He doesn't think it has any.

From the abstract:
"...a number of suggestions are current about how the consciousness of those states may be useful ... I examine these and related proposals in the light of various empirical findings and theoretical considerations and conclude that the consciousness of cognitive and desiderative states is unlikely to be useful in these or related ways. This undermines a reliance on evolutionary selection pressures in explaining why such states so often occur consciously in humans."
Rosenthal's conclusion? Consciousness is just a side-effect, with no real adaptive value. And no, he didn't cite Blindsight. But we all know I went there first.

Somewhere else I went, back in 1991, has been making a few online waves over the past week or two: this brief Science article by Christner et al, suggesting that microbes play a major and hitherto-unsuspected role in shaping the world's weather. As Jeremy Ruhland pointed out a few days back, this is a wee bit reminiscent of a story I wrote in the early nineties — a post-environmental-apocalypse number in which vast colonies of cloud-dwelling weathermongering microbes had conspired to kick our asses. For a few years now I've been showing this slide whenever I want to make the point that sometimes you can hit the bullseye even when you have no fucking clue what you're talking about...

... because really, "Nimbus" was a spontaneous, unresearched brain fart based entirely on an old girlfriend's observation that "Ooh, look at those clouds... they almost look alive!" But CNN is not exactly the most prestigious source of scientific intel on the planet, and besides, Moffet was just starting to look back in 2002; he hadn't actually found anything. That was then; this is now. You can't get more prestigious than Science (well, unless you're Nature), and now we're looking at actual data.

Of course, this is nowhere near the cozy conjunction of Watts and Rosenthal. Christner et al. didn't even look at clouds per sé, only at the precipitation that had dropped out of them. And it's not like they discovered any new and alien microbes; mostly they came up with plant pathogens. (Also, my microbe-infested clouds had a kind of slow intelligence to them — and if we ever get any evidence supporting that conceit I'll eat my cats.) But what they did show was that microbes affect the weather— and at the very least, that leaves the door open for all sorts of evil, powerful, yet-to-be-discovered bugs lurking overhead.

I like that thought.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why Animé Might Not Be the Best Medium for Blindsight...

Courtesy of Che Gilson, who brought you last month's Manga'ld Theseus crew, a somewhat-less-than-fearsome interpretation of the once-scary aliens in Blindsight. (Personally, I'd have liked the "weapons" illo more if the board had had a nail through it.) The existential dilemma of a nonsentient intelligence giving rise to a thought-bubble is left as an exercise for the reader.

Now I'm going to see Blade Runner. Ridley Scott promises this is the last time. It better be.


Friday, November 2, 2007

Brittle Imaginings

Pursuant to Remedial Gigerology's digression into scrambler/ophiuroid relationships, here's my impression of one, cobbled together from pieces of the other. Consider it a belated Hallowe'en treat:

And what the hell: seeing as how we're on the subject of my favorite holiday, here are a couple of blasts from the past. Even casual visitors will have seen at least one of these before; more anal analysts (hmmm— I wonder if those two words spring from the same root...) might nod knowingly when I let slip that the Nosferatu chick in the other is Susan Oshanek.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Done Deals & Fair Warnings

So, two more sets of negotiations concluded, two more contracts signed and sent: Arabesque (a new imprint of AST Publishing) is now officially putting out a Russian edition of Blindsight, and Bibliopolis is tasked with the Spanish translation.

Both have promised me input on cover layout.

Ominously, the editor at Arabesque — after having seen the author photos I sent him — mused tentatively about using one of them as an actual cover-art element. Not sure how that would work. I suppose my nose could stand in for Big Ben, if the light was right...

The crawl might be going down briefly over the next couple of days. Apparently, by keeping all its files at, I'm depriving us all of cool things like Polls (which would allow me to learn how many of you really do think that this tiny white-on-black motif blows goats and would rather that I went with yellow on chartreuse). I think I can move everything back to the Google server while still retaining the appearance of a URL — if I can't, fuck it, it's staying put — but who knows what's gonna happen? So if your bookmarks suddenly take you to 404via, wait a bit. If they still don't work, go to my Updates page; any new architecture will be reported there.

See you on the other side.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007


In between not doing the paying stuff I'm supposed to be doing and checking out the various articles and links you folks have sent my way over the altruism essay (thanks for all of that, btw — there was a lot of good stuff in there and it actually changed my thinking somewhat), I managed to add a few bits of chrome to the ol' website: three Blindsight blurbs (one from Challenging Destiny — complete review here — and the others from SFRA Review, thanks to Prof. Dom Grace) and a late-breaking blurb for ßehemoth: ß-Max (also from SFRA Review). More importantly, though, one Brian Gilbert has very kindly converted all of my online novels into Mobipocket format. You can download them at the appropriate sub-pages over on my Backlist

And now, a couple of questions that never got answered over on XFire the other day:

  1. Peter Watts i have read one of your short stories last night, the flesh made word, what inspired you to do such an immersful script ? I had this cat, dying of a liver tumour. Everyone was telling me how much suffering she was going through, how euthenasia would be the most merciful option, how horrendously-expensive and most-likely ineffective surgery would be. And I would have killed her in a second if I'd known that was true — but the fact is, organisms are programmed to want to survive, right? How much pain would you have to be in before you'd rather be dead? And when you're deciding whether to kill a friend, how do you decide what she wants if she can't tell you? These were the questions that inspired that story. (I got off easy, btw: I committed to the surgery even though I couldn't afford it, but Zombie died two hours before the operation was scheduled to begin. I got to feel as though I'd passed the test without having to pay the price.)
  2. Do you support gay marraige? Dude, I don't even support straight marriage.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"It's 20 light years away. We can go there."

Now that's the kind of attitude I like to see coming from a legitimate authority-- to wit, Dimitar Sasselov of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, quoted in today's NY Times. He was talking about Gliese 581c, a potentially earth-type planet orbiting a dim red dwarf in the constellation of Libra. 1.5 time Earth's radius; 5 times the mass. Mean temperature somewhere between 0 and 40°C, solidly in the Goldilocks Zone for liquid water. A type of planet thought by Sasselov to be not only congenial to life, but more congenial than Earth.

Of course, you probably know this already. It's on boingboing, after all, and Yahoo, and and Nature, and a thousand other websites. (Science, my usual go-to source for this kind of thing, is still asleep at the wheel as of this posting.) What you probably don't know, however, is that there's a pretty specific real-world connection between Gliese 581c and Blindsight.

You see, we don't really know all that much about 581c yet. We got a mass, and we got a distance-from-primary, and we got an orbital period (11 days), and we got all of that by watching Gliese 581 wobbling slightly as its planets tugged gravitationally on its sleeve. We don't even know if 581c has an atmosphere, and if so, whether it's closer to ours or Venus's.

But there are plans to find out, and they involve the use of a suitcase-sized Canadian satellite called MOST (also known as "The Humble", by virtue of its teensy dinner-plate of a mirror). Despite its small physical size, MOST is well-suited for picking up the atmospheric signatures of extrasolar planets, and it'll be turning its glassy eye towards Libra in the near future. The Principle Investigator behind the MOST is a guy name of Jaymie Matthews, who acted as my unpaid astrophysics consultant (well, paid in pizza and beer, I guess) for Blindsight.

And now, after helping me chase aliens through my own brainstem, he's gonna be looking for real ones at Gliese 581. How cool is that?

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