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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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Brechtian Punk Cabaret: or, I Would Kill For Amanda Palmer

Of course she had me before she even appeared on stage, before we froze our asses off in the wind and freezing rain waiting for the doors to open, before I ever heard "Astronaut". She had me months before she dedicated "Oasis" (the peppiest date-rape-and-abortion song evar) to Sarah Palin. She probably owned me from the moment I first heard the Dresden Dolls' "Sex Changes" last spring, a song I whole-heartedly recommend to anyone disillusioned by once-great female icons who went all mushy and braindead in the wake of childbearing (I'm looking at you, Kate Bush. You too, Annie Lennox).

So in the interests of full disclosure, I probably couldn't have disliked Sunday's Amanda Palmer concert unless the lady had puked all over my shoes and called me needle-dick in front of my friends. But she didn't, and each step of that passionately-choreographed evening only served to ramp up my willingness to martyr myself in Her name. The statuesque androgyne Zoë Keating, starting the night with a stripped-down serenade on cello and Mac; The Builders and the Butchers, whose strangely atonal lead vocals somehow really work with their down-home foot-stomping songs about dead guys and apocalyptic floods. The shrouded body of Amanda Palmer herself being pall-borne onto the stage and laid at the keyboard while Neil Gaiman recounted his feelings upon hearing of her death, the rumors over who had killed her and why, the clinical descriptions of Palmer's crustacean-nibbled corpse dredged up from the river bed.

And then, ohmygod, Her Resurrection.

The music was amazing, but you knew that going in because you've obsessively replayed the albums until the very electrons have been worn down past the Planck length (skipping over, perhaps, such lesser lights as Night Reconnaissance and that vaguely lame sheep-slaughtering song). You were sort of prepared for the adrenaline spurting from her fingers because you've seen the live clips on Youtube. But there are these other elements that split your face into a big goofy grin: the Danger Ensemble1 infiltrating the audience and performing evocative little counterpoints of performance art right down there on the dance floor2 during the songs. The "Ask Amanda" segment. A ten-minute philosophical deconstruction on the lyrical inconsistencies inherent in Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer", and whether they can be resolved by context-sensitive interpretations of the phrase "making it". And finally, with an audience demanding another encore even though it was past midnight and noise bylaws would have been violated, we got this:

Amanda Palmer, standing on the bar in fishnet stockings, frilly bloomers, a corset, and — yes, your eyes are not playing tricks on you, a SQUID HAT!!!3 — leading rapturous fans in a singalong cover of Radiohead's "Creep" on the ukulele.

I know one jaded, grizzled old city hall journalist and horror writer who was literally brought to tears by AFP's performance that night. He was far from alone.

I have to go back to work now. But before I leave, let me take this opportunity to publicly thank the lady who first introduced me to Amanda Palmer and the (currently moribund) Dresden Dolls. I can really only think of one way to repay her, because there's only one desire she's ever expressed to me that is unambiguous and unmistakable: she really, really wants to stop being referred to as a member of The Puppy Brigade.

Consider it done. Now we're even.

1At least one member of which I might also kill for, although that's only because she reminded me of an ex-girlfriend of whom I never really got my fill.

2Which I thought was pretty brave. All it would take is one asshole from the audience to fuck things up completely, and given that AFP has known to play topless it would be amazing if a few such assholes weren't in evidence at each performance.

3Sadly, she felt compelled to take the squid off her head during the actual singing part. Said it might detract from the inherent dignity of the performance.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008


Thank you all, for your thoughts on the best Hollywood faces to graft onto my characters. There are some great suggestions there; some head-slappingly perfect, some popular but utterly mysterious (Ellen Page as Lenie? What am I missing?), and some of limited utility but nonetheless entertaining. I will steal shamelessly from you all.

But in the meantime there's this other thing I have to do for the greater good. Stephanie Svan and Peggy Kolm (she of "Biology in Science Fiction" fame) are attending ScienceOnline09, where they'll be running a session on science fiction as a tool for science communication. To that end they've been circulating two sets of generic questions: one for science Bloggers, the other for sf writers. Participants post answers on their own blogs, link those answers to BiSF, and hilarity ensues. And because I both write science fiction and post real science commentary on the 'crawl, I get to answer both sets.

So basically, you can stop reading here. If you've been coming here for more than a couple of weeks you already know who I wanted to be when I grew up, the role that science plays in my fiction, and why I think the Mundanistas have their heads up their asses. What follows is homework, pure and simple; your time will be better spent watching the latest episode of Sarah Connor Chronicles, or posting an online picture of your naked belly in support of Amanda Palmer's ongoing battle with Roadrunner Records. Or even Googling around to try and figure out what the fuck I was talking about right there.

You there, Pegster? This is for you:

Questions for Science Bloggers

What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it?
Watch, write. And play. Mustn't forget play, even though the scientific verisimilitude in even the best computer games is still pretty abysmal. Give it time.

Still read the stuff, slowly, and after a fashion. More often I simply let it pile up on the shelf and promise myself I'll get to it any day now, honestly, just as soon as I finish the goddamn outline.
What/who do you like and why?
Most influenced, growing up, by John Brunner, Samuel Delany, Robert Silverberg. Tried to imitate William Gibson and Neal Stephenson while breaking into the field. It's probably just as well I didn't succeed.
What do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science?
I believe the genre can slip a little real science under the reader's guard, but more importantly I think it can help instill scientific attitudes. The best science fiction carries the subtext that the universe works according to consistent rules, dammit, and if you're smart enough you can pop the hood and figure them out. (Contrast this with fantasy, a largely faith-based genre in which one simply accepts magic or "the force" as given, with no explanation required.) Good science fiction consists of thought experiments: given this stimulus, how will society respond? If this physical law were to change, what would happen to the cosmos? Whether the models described in these stories are founded in real-world science is almost irrelevant; after all, even in the real world the models keep changing. (Fifteen years ago we didn’t even know that dark matter existed; in another fifteen we'll probably figure out that it actually doesn't). SF doesn't say "this is the truth", but rather, "suppose this were true; what then?" And if there was ever a time when we were in dire need of people able to look more than two inches beyond their own noses, that time is—

Actually, I guess that time is most of recorded history. Never mind.
Can it harm the cause of science?
Sure, especially if it's anti-science polemic tarted up in sf tropes. Did Michael Crichton ever write a novel in which there weren't Some Things Man Was Not Meant To Know?
Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science?
All the time.
Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?
That first thing. There's far, far fewer examples to keep track of.
Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers? carries a combined RSS feed for all the coolest science blogs, from heavy hitters like Pharyngula all the way down to personal grad-student journals. There's Slashdot, of course, and the online sites for the journals Science and Nature (not blogs, but still a good source of cutting-edge science coverage). Same for New Scientist; and KurzweilAI is a decent clearing house for stuff you may have missed at the other spots.

In terms of science fiction blogs, I have a soft spot for GalacticMu; they're small, but have a cranky attitude that I find very endearing. Futurismic and the Velcro City Tourist Board are both definitely worth bookmarking, as is . io9 is flashy (albeit a bit heavy on the puff pieces), but I think they hate me for some reason. And Biology in Science Fiction has carved out its own little niche straddling the biology/sf interface.

Of course, any or all of these sites could be dead by now for all I know. I've been so snowed under by other things that I've barely had a chance to glance at any of them in the past couple of weeks.

Questions for Science Fiction Writers

Why are you writing science fiction in particular?
Because it's the only genre big enough to wonder where we're headed and what we're doing to ourselves as a species. In fact, any story that shoots for that goal, that explores the impact of science on flesh, becomes a work of science fiction pretty much by definition.
What does the science add?
Wrong question. The science is what you start with. What you add after that is up to you.
What is your relationship to science? Do you have a favorite field?
I'm a marine biologist in a former life; I tried to revisit molecular genetics in the current one, but sucked at it.
Have you studied or worked in it, or do you just find it cool?
It's all cool until you actually have to learn the nuts and bolts, at which point it becomes drudgery. While my field of (former) expertise is the behavioral ecophysics of marine mammals, my current favorite field is neuroscience— partly because it really puts that arrogant little homunculus in its place, and partly because it's easy to pan for sf gold in that stream without actually knowing very much.
How important is it to you that the science be right?
More important than it should be; my formal training has left me scarred with the usual need to cover my ass against nitpickers and professional rivals. That said, though, I think too strict an adherence to the known scientific state-of-the-art is a straitjacket that constrains the imagination. There's a reason they call it science fiction; to keep all your stories within the realm of today's established science is to suggest that there are no more breakthroughs to be made, that we pretty much know everything already. That's a profoundly antiscientific attitude.
What kind of resources do you use for accuracy?
I can access pretty much any scientific journal I want, thanks to some connections in the University community. Also I get telepathic messages from my cats. But again, too much obsessing over "accuracy" turns literature into essay, and the last thing I want is to end up associated with the Mundanistas.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"To Prove Free Will, You Have To Do Something You Don't Want To."

I stumbled upon the premiere of this new television show last night. It contained the eponymous line, which is a bit pithier than the usual prime-time broadcast dialog. Even cooler, this line was a quote from a psychopathic assassin named Edward who'd recently been upbraided by his boss for gratuitously killing his target; in a nice subversion of expectation, the boss's real objection was that she'd wanted that target brought in for torture, and she suspected Edward had pulled the trigger out of an abundance of mercy.

But the real kicker is that the dude hearing the quote was a surgically isolated self-aware chunk of Edward's own temporal lobe. We're talking technologically-induced multiple personality disorder; we're talking the ultimate sleeper agent. Each persona is activated and deactivated by remote control; Henry, the milque-toast family man, doesn't even know that Edward exists. He honestly thinks he's just some kind of efficiency consultant who has to travel a lot. They're basically the Gang of Four with fewer options, and the whole arrangement works great until the snooze button fucks up and Henry the family man boots out of turn, to find himself holding a sniper rifle in a foreign country.

The show is "My Own Worst Enemy", and it stars Christian Slater, and perhaps because I had no expectations — hell, I had no awareness — I liked it quite a bit. I liked watching the two personae, only one of which is conscious at any given time, learn to communicate with each other using notes written on their hands. (Edward is mightily pissed that Henry drives his car. Henry's not so keen on the thought of Edward fucking his wife. They fight crime.) I liked the relatively light touch with they dealt with questions of human identity.

If they continue to do that — if they explore the neurology of individuality, the nature of sentience, all those nifty philosophical issues that science fiction is custom-made to deal with — this show could turn into something really special. Or it could deteriorate into a weekly spy show whose failed attempts at comic relief boil down to "So, you using the body tonight?" or "But honey, it was the other me with that woman!" In which case it might even be lamer than Fringe.

I really hope they go the first route. Especially since it looks like The Sarah Connor Chronicles won't be with us much longer.


Monday, August 25, 2008

Speciation Ahoy!

Strange Horizons has just posted this bipartite piece on Scott Bakker's Neuropath and my own Blindsight. It's billed as a review, but it doesn't read as one so much as a brief comparative essay on the thematic focii of the two novels. The reviewer— one Nader Elhefnawy, visiting professor of Literature out of U. Miami— regards the books as exemplars of sf's "new direction", a course also being plotted by the likes of Ted Chiang, Greg Egan, and Daryl Gregory as a kind of nihilistic counterpoint to the post-cyberpunk Singularity-huggers.

So I'm looking at this, and I'm thinking Hmmm… an academic comparing two related works in a burgeoning thematic niche. Or, more concisely: New Subgenre! All we really need to keep the marketers happy (and to keep the unicorn-huggers out of our shelf space at Barnes & Noble) is a name.

I call dibs on Neuropunk. Who's with me?

Update 26/08/08 (in response to Ray's well-taken comment): Ooh! Ooh! Even better:


Doesn't it just roll off the tongue? It sounds like some kind of all-natural herbal remedy!

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I Talk Too Little

So the folks over at SF Signal approached me to answer their latest Mind Meld question, to wit, "Which science fiction or fantasy novels, past and present, do you consider to be the most controversial? Why?" And I answered, but I composed my answer during a couple of spare moments during Polaris, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Doubletree Hotel while that leashed slave chick I mentioned last entry paraded back and forth. So I was a bit distracted, and misread the question so I thought they were asking us to focus on a single book — and while I cited several I ended up going with Delany's Dhalgren, praising its lyricism, its plotlessness, and all that explicit gay porn.

And now I'm a wee bit embarrassed because the other respondents provided answers with far more depth than mine, citing obvious examples I'd missed (The Satanic Verses. The Iron Dream. A Clockwork Orange. Duh.), and occasionally making a good case for less-obvious ones (Sawyer's The Terminal Experiment never struck me as especially "controversial", but evidently its Nebula win provoked a certain amount of outrage back before my time). So if you want some really thoughtful commentary, skip the first paragraph and go from there. (My eye was especially drawn to Tim Holman's shrewd observation that these days, the most controversial element in science fiction is the lack of controversial works it's producing. Amen.)

Anyhow, I'll try to be more verbose in future. Promise.

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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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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Audio Art

Blindsight is coming out as an audiobook from Recorded Books; check out the cover art by Leonard Likas (© Recorded Books, LLC):

Notice anything unusual for a Watts-type book? Notice anything unusual for a story set a half light-year from the nearest star, set in the dark and shadowy borderlands of interstellar space?

Notice the rich, radiant colors? WTF?

Well, Leonard took his lead from the synesthesiac's eye. There's a brief scene near the end of Blindsight where we get a hint of what Sarasti or Michelle might see if they looked outside, and it's beautiful. So's this artwork: an inventive departure from the usual dark, glum Wattsiness, and a nice addition to the Gallery.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Music is a drug

At least, the endorphin receptors in my head are still buzzing madly almost an hour after the encore ended. I kind of lost touch with Oysterband back in the early nineties, when they decided no one was listening to their lyrics anyway so they might as well just have fun and do covers of I Fought the Law. Except I was damn well listening to their lyrics, and their music, and I always thought I Fought the Law blew goats. So I went away.

But evidently that was just a phase, because I just saw them and it was the best fucking concert I've been to in years. The mix and the acoustics were as clean as a studio recording, except they were right there, live, in front of our table. The new tunes were great, the old ones lovingly rendered, and even the cover they did sneak in — the ancient traditional John Barleycorn — was an electric revelation in close harmony with massive percussion.

I tell you, the UK grows the best groups...

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

I am a Sad Pathetic Man

I dreamed last night that I kept hitting on Katee Sackhoff, and she kept turning me down. That's right: Starbuck, the antiMikey of sexual cereals, wouldn't even give me the time of day in my dreams.

But I'm not going to go with the obvious subtext here, because I am desperate to give my imagination credit for more subtlety. What it's really telling me to do, I think, is to start collecting Return-of-Starbuck theories, and to do it soon before IO9 ruins all the speculation with one of their spoiler strafing runs.

So. Starbuck theories. Place them here.


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Cancer, For the Greater Good

One of my favorite monster movies of all time has got to be John Carpenter's 1982 remake of “The Thing”. It's not a perfect film by any means – there are some gaffes with the rubber fx, and if eighties-era PCs ever came preloaded with software to test whether your buddies had been taken over by shapeshifting aliens, I never saw it. (A shame. Back then I would've bought something like that in a second. These days, it's pretty much redundant.) Still, “The Thing” is one of the few movies of its type in which the Human cast isn't as dumb as a sack of Huckabees. Nobody wanders off after the ship's cat all by themselves. The moment they figure out what they're up against they burn everything that moves, start thinking about serological detection methods, and keep really close watch on each other. It's an effective study in paranoia, starring an alien that not only squirts slime and sprouts tentacles, but actually proves to be quite a bit more intelligent than the humans it preys upon. (As one might expect from a creature with interstellar technology. Am I the only one bothered by the fact that the monster in the Howard Hawkes original never did anything smarter than just kinda flailing around and roaring?) Even at the scorched-earth end of the story, you're never really sure who won.

Then there's the biology.

It's actually not as totally whacked-out as you may think. Granted, anything able to morph between body plans in the time it takes me to snarf an Egg McMuffin would have to have stores of cellular energy verging on the nuclear. (Jeff Goldblum's gradual, donut-powered transformation in “The Fly” was a lot more believable – although why those telepods got all confused at the presence of fly DNA, when they didn't seem to bat a diode at the bacteria seething on every square micron of both fly and human, remains an open question. But I digress.) Still, if you can forgive the ridiculously fast transformation, the idea of an infectious agent retooling infected cells for its own purposes is old news. Viruses have been doing it for billions on years.

Now we are too. Synthetic Life's current rock star, J. Craig Venter, is all over the lit with his artifical chromosomes and Swiss-Army cells: build a cellular chassis that carries the basic instruction set necessary for metabolism, and then top it off with genes to produce whatever you're after this week. Before long, Venter's Vats (and only Venter's vats, if the patents go through) will be churning out great masses of everything from Nutripon to Biogasoline.

But more interesting, to me, is this recent paper out of PloS Computational Biology on “Somatic Evolution”— i.e., the classic Darwinian struggle for existence among the cells of a single tissue in a single organism. And why shouldn't the rules of natural selection apply to cells as well as their owners? The cells in your liver exist in a habitat with limited food, just like populations of multicellular creatures. They jostle up against others like themselves who have their eye on the same nutrients. Given a mutation that allowed one such cell to outcompete its siblings — faster reproductive rate, lower mortality — wouldn't its offspring kick the asses of the competition? Wouldn't the whole tissue, the whole organ, evolve into something new, something where every cell was out for itself, something like —

—Well, cancer, obviously.

Don't bother pointing out the obvious. Yes, if our cells did follow the beat of their own drummer, multicellularity would never have evolved in the first place. But that's circular; there's nothing in the rules that says multicellularity had to evolve, and logically Darwin's hand should be felt down in the blood as well as out on the savannah. Something must have suppressed those processes at the cellular level before metazoans could arise; that's what this paper is about.

But now I'm thinking on a tangent. I remember our old friends the scramblers, and how it was possible for them to evolve without genes:
"I'd swear half the immune system is actively targetting the other half. It's not just the immune system, either. Parts of the nervous system seem to be trying to, well, hack each other. I think they evolve intraorganismally, as insane as that sounds. The whole organism's at war with itself on the tissue level, it's got some kind of cellular Red Queen thing happening. Like setting up a colony of interacting tumors, and counting on fierce competition to keep any one of them from getting out of hand. Seems to serve the same role as sex and mutation does for us."

And I remember MacReady in Carpenter's film, after Norris split into several different pieces to keep from burning alive, internalising the take-home lesson:

"Every part of him was a whole. Every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own life. Y'see, when a man bleeds... it's just tissue. But blood from one of you things won't obey when it's attacked. It'll try and survive. Crawl away from a hot needle, say..."

Cancer, for the greater good.

Maybe that's where people and scramblers and MacReady-battling Things went their separate ways. We tamed our inner battles using stem cells and transient cells and differentiated tissues, just like Pepper et al. hypothesise. But maybe other worlds spawned other answers. Maybe whatever alien slime mold gave rise to our Antarctic shapeshifter decided to go with the whole cell-competition thing, decided to make it a solution instead of a problem. Maybe that's how all those cells remain totipotent even in the adult animal; or maybe some tentacle-whipping alien J. Craig Venter just figured out how to go back and retrofit his species for optimal adaptability and maximum profit. Of course they could do it, even if they didn't evolve that way. They built flying saucers, for Chrissakes. They were crossing the interstellar gulf before we'd even made it out of Africa. What better failsafe for lost and stranded travellers than to be able to take your cue from the natives, slip into a new body precustomised for its environment?

I read “Who Goes There” back in the eighties, decades after John W. Campbell wrote it and about six months before Carpenter's unjustly-maligned remake hit the theatres. I thought it was tres cool from the outset. But it never occurred to me to write a sequel until I read this paper...

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Friday, December 14, 2007

AfterImages of I Am Legend

Praiseworthy Things:
  • Opens with the Best Bitter Irony Jump Cut evar.
  • Will Smith's spot-on performance as a repressed, guilt-ridden failed-saviour-in-denial ratcheting inexorably towards catastrophic meltdown.
  • Nature Takes Back Manhattan (and glad to see some decent soul opened the cages at the Brooklyn Zoo before devolving).
  • Sam the Dog.

Eh-worthy Things:
  • You'd think a military epidemiologist would know enough to give experimental antivirals more than five minutes to work before writing them off as ineffective.
  • the hysterical-vampirism shtick of Matheson's novel has been replaced with a clone of the Rage virus from 28 (Insert Unit of Time Here) Later.

Craptacular Things:
  • the gratuitous and idiotic sop to the biblethumper demographic in the closing minutes of the film. (Granted, in these enlightened times when people get the shit kicked out of them for wishing people "Happy Hannukah", or forced to resign from school boards for mentioning evolution — or killed for actually advocating it — probably the only way you can get away with an athiest protag is if he learns the error of his ways before the final curtain. Pity.) (On second thought, 15/12/07: that isn't necessarily true. Witness the unflattering view of Christian behaviour — hell, of human behaviour — in "The Mist", which also has one of the most admirably and unrepentantly downbeat endings I've ever seen in a Christmas release. Almost makes up for "Cujo".)
Bottom line, though: not bad. Not bad at all. Although I do wish Neville had worked up the nerve to have sex with the mannequin in the video store...


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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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

This. Is. The. Real. Peter. Watts. Speaking. This. Is. Not. An. Android. Imposter. No. Way.

Okay, the comments were touching enough, but I'm starting to get emails now. Even a phone message. Time to put these ugly rumours to rest.

First of all, I didn't know you cared. I am touched.

Second of all, I am still alive and reasonably healthy. There have just been a number of deadlines keeping me busy lately, the most imminent now of which is this damn story I promised Solaris I'd have ready by Aug 6. It is not going well. The words are coming readily enough, and the prose is even pretty smooth considering my writing muscles have been rusting out for the better part of two years now — but it's currently lying around in pieces all over the floor, and it's bloated and ugly and all character-driven, and while the sf elements seemed shiny enough for a 1000-word short-short (this was originally intended for Nature), the current 7,000-word version reads like a half-assed porridge of Total Recall and Glasshouse and Neuropath and a third-season episode of Red Dwarf without Arnold J. Rimmer or Arnold Schwarzenneger. I have five days to add the final bits, stitch it all together, and hammer it into shape. So bottom line, if you're hoping for another posting from me this week, dream on.

I have been able to squeeze a couple of other things in around the margins, though. Got interviewed for two hours by TVO (kind of a provincial PBS, for those of you stateside) on the subject of Ray Bradbury in general and Fahrenheit 451 (both movie and book) in particular. (Speaking of which, has anyone else out there heard Bradbury admit that he just made up 451 as the temperature at which paper burns, after the guys at the local Fire Hall weren't able to tell him?). I've just signed a contract for a Polish edition of Blindsight, and have contacts for Spanish and Russian editions sitting on my desk as well. (Counting everything from "done deals" to "enthusiastic butt-sniffings", we're talking somewhere around a half-dozen languages so far).

Oh, and there's this: I'm going to be participating in a live online chat with Charlie Stross and Vernor Vinge on August 13th, hosted by XFire (which, I'm led to understand, is MTV's online gaming subdivision). They're going to be giving away multiple signed copies of our Hugo-nominated novels during the chat, and I'm pleased to note that not only are more copies of my book going to be given away (15) than of Charlie's (12) or Prof. Vinge's (10), but judging by the author photos, I also have more hair.

Oh, and I saw "Sunshine", which I'd really been looking forward to since I hold "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting" in high esteem. My God, what a silly, vacuous, inconsistent, scientifically absurd, and derivative movie. I am honestly mystified at the number of good reviews it has received. The Internet itself is not big enough to hold a complete list of the narrative inconsistencies. Suffice to say that when you're shown a ship containing twice the airspace of the Skydome, any claim that four people are in imminent danger of asphyxiation is bound to be met with some skepticism. And when one of the crew discovers that a homicidal, batshit-crazy Freddy Krueger knock-off has stowed away in the Observation lounge, and doesn't inform anyone else on board before rushing to confront himand who, when finding himself blinded by bright sunlight in said lounge, chooses to remain blinded during Freddy's minutes-long crazy-man rant about Sun Gods and Human Sacrifice instead of oh, I don't know, telling the ship's AI to dial down the brightness like every other crew member has done onscreen up to this point, just so he can see clearly when Freddy stops ranting and comes at him with a knife — well, let's just say that you end up wishing that imminent asphyxiation of the whole cast was not so far-fetched.

I'm going to go back to work now. You may speak amongst yourselves.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

London Falling

Saw 28 Weeks Later last night. Few explicit spoilers follow, but much can be infered from what I write below. If you haven't seen the movie yet, and you intend to, you may want to skip this entry.

Released at the start of the summer blockbuster season: going up against Spiderman, Pirates, Shrek, Die Hard, Silver Surfer, and any number of other big-bang, uplifting, heartwarming, adrenalising affirmations that Good Triumphs Over Evil Because It's Nicer. And what does 28 Weeks Later put on the table against such adversaries?

Characters invested with such humanity that you know, according to the rules of Hollywood, that at the very least they'll make it to the final reel — only to see them felled like red-shirted extras before the halfway mark. Families tearing each other apart (no, that is not metaphor). Rooftop snipers stamped from neither Stormtrooper nor Top Gun molds, decent shits with real honest-to-God consciences, indiscriminately shooting civillians in the street to spare them the napalm that takes their unluckier mates ten minutes further on.

And worst of all, this movie delivers a viewing audience that knows, down in the bone, that there's nothing else to be done, that the massacre of innocents is the only strategy that holds any hope at all — and that even that, ultimately, may not be enough.

In the summer popcorn season? This movie has balls the size of fucking grapefruits.

I'm even willing to forgive the supernaturally-absurd rate at which the rage virus propagates. (Sure, you can go from swapping spit to full-blown eyeball-haemorrhageing psychosis in 35 seconds. All you need is a bug that reproduces two hundred times per second). I can forgive it because I am so sick of tepid Hollywood movies (Outbreak comes to mind) that pretend to grapple with the no-win scenario only to pull some third alternative out of their asses in the third act, movies whose sacred trust is to reassure skittish moviegoers that See, there is a way to avoid killing all those innocent infectees. All we have to do is stop the Evil General Who Won't Listen To Reason!

Back in the day, Disney kiddie movies had more hard-eyed maturity than crap like Outbreak. Bambi's mother died, irrevocably, because that's what parents do in real life. You just gotta deal with it. But not today. Today, Spielberg rewrites history and arms ET's containment forces with walkie-fucking-talkies to protect the delicate sensibilities of the world's children (yet another example of the cognitive impairment that seems to accompany parenthood, btw.)

But not 28 Weeks Later. Here's a movie that doesn't even offer us the cold solace of a no-hope scenario. There is hope, you see. There is hope, and there are decent people trying to do the best they can in dire circumstances, and there are no villains — only victims and vectors.

But most of all there is hope. There is at least the glimmer of a solution. And decent, well-intentioned Human stupidity squanders it anyway.

You can have your Spiderman and your Silver Surfer. Watch the pretty explosions. Eat your pocorn. Suck your thumbs.

As for me? Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I watch 28 Weeks Later.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Torontonians: Infest Wisely

You all know the scoop on self-publishers, don't you? Those losers who, unable to interest any legitimate publisher in their verbiage, haunt Kinkos with pockets full of quarters, printing out their magnum opus on the backs of old cable bills in the hope that some streetcorner pedestrian might take pity on them. A hapless breed, their numbers kept in check by their natural predator, the Vanity Press. Oh yes. You know all about self-publishers.

Well, here's a new subspecies for you: Jim Munro, whose debut novel was published by HarperCollins, and did very well for the man. And then Munroe turned his back on Rupert Murdoch (not that ol' Rupe noticed, of course) — and walked away.

You know me. I piss and moan endlessly about the Big Bad Publishing Industry. There is no end to my fucking whining. But Jim Munroe did something I never had the guts to do: he left his Big Name Publisher because he didn't like the way it behaved, and he started publishing his books himself.

And damned if he hasn't made a go of it.

Now he's branching out into other media, writing and codirecting "Infest Wisely", an episodic "lo-fi sci-fi" feature about chewable nanotech. And if you happen to be in downtown Toronto this Friday the 18th with five bucks to spare, you can catch the premiere.

Seriously, go. It's not like you'll be missing anything here...

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007


I've just finished reading a draft of R. Scott Bakker's soon-to-be-released Neuropath. Holy shit.

The neurology of consciousness. The advantages of nonsentience. People neurologically stripped of their behavioral constraints so that they can make the necessary Big Decisions of life and death without getting caught up in touchy-feeling shackles like conscience and morality. All the major themes of Blindsight and a bunch of those from the rifters trilogy thrown in for good measure...

And does he stick them in a hard-sf spaceships-and-aliens chassis that only hardcore skiffy geeks will read? Does he locate his story in a future so close to the Singularity's event horizon that society itself has grown strange and forbidding to the average reader? Does he present his arguments through characters so twisted and specialised that most readers have no choice but to regard them as more alien than the aliens they encounter?

No. He sets it a mere decade into the future, in the context of a serial killer police procedural. Instead of aliens and freaks he uses sexy FBI agents and divorced psychologists. This guy is basically writing about Blindsight-type issues, but is aiming them squarely at a da Vinci Code audience. He is dealing with the same existential questions, but has rendered them accessible for beach readers. He has done exactly what I would have done, if only I'd been smart enough.

At least Blindsight came out first. I can cling to that. Because trust me: when Neuropath hits the shelves, it's gonna be "Peter who?"

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