"..most of what I quoted above is undigested geek static, a deincentiviging fug of unverb, as depressive as old cigarette smoke: another iteration of the old NO GRILS ALOUD treehouse argot of hard sf — I mean, if you don't understand the holy shit significance of 11.2 Tesla you don't belong in my tree."
I can see what the man is saying here, and one side of my brain can't even disagree— I've said more than once on this crawl that I felt Blindsight was a talky book, that I wished I could have used fewer expository threads to weave theory into story. Technically Clute is complaining about the exact opposite — I don't exposit enough — but the overall problem is still one of inaccessibility. So that side of my brain can't really complain when one of the world's foremost sf critics agrees with its own misgivings.
And yet, I get the sense there's something else going on here. "Be still my heart" seems somewhat sharper than an inoffensive little sentence like "We passed Ben's Rayleigh Limit" really deserves, even if ol' John has forgotten what a Rayleigh Limit is. I've received a number of e-mails from people telling me they loved the book, even though they didn't understand all the technical terminology. After all, the characters in Master and Commander don't bother defining the nautical terminology they use, yet landlubbers enjoy that book, absorb the ambience of strange words from context, and don't complain that the author should have explained how to tie a sheepshank. This is pretty much the same thing.
The essence of Clute's criticism actually verges on a critique of marketing strategy: "The problem with all this sclerosis is that it comes close to shutting Peter Watts off from most of his potential readership", he opines, and I gotta wonder: Dude, where've you been the past couple of months? Yes, Blindsight is perhaps the most technically-dense book I've written (or maybe it ties with Maelstrom), but it's gotten buzz and raves far beyond anything my rifters trilogy ever provoked. All the evidence I've seen is that this book has significantly expanded my readership. Clute's remarks are the kind of things I would have said prerelease, back in the days before the readers weighed in.
What makes this especially weird is, if you read the whole review, Clute actually seems to kinda like the book. Take this line, for example:
So. The New Year.
I’ve been busy, and let things slide a bit lately. Or maybe an unusual number of things happened, and caught me unawares. At any rate, there are enough developments in need of telling to warrant the use of separate headings within the course of today’s entry. So:
My bad. Chimps good.
An eagle-eyed expert has pointed out a mistake in Blindsight’s “Notes and References”. I cite a paper reporting that only half of your average chimps (or at least, half of those tested) prove capable of self-recognition in mirrors. Unfortunately I cited the wrong paper, I cited Povinelli 1993. I should have cited Gallup 1997. I’ve gone back and fixed that in all the digital versions on this site, not to mention a fair number of typos that various folks have reported — mainly for Blindsight, but a few for Starfish as well, so it’s nice to see that people are spreading out and reading the rest of the backlist. Thanks to Carlos Yu for finding the error, and Doug Muir for passing it on. Thanks also to Patrick van Aalst, Garnet McKeen, Craig Moynes, Allen Rouse, and Kevin Tan for catching the typos. All fixed now.
People are demanding that I set up a Paypal account so they can give me money. I never set one up before because, people who want to pay for something they already got for free? Never gonna happen, I thought — so if I set up an account I’m basically a pathetic beggar sitting on the side of the Information Superhighway, his cup forever empty.
But evidently not. And if people want to pay me, far be it from me to stand in their way. I don’t believe this weird burst of altruism will last much past five or six generations — after all, those who pay have less money than those who don’t, who can then put that extra cash into getting laid, which means they will leave more offspring to the next generation, ultimately driving the altruists to extinction— so I'd better take advantage before that happens. So I will, sometime soon, set up a Paypal account. I'll put the link on the Backlist page, and I'll try to keep it minimally crass.
Some have given me a choice: having already grabbed my stuff online, they're either going to pay me directly or buy a dead-tree copy of the book. They want to know which I'd prefer, and it's a tougher call than you might expect. If you go the Paypal route, you have the desirable option of paying me a great deal more than the two or three measly bucks I get out of each hardcover sale. On the other hand, direct donations, welcome as they are, don't count as "sales" as far as the publisher is concerned; a million people could send me money through Paypal and the book would still be considered a dismal failure if nobody actually bought it through official channels. And we all know how publishers treat authors whose books are classed as dismal failures. Still, the number of direct donations is most likely going to be no more than a drop in the bucket either way, so it probably doesn't matter in the long run. Do whatever you feel most comfortable doing (including, of course, not paying me at all).
But if you really want my advice, there's no reason you can't go for both options A and B: buy many copies of my book in hardcover, and send me thousands of dollar via paypal. Hard to see the downside in that.
Pursuant to the whole install-Paypal thing, I'm hearing increasingly loud grumbles from the pit that I should drag my sorry ass into the 21rst century and equip this 'crawl with an RSS feed. I haven't looked into those mechanics yet — in my ignorance I suspect that it'll be tougher to do here than it would be if I was on a real blog — but fine. I'll do that too, when I have time. And I'll also finish the Blindsight wing, and euthenise Dubya and Benedict, refreeze the ice caps, and bring about world peace while I'm at it. When I have the time.
In the meantime, let the upgraded typo-free backlist and the new quotes on the splash page serve as a down payment on future improvements.
She gave me the cold shoulder for over a year. She slept atop the high bookshelf in the hall, and was not the least bit shy about using her pointy bits whenever I presumed to pet her when she was in an unreceptiive mood. Her feelings for Banana thawed from outright hatred to a kind of benign indifference (except during mealtimes, during which — for reasons that mystify me to this day — she would unfailingly seek Banana out and repeatedly whack him on the nose. Banana, who outweighed her by a couple of kilograms, took it in stride.) She was prickly. She had armour.
And then one night my long probation was over and she started sleeping on the bed. She would arrange herself in the most inconvenient location possible, somehow relegating me to the peripheral 20% of a king-size mattress and staking out the remainder for herself. When she meatloafed, purring, on my chest I had no heart to disturb her even as my bladder swole inevitably to bursting. Several times I soiled the bedding rather than displace her. She would geronimo off that same high bookshelf in the hall, hurtle through the open bedroom door, curl up in mid-air and hit the duvet purring and already half asleep, rolling to a perfectly-calculated stop against my thigh. She would stand on my comatose body and bite my shoulder when I slept two minutes past feeding time.
Her affection was not easily obtained, but it was so very worth having.
And now she’s been gone for three weeks. Flyers, and trips to shelters, and hikes through back alleys noisily rattling kibble in a plastic container have turned up nothing. A female domestic shorthair entered the system as
roadkill a mile from home, the day after Niblet went missing. The database had that one listed as simply “orange”, and the man who collected the carcass couldn’t remember whether that color had been solid or a creamsicle mix. I went to the shelter, but somehow they had lost the body.
She may still be alive, but I doubt it. I live in the downtown core: Niblet was never supposed to get to street level. She had a couple of acres of topographically-complex patio habitat, shared with a half-dozen rival furballs, safe up here on the rooftops of the third floor. Someone must have propped both airlock doors open while moving furniture or something.
If she’s alive, I hope she’s okay. If she’s dead, I hope it was quick.
Goodbye, Niblet. I miss you.
I've just been informed by Patrick Nielson Hayden that a second printing of Blindsight is now officially a go. It's not a huge print run — a thousand copies — but the door's open for further runs should sales warrant. Better that a small print run sell through than a large one just sit there and stagnate.
So, do we owe this good news to my casting of Blindsight into the Creative Commons? Would a second print run have kicked in anyway by now? Has posting Blindsight for free cost me sales in the long run, or did the increased profile attract more paying customers than (for want of a less perjorative term) freeloaders?
Impossible to say, without access to alternate timelines. But it would be an unlikely coincidence indeed if my gradually senescing Amazon numbers had just happened to jump back to life within 48 hours of setting Blindsight free. Web mentions proliferated — not just in terms of here's-another-guy-going-CC, but also in terms of online reviews and forum threads. And several people have written asking how they can pay me directly for their reading experience. (I don't know, offhand. I never set up a paypal account. It seemed too, well, needy. Like panhandling on your own website. But maybe I should rethink that.)
I will answer these people directly, and all the others too, once I reinstall 50 Gigs of files and apps on this pathetic excuse for a hard drive (never, ever buy a computer from Dell. Seriously. You'll regret it). But for now, let me say: if everything reset this instant to the way it was before I stepped off the precipice, I would still consider the experiment a success on the basis of this fortuitous preChristmas boost.
I couldn’t have done it alone: nobody would have even noticed the move if Cory, John, and Kathryn hadn't publicised it, and they each get a third of my firstborn child. And I can't prove that giving stuff away makes one rich. That whole premise still does violence to my view of basic human nature, in fact. But based on recent experience, I have to say that I now believe Cory & Co are right. I think this works.
Or it will, until everyone does it. Then it stops being buzzworthy.
Well, on the one hand, this whole Creative Commons thing has certainly spiked my profile amongst the bloggers. On the other, immediately after putting Blindsight online, my Amazon numbers fell off a cliff.
The experiment continues. But so far I wouldn't call it a resounding success.
I'm noticing a new kind of review out there: the damning, positive kind. It's the kind of review that says things like "If you don't have ten postgraduate degrees this book will chew you up and spit out the bones" and "Watts has no use for conventional pacing or plot" — and yet somehow manages to conclude regardless that "this is the must-read book of the millennium". You come away thinking of Blindsight the way Gary Larsen's polar bears regard igloos: tough and crunchy on the outside, but with a rewarding soft chewy center. Or something.
Here is one such review. Here is another. Evidently they are widely read, and they're certainly effusive enough to mine for blurbage, even though their conclusions seem a bit at odds with their descriptions — and yet I can't bring myself to add them to the blurbs page. We're getting too close to bloggage for legitimacy here — and how seriously am I supposed to take a review written by someone whose byline is "Hobbit"? (I mean no insult to "Hobbit"'s critiquing skills when I say this. It's just that aliases tend to reduce the weight one puts on reviews no matter how cogently presented, because I don't know the background or qualifications of the reviewer. For similar reasons I don't quote from Amazon reader reviews, even though some of them are more insightful — and in some cases better written — than some of the "professional" reviews I've seen.)
At any rate, the sudden appearance of the Damn Positive subspecies was probably to be expected. The front line reviews are pretty much behind us now1 — those were the clarion call, raised by hardcore types who wanted to shine a light on a great new discovery they'd made. That naturally attracts other reviewers who wonder what the shouting is about, and who contain a greater proportion of folks who wouldn’t have read this kind of story anyway if not for the first-line buzz; naturally, a greater proportion of those will find the book more difficult.
Even so, I'm gratified that bloggers and reviewers still like the fucking thing.
A few more points before I sign off. First, a number of people have picked up on my 'crawl entry of the eleventh and are spreading the word that "it looks like there won't be a second printing". I did not say this, folks. Go back and look. I said maybe there won't be a second printing. It's a possibility that loomed larger on the 11th than it did when I was first told that, er, there would be a second printing, but nobody has come right out yet and told me it ain't gonna happen. They just seem to be, well, backpedaling.
Secondly, I posted a comment on the Science Fiction Book Club's Bookblogger.com, to add some context to an ongoing discussion over why I was actually doing this, whether my publisher knew I was doing it, and whether I was taking a principled stand or just kicking and screaming and holding my breath until my face turned blue. No need to rehash that here— go read it there if you're interested.
Finally, I've noticed that increasing numbers of people are citing specific entries on this crawl, but can only link to the crawl itself because I haven't provided separate links for each entry. Which I guess I should do now, since my citations are climbing into the, well, positive digits. So I will, starting now.
1. Except for outlets like Asimov's, which recently sent me an e-mail telling me that they would be reviewing Blindsight in an upcoming issue, and inviting me to buy ad space in the same issue Really classy move there, guys.
Chelsea exists. She survived. She's not particularly happy about the fibrodysplasia variant I threw at her in Blindsight. And she's coming to town.
I may not be posting for a few days.
Dec 8 2006: The way we look to a distant constellation that's dying in a corner of the sky
Okay, today I was going to talk about the global threat posed by conjoined twins with fused brains (people don't seem to be taking them as seriously as they should), but I'm currently doing an e-mail interview with this Patrick St-Denis fellow and I've only got so much time, so my prophecy of doom on the mutant-baby front will have to wait until next time. Instead, here's a question I've never been asked before: nothing to do with vampires, or scramblers, or the nature of consciousness. It is a deceptively simple question, that strikes to the heart of my own greed:
Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a Hugo Award? Why, exactly?
To which I've just responded:
I'd unhesitatingly go for the NYT bestseller. Not because I'm a literary snob (Christ knows I have to put up with enough of that shit here in Canada, what with a CanLit establishment that won't even look at a story unless it's about the lonely young daughter of a distant father, coming to terms with her burgeoning lesbianism on the misty and windswept shores of the Canadian Pacific. I mean, give me a fucking break.) The simple truth is, I got cats to feed, and rent to pay, and while I'd certainly take any accolade anyone wanted to shove in my face, a NYT bestseller simply implies more bucks in the bank.
Unless it doesn't. In which case I'd go for the Hugo.
I hope that's exact enough for him. Or at least that I get extra points for my enthusiastic slagging of the Canadian Literary Establishment.
PS. Oh, and in light of recent not-entirely-terrible news I'll shortly be returning to construction of the Blindsight wing. Try to contain your enthusiasm.
PPS. Sorry about the typo, Eukarya. It's fixed now.
Nov 28 2006: Blindsight: The Next Generation
It's official. Blindsight is going into a second printing. Evidently all the copies of the first run have now been spoken for
This would be better news if the first print run had been larger, but it's still good news. And after some of the shit that went down today, I can use some good news.
Nov 23 2006: The Analog Kid
I don't know what to make of this Tom Easton character over at Analog. Or maybe he doesn’t know what to make of me. I keep getting these ambiguous reviews from that quarter — three paragraphs of plot synopsis, with a "readers won't be disappointed" or "Watts has obviously done his homework" thrown in here and there as sprigs of vaguely-laudatory garnish.
But man, try to mine something like that for blurbs.
Déjà vu all over again for Blindsight. My rifters books were "well-received". I make my narrator a "sympathetic fellow". I ask questions about consciousness, and my "answer and its implications are intriguing." Everything else is pretty much synopsis.
I wondered at first if maybe Analog had a policy against too much opinionation in their reviews, or if Easton was simply too nice to come down hard on books he doesn't like. But scrolling down the column, I see he isn't afraid to slag or praise elements of other books. So I guess I just don't rub the dude much either way. He thinks Blindsight is a pretty decent book, no masterpiece, no dog. I guess I can be happy with that. Even though all I can filter from his review for my blurbs page is a single word: "Intriguing."
Could be worse.
Nov 21 2006: The Story So Far...
So, some buzz in the days since this crawl moribunded. Biology in science fiction says nice things about my stuff without ever having actually read any of it; William "Watts-is-a-nutjob" Lexner not only really likes Blindsight (as reported previously) but ranks it twelfth best for the whole damn millennium (which, while flattering, might be just a teeny bit premature); the editor of Vector likes Blindsight so much he can't actually write about it, so treats us to an essay on hard-sf instead; James Nicoll (author of that marvellous blurb "whenever I feel my will to live becoming too strong, I read some Peter Watts") says nice things; a tiny Livejournal community — more of a "hamlet" than a "community", or maybe even just a "research outpost" — yes, a Livejournal outpost named "Vampires on a Spaceship!" (love that title) has played some seriously recursive games with one of the thematic lines of the novel; Blindsight showed up tied for the #2 spot on the Borderlands (San Fransisco) bestseller list at about the same time it disappeared from the Clarkesworld list (solely by virtue of being out of stock, I hasten to add); it was apparently a source of unanimous agreement at Philcon's "Best of 2006" panel; and I'm in discussions with the International Society for Utopian Studies vis-à-vis making an appearance at their annual meeting next fall.
Which of these elements does not belong?
On balance, I'm going to conclude that all these positive tidbits outweigh a report from Windycon that Blindsight was inconspicuous in the dealer's room and pretty much absent from the panel discussions. You can't win 'em all (or rather, I can't), but it's good to win most of them.
I just hope Tor's PR department is paying attention. I suspect not; I e-mailed one of their number last week, asking if anyone was assigned to Blindsight, and to this point have received no response.
Nov 11 2006: Not to be Confused with the one from Naked Lunch
Neal Asher, a far savvier author than I, passed along a review of Blindsight from Interzone. My finest so far, says Graham Sleight (and no, he's not damning with faint praise — at least, I got the sense that he liked my other stuff too). Calls me one of the two or three best hard-sf writers around, while allowing that I'm not for all tastes. I'd quibble with his (hell, with almost every reviewer's) description of my writing as "pessimistic", but I gladly and gratefully accept his bottom line.
Excerpts over on the Blurbs page.
(Actually, now that I think of it, maybe Interzone actually did take its name from Naked Lunch...)
Nov 9 2006: Additional Distributional Details
Okay, here's the latest. The actual print run — initially described to me as "less than 5,000" — was in fact less even than 4,000. 3,700, to be exact, only 3K of which have actually been shipped. However, some possibly good news is that over half of those shipped books had sold by the end of October, and in terms of a beancounter's-eye view of a book's success, the "ideal target" (not sure what that means exactly, except that it is "not often reached") is 50% sales within the first six weeks. The reason that this is only "possibly" good news is that I'm not entirely sure how many weeks had transpired by that point. The official release date was early October (which would make a 56% sell-through over 4.4 weeks unmitigated good news); on the other hand, I've seen November described as "the third month", which implies they actually started counting at the beginning of September. This is consistent with the fact that my other titles have generally appeared in the wild anywhere from 2-4 weeks in advance of the official release date, and if that's where they're counting from, we could be talking tankage. Hartwell says that Tor might "consider" a reprint in a couple of weeks. So no promises, no commitments, but input carefully crafted to give cause for hope. We'll see what happens. In the meantime, all I can do is hope is that a lot of people buy the fucker.
I'm also receiving reports of wild sightings of Blindsight in nonvirtual stores under both Barnes & Noble and Borders banners. Curious about this, I pinged my editor again, asking which of the two chains had in fact opted not to carry Blindsight. He didn't answer that, but he did tell me that while the chains do order centrally, individual store managers can place orders for anything they like. Basically, even in the shadow of the giants, individual cogs can act like independent booksellers and get away with it.
Which is, perhaps, also grounds for hope.
Nov 5 2006: A Catcall from the Pit
You know I've been dreading it. More than the cover art. More than news that Blindsight has been spurned by a retail giant — because after all, while that stuff blows goats, it's not my fault. What I've been dreading is my fault — more precisely, it is borne of my own failings, so I can't blame anyone else. And now, here it comes. After all the the hosannas, the ectstatic critics with wet crotches, the talk of awards, it arrives: the thing I've been dreading.
A bad review.
And you know what? It's nothing. It's shallow, it's inattentive, the level of writing is something a bright fourteen-year-old would be embarrassed to hand in as a book report. This Wilmmetts character didn't seem to grasp Blindsight's most basic thematic elements; he described the scramblers simply as Rorschah's "interesting maintenance creatures", for example. There was no sense anywhere that he even caught the sentience riff. I rather suspect the crotch shot from The Crying Game would've gone right over this guy's head.
Those who've hung around here for a while know that I'm proud to cite both positive and negative remarks from the reviewers. It keeps me honest, it gives you guys a more balanced and less tub-thumpy sense of the book, and it's kind of my schtick because there aren't too many other writers with the gonads to draw attention to bad press for their own babies. And Blindsight — well, it's a very ambitious book, and I'd be deluding myself to think that it hit all its targets. I know the thing's got faults. I'm waiting fearfully for the day some eagle-eyed reviewer takes a scalpel to them.
But this is not that day. This review is so totally bereft of clue that I'm not even going to bother adding it to the blurbs page. There is no credibility to it (unlike, for example, the criticisms levelled against ßehemoth by di Filippo, Witcover, and others).
OTOH, I will cite Cat Sparks' review over at Talking Squid. She likes Blindsight a lot. Even if she did spell Rorshach wrong.
Nov 2 2006: The Scoop on Distribution
The good news is, David Hartwell got back to me very quickly, given that he's down at the World Fantasy Con in Texas.
The bad news is, it's worse than even I had thought.
One of the two major book chains in the US (either Barnes & Noble or Borders, don't know which) didn't order any copies of Blindsight at all. Nada. Not one fucking copy. I do not know why; perhaps ßehemoth tanked so thoroughly that they didn't want to take a bath on another Watts title. But I can't help thinking that better cover art and a blurb from Charlie Stross might have encouraged them to take another shot.
For whatever reason, this is pretty much the doomsday scenario that Hartwell invoked back when I was trying to avoid splitting ßehemoth in half: the big chains won't carry such a big book from a midlist writer, he said. You'll get zero penetration in somewhere between 40-50% of the market. It will be professional suicide.
And here we are now, with no penetration throughout significant parts of the US. The smaller specialty stores can't get the copies they want, and one of the two biggest chains doesn't want any. (And the Canadian distributors didn't order any copies either, until the second month of availability.) The initial print run was <5,000. Hartwell says this is "high given the lack of a major chain order from one of the two largest customers", which is a little like saying You're doing really well for someone in the final throes of terminal bone cancer. I don't know if anyone at Tor has read the reviews. Certainly no one from there has mentioned them to me.
So that's pretty much it, rs and Ks. I'm going back to the real world now; I can't afford to continue to put my paying gigs on hold for an endeavour that looks like it was pretty much doomed coming out the fucking gate. The remaining Blindsight web pages will have to wait — I expect to get around to them eventually, but there's no point in banging my head against the wall any longer to try and meet this vital two-month post-release window. Fuck it.
Here's the deal. If you were waiting to buy the book on the ground, it may just not be in the cards (depending on where you are); so go ahead and buy it online. If you're unwilling to risk the identity thieves, drop me an e-mail and I'll send you a free pdf. It'll be a prerelease, nondefinitive version at first — the final edition is slightly different in terms of a couple of epigraphs, references, and the occasional tweaked passage — but it tells the same story. I will update that pdf eventually, so it will be informationally-identical with the print version. I'll also post it on the Backlist page, assuming Tor's lawyers don't scream too loudly (if they only scream a little, fuck 'em). But I can no longer afford to make this a priority, so that could take a while.
I'm outta here. Good night and good luck.
Nov 1 2006: Quote Bestseller Unquote
So Blindsight is currently the #1 seller at Clarkesworld Books (it debuted a week or two ago at #2). Not bad for a title that hardly anyone's been able to find on the ground. From the official Clarkesworld blog:
"Blindsight sales remain strong and now we've run out of copies. TOR's ordering system shows stock available, but nothing has shipped to us in the last two weeks. I've checked with an alternate distributor and they have been out of stock for almost three weeks with many copies backordered. I've also heard from customers that have been unable to find it in their local stores."
Independent online grumbling suggests that the title is effectively absent from the whole of the Boston, Chicago, and (until very recently) Calgary and Vancouver. And if it's not available in those burgs, I can't see why it would be any more available in Miami or Topeka.
Clarkesworld speculates that the initial print run was too small, but evidently the Tor database shows available stock: so why hasn't that stock been sent to distributors who've been back-ordered since the day Blindsight was released? For every reader who orders a copy through their local bookseller, there must be ten more who'd hold their noses and buy a copy off the shelf if they happened to see one, but who aren't rabid enough to go the extra mile and make a special order. Those are the ones who aren't be buying, in Boston, in Vancouver, or anyplace in between. And it's pretty damn easy to make a book tank if you make people jump through those kind of hoops to buy it.
I'm a big hit in Clarkesworld. That's gratifying. Too bad nobody's fucking heard of me in Borders.
Ignoring my better judgment, I've e-mailed my editor at Tor to ask what's going on. I don't expect much; when I've asked these sorts of questions in the past, I've generally been ignored. But we'll see.
Oct 29 2006: Dualism
Now this is gratifying. A biologist from Cornell e-mailed me at 4:30 am, having just finished Blindsight and wondering whether the evolution of the vampiric undead state implied group selection. (Don't sweat it if you don't know what that means — the point is, a dude from Cornell was thinking in serious biological terms about vampires.) Later the same day, I come across a very long, very thoughtful analysis of Blindsight's philosophical underpinnings by Steven Shaviro, an English prof at Wayne State University. (Go to his blog if you want to read it, but be warned: spoilers abound. The whole punch line of the book is laid out and dissected right there on the screen.)
So within the same day, I encounter evidence that "Blindsight" is getting taken way more seriously than it probably should be, by people in both the arts and the sciences. (Of course, neither prof nor biologist got their copy from their local bookstore — one had to order from Amazon, the other all the way from Bakka up here in TO — so I can always deflate my glee by realizing that regardless of all this ego-boo, the book is still, evidently, largely unavailable out in the offline world. But let's not worry about that right now. Let's just revel in the whole foot-in-both-camps thing for a while.)
Anyway, given the pretense that I may have written not so much an entertaining book as a deep one, perhaps now would be the time to introduce help for those who have trouble with some of Blindsight's weightier concepts:
How I wish this were real. Alas, it's merely a mockup that Laurie, my ex, put together over at txt2pic.com. But it's just perfect. And yes, for once, it is a worse cover than the real one.
Oh, and for those that are interested, I just put a new page up on the Blindsight wing of this site. Burns-Caulfield.
Oct 25 2006: "Nut Job?" Moi?
I've never met this William Lexner guy. I don't really know who he is. But I'm torn between the conflicting hopes that a) he's the most influential blogger of this generation, and that b) he's an obscure little nonentity whose (very stylish) review blog is an unread wank in the wilderness. I hope the former because he really, really likes "Blindsight". He calls it "an incredibly successful work of art" and "the novel that finally cements Charlie Stross as the science fiction writer of this generation". (Yeah, you read that right. It is a compliment in context). He also invoked St Hugo's name, which is always good — so, yeah. I hope this guy's famous.
On the other hand, he thinks that I, personally, am a nut job. Dude: A nut job. Me. Can you believe it?
Evidently I left him with that impression at Readercon, after complaining about the quality of "Blindsight"'s cover art. (Regular visitors to this site will know how absurd such an allegation is — I love Blindsight's cover, love it so much that one isn't enough for me; I had to go and build a bunch more of them.) I'm still trying to figure out where he could have heard this, since to the best of my recollection I only spoke out publicly on the subject at my reading — an event at which Lexner was unlikely to have been present, since by his own admission he'd never heard of me before.
It must've been during the reception or something. A private conversation, overhead over beer and mouthfuls of cake. Perhaps during an episode of which I have no recollection, but in which I apparently pinched Karl Schroeder's cheek. (Karl says there's a picture of that moment in the latest Locus. If anyone out there is actually in possession of said picture, I'd appreciate it if you scan it and send it this way as evidence. Personally, I think Karl's just yanking my chain.)
Anyway, I'll gladly wear the "nut job" label as long as it comes with "incredibly gifted author" on its arm. And my chronic grumpiness notwithstanding, it is gratifying to see so many folks raving about "Blindsight" on their blogs. (I do wish a few of those hosannas would spill over onto Amazon. Buzz notwithstanding, you gotta wonder how much of an impact you're having when fifty percent of your reader reviews are courtesy of Harriet "5-star" Klausner, infamous adorer of everything ever published anywhere.)
Oct 20 2006: Peter Watts, Congenital Optimist
I was recently interviewed by SFRevu, where I said — in answer to the question of whether I thought we were living in a fantasyland—
"One third of the US adult population rejects evolution outright. … Do I think we're living in a fantasy land? How can I possibly think anything else?"
As it turns out, I was the one living in a fantasyland. I gave the US adult population far too much credit. According to this recent study from Science, fully half reject evolution; another 20% or so have doubts about it. Less than a third actually accept it as gospel. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.) Out of 34 surveyed countries, only Turkey was more stupid. (For some reason, Canada wasn't surveyed. Not that I have particularly high hopes for my own country, given the kind of ball-licking dooves we tend to elect.)
Never have we more needed champions, which was why I was so pleased to see the likes of Richard Dawkins and Peter Agre on The Colbert Report over the past few nights. I'd have wished for both of them to be a bit faster on the draw (although Agre got in a couple of good zingers late in the game) — but then, you gotta get up pretty early to outmatch the guy who came up with 1-800-OOPS-JEW.
Anyway. To those who describe me as a dystopian, who snort dismissively when I protest that my view of Human nature is actually childishly naïve and upbeat, I can only point to these latest stats and say: Exhibit, eh?
But enough about everyone else. More about me:
Library Journal likes "Blindsight": "Watts continues to challenge readers with his imaginative plots and superb storytelling." And David Nickle (whose visage you'll be seeing before long in the new wing of this website, albeit somewhat, er, modified) has just called to tell me that the local Indigos has a bunch of copies on its shelf. Which is just as well, given that Amazon.ca is claiming it takes 2-5 months to ship an online order of the same title.
One simultaneously nifty and insanely-stupid feature on the main Amazon.com site is a "product wiki" for items in their inventory. The nifty part is that I could announce, front and center, the availability of the alternate "Blindsight" covers to a far wider audience than ever comes here. The insanely-stupid part is that when one tries to enter the word "kick-ass" into said wiki, Amazon's censorware reduces it to "kick-". Barring the strategic placement of an apostrophe, I would have been forced to settle for "kick- pictures of my cat, Banana".
Think about this. Amazon allows you to search through the entire text of thousands upon thousands of titles in its inventory. The same page that insists on protecting delicate eyes from the word "ass" will cheerfully quote every occurrence of "shit", "motherfucker", and "big fat hairy dick" in the whole damn book. This makes little sense to me — but then, neither does a society in which saying "frak" on the air is considered completely innocuous, but saying "fuck" — which means exactly the same thing — is an unpardonable sin.
Oct 16 2006: Regrets, Reviews, Renovations
Remember a couple of weeks back, when I said I hated live promotions because I was always afraid no one would turn up? Case in point: this last weekend's launch. We got, what — maybe a dozen? Far more people turned out to christen "ßehemoth" (which makes no sense because two of us together should have pulled in more than either alone, and "ßehemoth" didn't get nearly the buzz that "Blindsight"'s been getting). I'm told the publicist from Fenn was in attendance, but if so she never approached me. What can I say? When your own publicist won't even walk across the room to say hello, you know you've got a winner on your hands.
Still, supreme thanks to the Bakka-Phoenix folks for hosting the event. They've always been good to me in the past, and they were just as good to me this time around. Ain't their fault I'm no J.K. Rowling.
Anyway, doesn't matter. I saw another review today — from Booklist — and it drooled. "Entirely unique", it said. "Mind-bending." "Watts packs in enough tantalizing ideas for a score of novels while spinning new twists on every cutting-edge genre motif from virtual reality to extraterrestrial biology. Watts' finest, most-fascinating book." I don't know if it's a starred review or not (I saw it online, peering over the shoulder of some library in San Fransisco), but hell, BL starred both "Starfish" and "Maelstrom" so if they think this is better, the odds are good, right?
Then there's this Lassen guy from Night Shade Books, using the phrase "insanely good" (not the first time that adjective has been applied to me, but perhaps the first time it's been meant in a good way). I'm given to believe that Night Shade has a fair bit of cred in sf literary circles, which means — all things considered — it's been a good couple of days, critic-wise.
Sales-wise, maybe not so much. Oh, the Amazon numbers seem pretty respectable so far — but lurking on various blogs, I note an ongoing theme to the effect that nobody can find "Blindsight" in brick-and-mortar stores. It's not too early to be expecting it there — Bakka has it in stock, after all — so the obvious explanation is that most retailers just didn't bother preordering it. This would mean that online sales actually represent the bulk of purchases, not just the usual tiny fraction. Which in turn would make "Blindsight" a tanker so far, commercially at least. So. The critics rave, the readers flock to the stores, and — what's this? Can't find it. Shit. Someone should tell these guys — oh well, might as well get the new Wilson instead…
Yeah. Definitely too early to count the chickens.
In other news, the new wing of rifters.com accretes in fits and starts. Usually I've got each new wing completely up and running before the book even comes out, but there have been a lot of other things pulling at my time. At any rate, got three pages live so far, and I'll be adding the others when I get the chance to cobble them together — hopefully every couple of days or so. The technical specs on Theseus went up today, and — er, well, yes! It really is turning out nicely
Oct 14 2006: I For One Welcome Our Same-Old Psychopathic Overlords...
A real-world entry for a change. It's been a while.
Normally I don't comment on stuff I read on BoingBoing — not because I have anything against that very cool uberblog, but because I can't imagine that anyone who's made it to this obscure little corner of the Internet wouldn't be already intimately conversant with BoingBoing's content. I'm making an exception, though, because it's not all that often that my own pulled-from-the-ass musings end up mirroring the opinions of actual experts. I'm talking about sociopathy — and the idea that in terms of natural selection sociopaths (creatures who aren't hamstrung by moral or ethical constraints) have an evolutionary advantage over the rest of us (who presumably are), and if they haven't already taken over the world it's pretty much only a matter of time. This idea crops up in one form or another throughout my writing, enough to make SFRevu ask me in a recent interview why I liked writing about sociopaths so much. I summed up my take on it explicitly there, describing sociopathy as "not so much pathology as adaptation".
And here, just a few days ago, comes BoingBoing quoting a psychologist and a neurologist who say pretty much the same thing (and in fact provocatively extend the concept to autistics, using a cat-based analogy that I find especially endearing). They even add the piece that was missing from my own musings, pointing out that psychopaths are not only more successful than the rest of us in corporate, political, and medical areas, but that they are more successful reproductively as well. What could be more Darwinian?
Yay me. I may not have hit such an ill-informed-yet-dead-on bullseye since my story about cloud-dwelling microbes controlling the world's weather patterns
Oct 11 2006: Skiffy Squee. Trib Ute.
A couple more reviews just came over the transom. The reviewer for the San Diego Union-Tribune calls Blindsight "a very ambitious story, very successfully done", and admits to having already read the damn thing twice over. Scifi.com/Science Fiction Weekly also weighed in with "tour de force" and "impossible to put down" (although in the interests of full disclosure I should admit that that particular reviewer was Alyx Dellamonica, and since she and I are buds her objectivity is in doubt).
(I might also mention that both outlets have also recently and justifiably raved about Karl Schroeder's Sun of Suns.)
Neither complained about the cover.
So, pretty much all the reviews so far have raved. And yet, a few rank-and-file readers— who may, after all, be better indicators of such things— keep telling me that they find the characters distant, the story itself a bit less accessible than the rifters saga. And how can that not be true, given a narrator with his empathy surgically removed, spying on a bunch of pupating post-humans?
And still others say it grabbed them from page one, and it's the best thing I've written (an absurd claim to anyone who's seen the adoption blurb I wrote for Banana the Cat, back when I was still pretending I wasn't going to adopt him myself).
I appreciate all feedback, of course. But with all this variance in response, all these different opinions — I mean, how the hell am am I supposed to decide what my opinion of the book should be, if you people can't even agree among yourselves? Am I supposed to decide for myself?
PS. I owe e-mails to many of you. I haven't forgotten. Just horribly snowed under right now with too many demands to itemise here, perhaps the most urgent being getting at least some of the Blindsight wing of this damned website up before the launch on Saturday. (You do remember the launch on Saturday, don't you?)
PPS. I hate Microsoft Internet Explorer. I really, really hate it. It would be so much easier if you all just used Firefox.
Oct 3 2006: Thumbs Up from SFRevu
SFRevu has just posted a featured review of Blindsight. They say it's the best thing I've ever done. I especially like the way reviewer Ernest Lilley catalogued the extreme psychological dysfunctions of my "generally annoying post-humans" and then capped it off with "It's not like anyone who's been to a literary SF convention doesn't know folks just as disconnected from the main stream." And he's the first reviewer to remark on the POV tricks I play. So:
"a terrific piece of new hard SF … full of deep theory that winds through the plot like a cancer gone wild. The result is that best of all possible worlds, a hard SF novel that won't let you go, and a bombardment of ideas that you won't be able to let go of once they've wormed their viral way into your meaty little brain."
Plus they did a fairly lengthy interview with me as a companion piece, in which I was given free reign to rant about everything from religion to Katee Sackhoff (and I fully appreciate that many might consider both of those subjects to be one and the same). So you figure I must be pretty happy. Nothing to complain about here, right?
Oh, how little you know me.
The thing that worries me a little is this comment here:
"If you like the exposition in Neal Stephenson's work, especially like the discussions of the origins of consciousness in Snowcrash, you'll love the way Watts presents his takes on sentience, game theory, and sociobiology through the story."
Now, I am a fan of Stephenson's work, and I absolutely loved Snow Crash — except for the discussions of the origins of consciousness, which, while fascinating in terms of the concepts presented, still stopped the forward momentum of the story dead in its tracks (IMHO, of course). While writing Blindsight. I was deeply aware of how much I had to exposit, and I consciously tried to avoid going the Snow Crash route. Talking heads just aren't that exciting to me. So I'm not entirely sure how to feel when my writing evokes memories of those very same scenes.
I suppose I should be happy that the comment was meant as a compliment. I suppose I should be flattered by the fact that my writing has been compared to that of one of the field's giants. I suppose I should stop looking so hard for something to be bummed about.
After all, it's not as though my life has any shortage of other elements that suck.
Oct 2 2006: Book Launch
Saturday, October 14th. 3pm. Bakka/Phoenix, 697 Queen St. West, Toronto. (416) 963-9993. A sweet'n'sour twofer: Karl Schroeder's launching his giddily-fun-to-read Sun of Suns, and I'm launching the somewhat more dour and depressing Blindsight. If you show up early you may even snag one of my alternate covers— Fenn wouldn't print any (worried about pissing off Tor, I suspect) but I'll be running some off at the local Staples as door-prize material.
I usually hate live promotions. I'm always worried nobody's going to show up. But I'm actually looking forward to this: the folks at Bakka have always been good to me. So if you're in town, with nothing better to do, drop on by. You don't even have to buy anything, and there may well be free food of some kind. Besides, I'd like to see you.
Sept 30 2006: Renovations Begin
Back from the Spree. A couple of retail copies of Blindsight awaited my return. The back jacket and inside flaps are crammed with effussive blurbs about the boundless talent of Peter Watts— but, unsurprisingly, none of those rhapsodies are actually about Blindsight. At least they left my teaser text largely alone, with the exception of a single, one-word edit which fucked up the rhythm of the sentence it was embedded in. Again, unsurprisingly.
But at least I now know the actual dimensions of the book (those cited on Amazon are wrong, by the way) — which means I've been able to finalise the alternate jackets. To kick off the upcoming website renovations, I've added a page here where you can get them. They're also available through the Backlist page, under "Multimedia".
You may have noticed I've also upgraded the spash screen, which now sports a Blindsight link. Don't get too excited: it doesn't go anywhere yet.
Soon. Watch this space
Sept 24 2006: PW on PW: Parallel Universe Remix
It looks like there's two Publisher's Weekly reviews of "Blindsight" out there now. The first one I already quoted down here: the second is very similar, but mixes up the sentence order, adds references to my earlier work, makes more explicit the actual theme of the work, and throws in a couple of extra laudatory phrases like "intellectually challenging". I'm guessing this is the definitive version, so here it is again, sort of:
As in his earlier sequence of novels that began with the much-praised Starfish, Watts here places a highly trained team of borderline psychotics in a confined environment under great stress with terrifying results. In the late 21st century, something alien has been discovered beyond the edge of the solar system and the spaceship Theseus has been sent to make contact with it. Led by an enigmatic artificial intelligence and a genetically engineered vampire, the crew includes a biologist who’s more machine than human, a linguist with surgically-induced multiple personality disorder, a professional soldier who’s a pacifist, and Siri Keeton, a man with only half a brain. Keeton, a Synthesist by trade, is virtually incapable of empathy, but he has a savant’s ability to model and predict the actions of others without understanding them. When the Theseus arrives at the gigantic and hideously dangerous alien artifact, the crew must deal with beings who speak English with great fluency but who may, paradoxically, not even be sentient, at least as we understand the term. Watts combines riveting action and a fascinating alien environment with a stimulating exploration of the nature of consciousness in a novel that should appeal strongly to readers who enjoy intellectually challenging hard science fiction.
Sept 23 2006: Safe House
Met some people in the flesh I'd known previously only as pixels. They gave me sanctuary until the border run. Vonda McIntyre, who made large portions of my undergraduate life bearable, provided sage advice and a nudibranch talisman; Marc Laidlaw and his cohorts from Valve offered me nightmare creatures, a sneak peak at the upcoming travails of Gordon Freeman, and all the iced cookies I could stuff into my pockets. And black ninja clothing with which to blend into the background, except for this logo on the chest:
I'm not quite sure whether this is an iconic representation of the most endearing robot evar, or a bullseye. Either way, I made it across. Now I'm back in Caprica City, wondering why the skin of my right ankle has suddenly turned purple-black.
BTW, I'm given to understand that some of your folks are remarking on the sudden inappropriate "fictionalising" of this newscrawl. Let me assure you, every word rendered herein is true. You should be careful with your assumptions.
Sept 18 2006: Terrence and Phillip Go Home
By different paths. Hopefully to different places.
I booked a flight. I waited until he went out for ice, made a quick phone call. We drove to SeaTac airport. They were waiting for him. I got away clean.
It's over. Now I just have to get rid of some evidence, and get across the border. Tomorrow, if all goes well.
Sept 14 2006: Busted
Judgment day. It had to happen eventually. I knew we couldn't get away with it forever. This afternoon, sitting in the back of the cruiser with six inches of legroom and door latches that didn’t work from the inside, I almost feel relieved.
We kept trying to move north through Oregon, but every road was blocked by state troopers. They didn't know who we were at first— at least, I didn't think they did at the time. Quarantine Zone, they told us. Diamond Lake was out of bounds due to a scheduled attempt to control "invasive alien species". I asked a casual question or two, got one of the troopers to use the word "retenone".
Rotenone was what he meant. An obscure chemical cocktail biologists use to kill things underwater, and it is not species specific. Not only would it take an inconceivable amount of rotenone to treat a body the size of Diamond Lake, but it would kill everything in the basin, invasive or endemic.
The story made no sense at all. It had to be a cover for something. I saw "Close Encounters". I know how the game is played. "Invasive alien species" was right. They had to have some kind of sasquatch or crashed UFO in there.
We went around the cordon. They caught us almost immediately. It was almost as though they were waiting for us. Worse, they caught us with a couple of David's— he calls them "hunting trophies". Six vans converged on us at once, each crammed with eager Men In Black (they call them "LEO"s here) and more automatic weapons than we could count.
We got away. Barely. Those snake hooks come in handy for more than local camo. Now we're holed up in some crappy motel that smells of old hookers, with a clock haging on the wall stopped at four minutes past midnight. The space heater in the corner looks like a cross between a Dalek and a nuclear warhead. I hope to God it doesn't kick in during the night and kill us both with carbon monoxide.
We got away. This time. Next time we might not be so lucky. I'm thinking of turning state's evidence.
I know David's thinking the same thing.
Sept 10 2006: Baggies
In northern California now, laying low. We have taken up with a small commune of herpetologists, kayaking down the Trinity River, studying turtles. They suspect nothing. It is a perfect cover.
We had a surreal experience at a fast food restaurant the other day. Dave was hell-bent on eating at Jack-in-the-box, on account of all the E. coli outbreaks they've had in the past. Poor man's fugu, he said. We were hoping to get t-shirts that said "I survived Jack-in-the-Box". Instead, this is what we found, hanging on the wall of the Arcata outlet:
A classroom full of JitB kiddies, gathered smiling around three others who have bags over their heads. Judging by the tilt of the head, the one in the middle appears to be losing consciousness; and there is printing on his bag:
As far as I can make out, the printing says:
This item is
not intended as
a child's toy
Not for use with
Made in China
I can't speak to the lyrics, but this picture, hanging on the wall of a fast-food restaurant, appears to be some kind of kiddie erotic asphyxiation thing. I really can't see any other way to read it.
Dave, of course, thinks it's an omen, a sign we should get back into action. After all, we bag many of our victims the same way.
Sept 5 2006: Road Kill
We found the remains of a small one, only about 50% bigger than a person, dragged out into the road tonight. I don't know what killed it. Maybe its own kind.
We've got to get out of here. We'd be gone already, but there are firestorms blocking half the roads between here and Arcata.
Sept 2 2006: Assk Not
I don't know when I'll get a chance to upload this. We're miles off the grid, hiding in the desert. By day it looks quite picturesque…
…but by night it's fucking scary. And cold. You wouldn't believe how cold it gets at night. The bodies go hard as boards. And there are rattlesnakes out here. They coil up in holes and wait for any excuse. We shit in those holes. It's only a matter of time until I take a dump on one of those rattly little fuckers and it sinks its venomous fangs into my ass.
They tell you all about first aid in the St. John's ambulance course. In case of snake bite you tie a tourniquet, loosen it briefly every 20 minutes to keep the tissue from going necrotic. That works fine if you get bit on an arm or leg. How are you supposed to tourniquet an ass?
There's something out here besides snakes. Tonight I walked 10K through pitch black. We do that now; park the car and set off in different directions, walking alone under the stars looking for victims after the bars have closed. Tonight, a couple of times, I thought I heard the scree rattling behind me, but when I turned my headlamp on I mostly saw nothing. Once, though, I thought I saw eye-shine in the dark, just briefly, like you get from the eyes of a frog or a cat at night. Only this was no frog or cat. And it was gone in an instant.
I convinced myself I'd imagined it until I met up with Dave at the end of the route. He saw something too, he says. Just a glimpse. He says there's more than one of them, he saw at least two, maybe three, but only for a moment and he never got a good look. He couldn't tell me what they looked like, except for one thing: they had no heads. He says they have no heads.
How can you have eyes that shine when you don't even have a head?
Sept 1 2006: Aliens
We passed an RV Park full of aliens today. They looked a little like human beings, but grotesquely obese and with terrible taste in clothes. We snuck in for showers and cokes, and the whole time we were there we never saw one of them walk. They drove around on little vehicles resembling earthly golf carts. One of them was walking his dog on such a vehicle, driving back and forth over the same stretch of pavement. I do not believe he was clear on the concept of dog-walking; the dog was stretched out across the hood of the cart and did not move. Perhaps it was a prop.
We believe that these must be body-snatcher aliens, attempting to impersonate humanity but unable to pull it off convincingly due to the amphibious, blubbery, Jabba-the-Hutt like morphology of their natural state. If they were truly human we would have to kill them. As it is, I don't think even Dave's hatchet would get through the subcutaneous blubber layer.
This is far from the first RV community we've seen. Convincing imposters or not, their infiltration proceeds at a frightening pace.
Aug 31 2006: Axes lack precision
Their names were Molly and Jessica. They lived at a research station in Conboy Lake (the only lake I know of which is regularly hayed). They showed us how limbs could be bound using barbed wire, and weren't the least bit suspicious until they saw me with the buck knife and Dave with the axe.
Another field lesson learned: an axe is a very poor instrument for precise cranial saggital sections.
Aug 28 2006: PW on PW
Some good news to take the edge off my guilt: Publisher's Weekly gave Blindsight a starred review, to wit:
Canadian author Watts (Starfish ) explores the nature of consciousness in this stimulating hard SF novel, which combines riveting action with a fascinating alien environment. In the late 21st century, when something alien is discovered beyond the edge of the solar system, the spaceship Theseus sets out to make contact. Led by an enigmatic AI and a genetically engineered vampire, the crew includes a biologist who's more machine than human, a linguist with surgically induced multiple personality disorder, a professional soldier who's a pacifist, and Siri Keeton, a man with only half a brain. Keeton is virtually incapable of empathy, but he has a savant's ability to model and predict the actions of others without understanding them. Once theTheseus arrives at the gigantic and hideously dangerous alien artifact (which has tellingly self-named itself Rorschach), the crew must deal with beings who speak English fluently but who may, paradoxically, not even be sentient, at least as we understand the term. Watts puts a terrifying and original spin on the familiar alien contact story.
There are one or two teensy factual errors in the plot summary, but I ain't complaining. Tonight, I may even whistle while I work.
P.S. Oh, and once again, thanks to Jason Robertson for delivering the news.
Aug 27 2006: Housecleaning
I had to clean blood spatter patterns off the wall of our Super 8 Motel room this morning. I barely finished before the maids showed up to change the bedding. We were leaving anyway; I suggested that we leave the spatters behind as a kind of joke, but David wouldn't hear of it. He didn't want to freak them out, he said, but I think he suspected me of trying to leave a trail of bread crumbs.
I don't like this. I know it's necessary, I know they're asking for it, I know that sacrificing a few saves the many down the road, and so I do my share of killing. But this other guy, he enjoys it. The other day I wanted to let one of them go, he was just a little tyke, barely a newborn, and what possible benefit could there be in killing a newborn? But all Dave sees is the quota. Half the time they're not even dead when he cuts them open. Yesterday one squirmed off the bed and fell writhing onto the floor and she was open already, her liver was out and cooling on a plate by the window like some kind of meat pie and she just wouldn't stop kicking.
This is not going to end well. Someone should stop us. Tomorrow we're hitting Olympia.
Aug 22 2006: Kirkus Weighs In.
A fellow named Jason Robertson was good enough to forward me the Kirkus review. They like Blindsight a damn sight better than they liked ßehemoth, notwithstanding their assertion that I carry "several complications too many": "a searching, disconcerting, challenging, sometimes piercing inquisition", they call it. I would refer you to the appropriate Blurbs page but for the fact that there's really nothing else in the review that qualifies as opinion; all the rest, as is Kirkus's wont, is straightforward plot synposis (containing a couple of factual errors, I might add.) Oh, there is one thing: they described Sarasti as "a brooding, sociopathic and downright scary vampire."
This makes me glad. Although I hate the killing.
Aug 20 2006: Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Drinking Alcohol.
Things learned so far in the field, in no particular order:
- When you climb out of a silver Lotus in the company of a wealthy, hunky computer-game artist who you've just killed off in a recent novel, strange women across the bar will buy you shooters without being the slightest bit interested in you. Kind of a collateral-benefit effect.
- Kirkus has reviewed Blindsight, but I don't know the verdict because the site's closed to non-subscribers. I'm not getting my hopes up, given their reaction to behemoth: Seppuku. Still, if anyone out there has a copy of the review, good or bad, I'd like to see it. (I've long since given up asking Tor about such things— they still won't tell me what's on the back jacket of my own book.)
- There may be nuclear-powered tunnelling machines, which work by using fission heat to literally melt their way through rock, burrowing towards the center of the earth after having done their part to build classified underseabed installations. (You can't turn them off, you see; when you're done with them, you can only turn them loose.) I find this exceedingly cool, even though I file it under have to verify with a few more sources before I believe it.
- Some women bruise easily.
- The harbour seals at Pam Rocks are a lot harder to intimidate than they used to be.
Gotta go. Hearing sirens.
Aug 11 2006: Fair Warning. Fare Well.
Ten thousand meters up. Two days after the tewwowists handed western gummints an early Christmas present by not quite succeeding in their elegant plan to smuggle liquid explosives aboard transatlantic flights in Gatorade containers. Now you can barely get into the air carrying your own saliva.
This might be goodbye for a while. I'm en route to a six-week killing spree along the N'AmPac coast, from Vancouver Island down to California and back. (Won't make it to Worldcon, I'm afraid: I expect to be hiding out in the Cascades by then). I might be able to check in occasionally— I probably will, for the first week at least when I'm just getting my nerve up around Vancouver— but, you know, no promises. I may not even get this uploaded very soon.
In the meantime, I'm sitting on a couple of potentially promising developments I won't share just yet because nothing's definite. I also notice that "Blindsight"'s release date has been moved up by a couple of weeks, to Oct. 4. I have no idea whether to attach any significance to this, beyond the inconvenient fact that this this means that the damn thing will probably be on the shelves before I get around to building the Blindsight wing of this website.
Anyhow. First things first. Some of you will be seeing me soon.
You don't know who you are.
Aug 5 2006: Body Snatcher
I just had my mother admitted to a psych ward for evaluation. Or rather, I've just had whatever's currently running that decrepit body admitted. Maybe a whole new OS has overwritten the old, some twisted and chaotic persona arisen from the frayed insulation and misfires of a brain sparking far past its expiry date. Maybe it's still the old personality, but glitchy: imagine a corporeal Max Headroom who, instead of stuttering uncontrollably, launches into vicious and violent physical attacks against those closest to him.
I don't know what I'm talking to in there any more. It's still got a lot of the memories of the original. It's still cunning enough to evade, and to point fingers; not cunning enough to pull it off convincingly. Whatever it is, whatever it's become — Pod or Personality — I don't like it much. 'Course, truth be told I was never that fond of the Mk 1 model either.
In more important news, Meme Therapy posted the last of the Brain Parade questions that they'd solicited my thoughts on: Will a rover discover extraterrestrial life? And Amazon has finally posted the cover of "Blindsight" for all to see. I guess a little part of me was hoping that the ongoing persistence of the "no image available" icon might mean that things were happening behind the scenes, that maybe someone had spoken to someone, decided that maybe a tweak here, a relevant blurb or two there, might be doable even now, that maybe when the curtain did rise on the final product it might be just a bit —
Nope. No changes at all.
I remain hopeful anyway. Thank God for the buzz.
Aug 2 2006: The Kind of Therapy I can Live With
The guys over at Meme Therapy have been very kind to me, considering I've never paid them anything. They threw some praise my way during a piece on underrated sf authors a while back, and now they've interviewed me about "Blindsight".
Actually, about "Blindsight" and a few other things— for while I received the questions as a single integrated interview, a few of them were not about the novel at all. Turns out they have this "Brain Parade" schtick, where they ask the same sfnal question to a number of different authors and then present all the answers in a big bolus. So before the interview per sé appeared, my words cropped up in response to a question about whatever happened to underwater cities?, in the course of which I embarrassed myself by stating that the polymerase used in PCR was originally isolated from a hydrothermal vent. (It wasn't, as some sharp-eyed reader pointed out about thirty minutes after the post appeared; it was originally isolated from the hotsprings in Yellowstone, although Thermus aquaticus — the bug that makes Taq polymerase — does live in both environments. What makes this boner especially egregious is that I actually knew that. Oops.)
But I paid that forward in my answer to the next question (Why all the fuss about plausibility in science fiction?), during which I may have embarrassed Rob Sawyer in turn by questioning his statement that "bulletproof" science is a hallmark of hard-sf. It took him about thirty minutes to come online claiming he'd never said any such thing ("pretty bulletproof" was the actual phrase, "a world of difference" evidently, although I think I'll let history make that call). And all of these rapidfire responses, evoking images of the lot of us hunched over our browsers hitting "refresh" every five minutes (although of course I can only speak definitively for myself) beg the question: beyond Googling our own names, don't any of us sf types have actual lives to lead?
No, don't bother. Rhetorical question.
July 25 2006: Tally fucking Ho, Miss Congeniality
Evidently I'm British.
More precisely, I'm a "British biologist" according to Gardner Dozois, the well-known Ethiopian editor of the "Year's Best SF" collections. Introducing the Watts & Murphy piece in the latest volume, Dozois also mentions my forthcoming novel, "Behemoth". (Maybe, in hindsight, I should've let Derryl introduce me to the guy back in 2003 when he wanted to…)
Moving on. I'm told that "Blindsight" is going to be something called a "featured alternate" for the Science Fiction Book Club. Immediately suspicious of anything that looks so uncharacteristically like good news, I squinted at it for a bit until — sure enough — I found not one, but two bad things about this. First, I will get less money, because book-club editions sell cheap. Second, "featured alternate"? Isn't that the same as saying "also ran"?
Lastly, this is evidently what an ARC of "Blindsight" looks like. I snagged this image off the web.
I've never actually seen one in the pulp before, and I gotta say: Nice cover art.
July 23 2006: Long Time Suffering
Over the past several months, more than one interested reader (and don't ask how many more — leave me some dignity) have asked if I might post an illustrated transcript of Vampire Domestication, presumably so they might gain quicker access to all the nifty bits of biology therein than is currently possible by playing the actual presentation over forty realtime minutes. I'm pleased to tell bo— er, all of them that, thanks to a weekend spent out in the boons utterly cut off from both Internet and barcoding, I've had time to put such a transcript together. You can find it here, over on the Backlist page.
July 16 2006: Readercon Postmortem
Readercon went somewhat better than expected. Hardly anyone showed up for my reading (early Friday), but the room was packed for Vampire Domestication — which was surprising given that they'd stuck it in the very last time slot on Sunday afternoon, after a significant chunk of the attendees had already buggered off. It mostly killed. In between, my panels went well, the copies of my alternate Blindsight covers all found good homes, I reestablished contact with old friends and made some new ones (this Scalzi character, for example, is a very nice dude, even if his cell phone pales in comparison to my Canon Powershot). I met an intriguing thirtysomething physicist who would not describe her work on satellites (classified by industry I think, not military), but who loves cats, Jethro Tull, Rush, and John Brunner, and who, as a student, founded a local branch of the Skeptic Society as a date-acquisition strategy. Of course she had to be married and a denizen of a whole different country, but it was both exhilarating and kind of scary to discover that someone could share so many of my interests and still not be a social misfit. And that was before I even knew how she felt about her mother.
I sat on a panel with James Morrow, who's always been kind of an idol to me ever since Towing Jehovah. He had actually heard of me: good things, he said, from my editor. I was nonplussed, and understandably skeptical. But I heard the same story from a few other people over the course of the weekend: "Oh, you're Peter Watts? David Hartwell says (insert nonnegative-in-fact-actually-complimentary clause here)". I wonder what's up with that. I'm spending altogether too much time wondering that.
Which was probably his plan all along.
I met the world's hottest copy editor (there is in fact a picture floating around the web showing me at her shoulder looking astonishingly goofy — probably the only sixtieth-of-a-second of my adult life in which I did not look utterly suave and self-assured, and of course someone had to catch it in pixels). (And no, I will not link to the fucking thing, or to other more dignified web shots of me giving my vampire talk. Track them down yourself if you're so interested.) I met my more-successful clone, a blonder, slightly taller version of me with grinning nihilistic tendencies and an upcoming novel of his own that delves into the nature of free will and psychopathy as seen through the lens of neurobiology. I finally met Jim Munro. I let my editor buy me drinks, and revelled in his wife's new position as FBI stoolie, and studiously avoided mentioning anything about book covers while wondering what the hell he was up to, complimenting me behind my back. I signed books, occasionally even ones I'd written myself. I drank a lot. I got a ticket for going 84 in a 65 zone.
Now I'm back, only to find that here in the real world my post-doc funding is unexpectedly in jeopardy. Ah well. It was nice while it lasted.
July 5 2006: Readercon
OK, it's a definite go for Readercon. The last sticking point was whether or not the con staff would be able to provide a
VGA projector for my Vampire Domestication lecture, and as of this a.m. Eric Van responded with:
"Traditionally, we've had pros use a system of hand semaphores rather than
PowerPoint. Several of the committee members are trained as 'human pie charts.'"
How could I say no to such an experience?
Anyway, for those of you who'll a) be in attendance, and b) give a shit, here's my schedule:
Friday 8pm: Reading (only 30 min — I'm not pushing it)
Saturday 1pm: The Awful-Warning-Novel Panel
Saturday 2pm: Battlestar Galactica Panel
Sunday 2pm: Vampire Domestication talk
Not what anyone would call an onerous schedule, but heavier than usual for Readercon, which traditionally fields
such a high author/fan ratio (1/3) that panel slots are a scarce resource indeed. (Not that this seems to be affecting
this Paul di Fillippo fellow, I see). Last time I went to Readercon I ended up on one lousy panel, so this is great.
I reserved the right to back out until I saw the reading/lecture half of the sched. Really, though, they had me the moment they put me on the Galactica panel.
July 3 2006: Fall Asleep, Fall Apart
Regular visitors will know that the whole nature - of - consciousness riff is one of two central elements (along with space
vampires) underpinning "Blindsight". Those who've checked out my vampire domestication lecture might also remember an
offhanded remark to the effect that autistic savantes — those folks who can calculate ten-digit primes in their heads
even if they can't make eye contact without freaking out — perform their feats noncognitively, without any
conscious calculation whatsoever. Neurologically, these ultrafast mental feats seem to occur as a function of
neurological fragmentation, the isolation of little islands of brain cells that would be integrated in
"normal" folks. (Check out Treffert et al. 2004. Islands of genius. Scientific American 14: 14-23
and Anonymous., 2004. Autism: making the connection. The Economist, 372(8387): 66 for details — sorry, no
handy pdfs this time.)
Now we have a study from Science suggesting that consciousness itself is a function of neurological integration,
that as you nod off the various parts of your neocortex — while still active in their own right — fall out of touch with
each other and lapse into isolation. So hyperperformance is nonconscious, and associated with neurological
fragmentation; and loss of consciousness among baseline humans is also associated with neurological fragmentation.
Makes me wonder if even us vanilla baselines might be able to hyperperform while unconscious; might this have
something to do with the oft-reported phenomenon of scientists literally "dreaming up" solutions to problems that
stumped them when they were awake? Or are dreams just another form of consciousness, a kind of offline awareness
that generates its perceptions internally (as opposed to the waking "online" state, in which we receive signals
from outside the system)? It's been argued that dreams have to reflect conscious awareness almost by
definition; after all, how can you perceive the film playing in your head if you're not aware of it?
Anyway, here's the Science paper, and here's an accompanying commentary. Cogitate amongst yourselves.
July 2 2006: Hugo BS
Holy shit. Charlie Stross says he's going to nominate "Blindsight" for a Hugo.
I'm not going to hold the man to this (not that I could anyway), because the year's only half over and books far more
deserving of the nom could easily appear on the market if they haven't already. But still. Wow. That one offhand
comment could well have doubled my hardcover sales, which might now be — hell, easily into the double digits...
June 24 2006: Neural Lattices
Another step on the spooky road to the head cheeses I talked about back in the rifters trilogy:
now, not only have we got live and literal neural nets running flight simulators,
we've got them growing along lattices of carbon nanotudes. Evidently that means they last
longer. Also it's easier to access individual neurons, which would (I should think) make them
easier to program.
Nice of the Technovelgy folks to cite "Starfish" in relation to this (those guys have
always had a soft spot for my head cheese ruminations). I see they've also taken recent note of the
Darwinian perspective on Internet evolution that formed the basis of "Maelstrom", which — while not as gooey — has much deeper sociotech implications. I'm actually a bit relieved to see that latter posting. I was starting to
wonder if they thought "Starfish" was the only book I ever wrote (or worse, the only book
June 19 2006: Inconceivable!
Here's a scary thought: maybe I'm wrong about this whole cover thing.
This only occured to me recently. After all, when was the last time that the people who usually tell me that I'm overreacting to this or it isn't as bad as all that actually tell me that things are even worse than I thought? Never, that's when. And with each gasp of astonished disbelief, with each new phone call or e-mail or eye-rolling what-were-they-thinking remark confirming the sheer awfullness of this inexplicable cover, my confidence in my own assessment grew stronger. How could it do otherwise? I'm even used to feeling in the right when everyone disagrees with me.
Except here are two people, a very bright couple, and friends, telling me in no uncertain terms that the official abomination is far and away better than all the alternates I've cobbled together, and is in fact the only cover of the lot that actually makes them want to go out and buy the damn book. The others are too vague, they say, don't carry the same ominous sense of impending doom.
And what of all you people, from fans to therapists to even my editor for chrissake, telling me that the cover is (at best) "disappointing" and (more consenually) "godawful"?
They're just indulging me.
It's even possible that the lurid red border and the bilous yellow lettering serves a purpose: evidently those colors in combination have a certain psychological impact, marketing-wise. And now here comes the accomplished novelist Neal Asher, who — while not quite so adamant as my heretic friends — still puts the official cover somewhere in the middle of the pack, in terms of overall appeal.
Is it possible Tor actually knows what they're doing after all? Is it possible that I just haven't given them enough credit, that I'm so caught up in art that I forgot about sales? Could Tor be — could they be—
June 16 2006: Sins of the Fathers
Pursuant to last week's offhand musings on the privacy implications of building The Matrix in the name of public health, here's another area where the Venn diagrams of science, citizens, and surveillance overlap: what happens when a criminal's DNA is not on record anywhere, but that of a blood relative is? This isn't a far-out possibility — almost half of the inmates in US jails have at least one relative who has also done time, and increasing numbers of people without any criminal record at all are being gene-printed for reasons ranging from medical insurance to forensic dragnets (hey, if you don't have anything to hide, why wouldn't you want to give us a swab? You know, just to rule you out…) So, say nobody in your database is an exact match of the DNA you collected at your crime scene, but one person is kinda close — maybe a sibling of the offender. Maybe a child. The technical term is kinship analysis, but the effect is succinctly put in this recent paper in Science:
"Genetic surveillance would shift from the individual to the family."
It works. DNA similar to that from a cold case in the UK recently showed up in a fourteen-year-old boy who hadn't even been born at the time of the murder; investigators started looking at relatives and nailed an uncle for the crime. But the thing is, it all comes down to statistical likelihood: two unrelated individuals could share the same sequence of critical base pairs by chance alone (or yes, smartass, by natural selection, which is why we and chimps share >98% of our genes. I'm talking about specific nucleotide sequences with redundant bits that can vary randomly without affecting function, and you know that, so stop being a pain in the ass and let me continue.) The chance of rolling fifty consecutive sevens may be pretty damn low, but the bigger your sample size the greater the odds that it's going to happen. False positives are the downside of all these forensic biometrics, and we're not even talking about exact matches here — we're talking about familial "similarity", not "identity". In the good old days, if your DNA wasn't a match, you weren't a suspect. Nowadays you're not in the clear until every hypothetical aunt four times removed has been accounted for.
No swabs from me. I don't care how many little girls have been dismembered in my neighborhood. I'm ashamed enough of my genes as it is, thank you; I ain't gonna knuckle under to some if-you've-got-nothing-to-hide algorithm that can't distinguish between a criminal and someone who'd just rather not have Inspector Clouseau poking through his stools every time he takes a dump.
June 14 2006: Maudlin Musings on Mortality
The guy who worked across the bench from me is dead. I didn't know him well— chatted a bit in the lab, had coffee with him once or twice. He seemed a nice guy. He liked my ideas about space vampires. Then just the other day he goes to the gym, a blood clot breaks free from wherever it was lurking, whump. Dead at twenty-eight. How do you comment on such things without reeking of cliché?
The weird thing is, it doesn't seem to have affected the rest of the lab at all. I barely knew this guy, I've just started working there. The others knew him way better than I did. And yet nobody's subdued, nobody's talking about it. Yesterday's casual conversation revolved largely around whether George Clooney was too old to be doable, and the creepiness factor of Woody Allen's marriage to his adopted daughter (the lab, at the moment, is populated mainly by twenty- and thirtysomething women, and one old fart marking time until his next book comes out). Another worker ant has disappeared, crushed beneath some monster's boot or snatched into the sky by the Things With The Beaks. It happens. Anybody see "House" last night?
They're Darwinians, these people. Biologists. They know none of it matters. Last week it was Mike; tomorrow, it could be any of us. Shit happens. None of it means anything. I'm a biologist too, of course. If anything, I'm more nihilistic than they are. But I haven't quite crushed the irrational part of me that says even if nothing matters, it damn well should. Intellectually, I'm completely copacetic with random mortality. I think there should be a lot more of it. But some part of me still shivers when it happens to the guy whose coffee filters I just borrowed.
A purer breed, this next generation. I gotta be more like that.
June 8 2006: If You Want Something Done Right...
A month or so ago, my friend Dave Nickle — perhaps tired of having to get up at 0530 every other day just to hear me whinge yet again about Blindsight's cover art during the morning run — made an elegant and subversive suggestion. Some working prototypes of the result are posted over on In Progress. Be advised before going there, though: it contains very graphic content. Over a Megabyte of graphic content, in fact. Those of you on dialup may have to wait a while for the load.
I'm usually pretty uncomfortable with the whole self-aggrandising thing (not because I don't crave attention, but rather because I don't want to be seen craving it), but in this particular case I'm going to let my pride off the leash and just say it. I'm not an artist. I've no training in layout, design, or graphics packages. And even so, the least of these prototypes bitch-slaps the official jacket halfway to Mars.
Hi-res, downloadable fullscale pdfs to be made available shortly.
PS. Having uploaded the new In Progress page, I see that while it renders just fine in Opera and Firefox — and renders as well as can be expected in IE on my local machine — something's wonky about the way IE handles it up on the server. It shows up on my old 2001 version of IE; but my more recent (2004) build of IE renders a very brief flash of the image and text while loading, and then nothing but a blank pale-blue background. Neither text nor graphics appear. Flipping back between fullscreen and window mode brings the page up properly, but it vanishes again the moment the mouse passes over the menu. I think I know the cause, but I'm not going to waste my life building yet another workaround for Internet Explorer's deficiencies; other (generally less forgiving) browsers don't have any problem with the page, so screw it. Use Firefox. Or, if you insist on using IE and still want to see the page, just flip back and forth out of fullscreen mode and keep your mouse off the menu until you want to leave.
June 6 2006: Harsh Real(m): The American Model
Anybody remember that short-lived Chris Carter series "Harsh Realm"? It was basically a pre-Matrix Matrix (which there really are a lot of in science fiction, going back at least to the fifties), very loosely based on a comic book by James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette. In Carter's version, the US Military had created a vast computer model of the planet based on various satellite, surveillance, and demographics databases, inhabited by simulacra of every documented human being. Cute idea, I thought, but no way would anyone have data of the requisite resolution back in 1999 (when the series was set). Not to mention the vast computing power necessary to make all those variables interact in subjective realtime. Maybe in the future, with a little help from Moore's Law.
Well, here we are in the future, and damned if they haven't done it. Or at least, made a good start.
They haven't modeled the whole world, just the continental United States. And even if you do live in that paradoxical land, you wouldn't be able to look down from Virtual Olympus and see your specific face in VR, rendered to the nose hairs. But you would be in there. The model includes an entity with your vital statistics. It lives where you do, with the people you live with. It goes to work (or not) the way you do (or don't). It moves around the country the way you actually do, more or less.
I don't just mean statistically. I'm not talking about such-and-such a proportion of a smoothed population making such-and-such a median income, traveling a mean distance of so many kilometers to and from work. I'm talking about you, personally. According to a Q&A (which does not seem to be available online) in the June 4 Toronto Star, there's an entity in this model that represents you as an individual, gleaned from census data, credit information, even cell phone records. (Here's a link to a different story about the same guys in The National Post, a horrendous rag I only cite because I can't find online mainstream coverage to point you to; here's a related symposium abstract). These guys have mapped the behavioral patterns of every bloody nonblank human in the continental US.
They're doing it to model disease outbreaks, to see what happens when this hospital gets quarantined or that district's school board shuts down the schools and sends everyone home. So far they've only actually run the sims of Portland Oregon, but they have the rest of the country and its population mapped out already — they just haven't run the whole country yet. But what intrigues me is that if this is on the level (and it may not be-- people have exaggerated for funding purposes before), they're modeling epidemiological interactions of real people, as far as they can describe them. My right-wing Canada-bashing brother is in there somewhere, and his wife, and given their thoughts on the Canadian health-care system I'm sure that suits them just fine.
But does anyone else find this a bit creepy on the whole right-to-privacy front?
In one sense, it doesn't matter whether this report is overstated or not. Whether or not such a high-res model exists now, it's certainly within the realm of feasibility within a few years. And I am an sf writer after all, so let's go a step beyond the obvious civil liberties issues. Let's say, hypothetically, that this model happens to spit out the same people as central vectors regardless of how they run the sims. Suppose, in other words, that the model predicts that certain specific individuals will have anomalous and unexplained impacts on epidemiological events, regardless of variations in context. What do we do with that information? It might be almost impossible to figure out the logic that led to it — this is one of those models that tries to simulate nature by being as complex as nature, and that inevitably makes it as difficult to understand as nature in the bargain. Mathematical theorems are now being "proven" with the help of a class of software known as "proof assistants", because mere humans can't possibly follow the arcane proofs involved — so already, in the real world, we have a situation where we take the unverifiable word of a computer program as gospel. This could be the same thing, but with much nastier consequences.
What do you do when your model points to a specific individual as a lynchpin variable? Why would anyone be so consistently important to the sims unless he was consistently in possession of a biological agent? Has your model, mining and integrating all the databases to which it has access, inadvertently profiled a terrorist? Do you arrest this guy on the word of a machine? Do you merely put he and his family under surveillance? What if you're a religious wing nut? This guy is inextricably bound to and end-of-the-world plague. Maybe he's one of the Four Horsemen. Maybe he's the Second Coming Himself. Maybe you don't lock him up in Gitmo after all, but put your tongue to the floor and worship him instead. (Unless he's a she. Or gay. Or Michael Moore. Religious wing nuts like their gods with a lot of caveats.)
So, yeah, there are potential privacy issues here, and you're welcome to discuss them among yourselves. As for me, I'm putting dibs on the story idea.
June 4 2006: Vanity Press
You've noticed the switch to single-column format. Should've done it long ago: I'm using different colors to distinguish between science- and writing-related entries, so you don't need separate columns, especially since they inevitably fall out of date-synch anyway. Also, the use of a single-column format makes it easier to hide how delinquent I've been in keeping up the science end of the 'crawl, despite the ongoing receipt of cool links and newsbytes from various readers — you know who you are, guys, and I appreciate it even if I hardly ever e-mail you back. The spirit is willing, anyway.
But today's entry is not primarily devoted to the unsung Pats and Bahumats and Razorsmiles of the world. No, today's entry is devoted to me — and in belated response to all those people who tell me that I don't look anything like my author photo, well, here it is: my new official portrait:
You won't be finding this picture on the official Blindsight jacket flap (I honestly don't know what you will find there, since my editor won't tell me). You will, however, see it on the Author page of this website, as well as on the jacket flaps of the unauthorised alternative dust-jackets for "Blindsight" that I haven't yet told you about. It is, henceforth, my official publicity shot.
Yes, I know it's a cat. Damned special cat, actually. What's your point?
Deer In Headlights, The Happy Doofus, and Look At Me I'm A Brooding Author. And these are the best of a myriad. You can see why I'm going with Banana the Cat, yes?
But wait! There's more! Playing around with filters and layers, I come up with
...which I gotta admit I kinda like. The bioluminescent face-hugger has a certain playful biological charm that doesn't take itself too seriously, and while Brooding Author has now tipped over into full-blown Goth cliche, as a goth cliche, it's not bad. Which, yes, is a little like saying that I'm a very moral person compared to your garden-variety pedophile cleric, but there you go.
Still deciding which of these — if any — I'll end up using as my alternate. Feel free to chime in.
May 30 2006: Mayfly online.
The Aurora people want to post Mayfly online, so folks can pretend to read it before voting for another story. Since that entailed whipping up a pdf of the offending document anyway, I figured I might as well beat them to the punch: you can find it right here on rifters.com, over in the Backlist. As usual, you can read it on the page, or download it as a handy pdf.
Also, new author photo coming soon, as I begin to plan the site's new Blindsight wing. I daresay you'll be surprised.
May 28 2006: The Ghost of Margaret Atwood
Someone just stumbled across a rather scathing editorial I wrote about Margaret Atwood a few years back, and started this thread about it over on the Asimov's BB—which in turn spawned a separate thread over on SF Signal. Reactions range from laudatory (I hit the nail on the head, Atwood needs a tampon taped over her mouth), to derisive (the points I raise are trite and pathetic) to strangely irrelevant.("To Adolph Hitler, all Jews were interchangeable"). I'm a bit surprised; the piece didn't get anywhere near this much attention when it first ran in On Spec back in 2003. But it's heartening. Even the negative comments are heartening: to paraphrase some famous author whose name I'm too lazy to Google right now, it's better to be attacked than ignored.
May 25 2006: Mayfly again
Unless Derryl Murphy and I are the victims of a cruel hoax, "Mayfly" is an Aurora finalist. I don't put much stock in these things — someone once got an Aurora by handing out nomination forms to everyone taking her creative writing class, so they may be less reflective of literary merit than of peer pressure. Certainly I've rolled my eyes at some of the winners in years past (and I say that as one of said winners). Which is not to say that I'd turn one down if they gave it to us. Which they won't. Unless Derryl has connections, or jpegs of the whole Aurora committee in bed with a pack of sexually-trained doberman pincers.
But nature has a way of balancing things out, and lest my head grow too swollen at the (extremely remote) prospect of such accolades, I can't help notice that Blindsight — which won't even be released for another five months — is already available "used" at $16.35. Boy does that bode well.
May 18 2006: Please Excuse Peter From Maintaining This Newscrawl. He Has Not Been Well Lately.
For those of you wondering, the dearth of recent left-side postings doesn't imply a complete lack of a life. In fact, a lot of stuff has come down lately: I might have a line on a new agent (albeit in the UK); I'm coming down off the meltdown of a gloriously-dysfunctional and destructive relationship which, despite all the fireworks and duplicity, I don't regret for a nanosecond (hey, it even inspired the late-breaking dedication for Blindsight); I got into a face-off with some local cops and nearly got arrested; and my parents are locked in a life-and-death struggle involving yet another cross-border intervention (my money's on Dad). About the only thing that I haven't been doing lately is writing. But you gotta live first, right?
I have decided that I should try and do a bit of on-the-road promotion for Blindsight, though, since Tor seems to have written it off already. (Last I heard they weren't even going to put any of those nice blurbs on the cover — I'm told they arrived too late, although Tor had at least the Bear quote back in August 2005. I suppose something might end up on the back jacket, but I asked about that explicitly and was never answered, so it doesn't look good). Anyway, I might be appearing at Readercon, for any of you in the Boston area July 7-9. It depends on whether they let me give my Vampire Domestication talk — I can't very well justify the time and expense otherwise.
I'll keep you posted.
May 14 2006: Lifeboat Ethics
A refreshing opinion piece on lifeboat ethics in Science this week. Given that there won't be enough vaccine to go around when the next pandemic hits (assuming a vaccine even exists), who gets a pass to the front of the line? Pretty much everyone agrees that health-care workers and infrastructure-maintenance types should get priority, because those people in turn save others, but after that, who? "Women and children first" is the traditional response (championed by Heinlein, among others); "Save the most vulnerable" is another leading contender, by which we mean the aged, the infirm, and the very young— basically, anyone so frail that their own immune system is in particularly dire need of help. But these Science guys turn that paradigm on its head: they say, throw out the babies and the old codgers with the contaminated bathwater.
Start from the premise that everyone has hopes and dreams, and an equal "right" (however you define such a mush-mouthed term) to pursue them. The tragedy of any death then scales to denied opportunity. All other things being equal, the life of a twenty-year-old is worth more than that of a sixty-year old, since someone dying at sixty only loses a couple of decades of opportunity, while the twentysomething would be losing half a century or more. But at the other end of the scale, your average newborn larvae isn't worth much either-- because even though it has more lifespan to lose than the twentysomething, it doesn't have any dreams and ambitions to tragically thwart in the first place.
It's just an operating system bereft of software. So we're looking at a kind of balancing act. The older you get, the more you can appreciate the gift of life but the less life you've got to lose. The most valuable lives consequently fall somewhere in the middle. Which is a long-winded reinvention of the old saw that Youth is Wasted on the Young, but with more substantive consequences.
I like this paradigm. It's ethical without being mindlessly sentimental, and it doesn't pander to the brainstem reflex that kicks in among most people whenever anyone wails "think of the children!" Natural selection has instilled a certain focused stupidity in parents (there's an obvious selective advantage in regarding your child as the most important thing in the universe, even though it's an utterly irrational position), and Emanuel and Wertheimer neatly avoid that pitfall.
Of course, not everyone agrees. The geezer lobby is particularly outraged, although not very convincingly.
April 27 2006: Seeing in Tongues
I wish I'd thought of this: Images, sonar — hell, why not x-rays or magnetic fields? — can all be translated into a kind of braille and played across the tongue. You can feel that ball curving towards you through the air, even though your optic nerve is severed. You can feel that hungry killer whale looming up before you in the murk, even though your eyes can't see it yet. It's basically tactile sonar, mediated through the tongue. Call it "Tongue-ar".
Why tongues, and not hands or elbows? Because tongues are so highly ennervated; all those nerves packed so closely together allows the reception of higher-res images than you could get from most other body parts. But it seems to me if you really wanted hi-res nerve density, there's another part of the anatomy you might want to slap your braille pads onto.
You know where I'm going with this. Clit-ar. Dick-ar. It's only a matter of time.
April 26 2006: Cited at Cambridge
Well, this is cool. Cambridge University hosted an international paleobiogeography conference a couple of weeks back— and in the midst of a talk that spanned Human evolution, phylogenetic methodology, and the philosophy of science itself, the following slide appeared::
Sadly, this does not mean I'm famous. As cool as it looks to see my words appear between a quote from Charles Darwin and another from Ursula LeGuin, I really only appeared there because I know somebody: Dan Brooks, personal friend and author of said talk. Still, it's not as if all those academics know that I work in the guy's lab. As far as they know, maybe I am as famous as Ursula or Chuck, and their lack of recognition reflects nothing more than a failure of their own education. Of course, they would never admit as much; how do you think they got to be successful academics in the first place? But perhaps, worried about being found out, hordes of them ran out and immediately ordered "Blindsight" from Amazon, hoping to be able to get caught up on this Latest Hot Philosopher of Science before anyone cornered them with some probing question at the Dean's faculty luncheon.
Okay, maybe that's unlikely. Not hordes, anyway. But if even one or two did that, it could virtually double my sales…
April 19 2006: The Blindsight Cover That Might Have Been
So, you all know how I've been complaining bitterly about the horrendous cover art for Blindsight. The artist's a guy by the name of Thomas Pringle, and you know what? Turns out he's really, really good. I was blown away by the stuff on his website— and as I recall, I really liked the three preliminary sketches he'd submitted to Tor, too. So what happened?
I dropped the dude a line to ask. And by return mail, he sent me over a dozen jpegs showing all the Blindsight illustrations he'd submitted to Tor, but which I'd never seen. His favorite was this one:
It's my favorite too. It's gloriously multileveled: a precise rendition of an actual event that happens early in the story, but also a visual pun. The Earth itself looks like a cataract-afflicted eye. (Blindsight. Get it?) I always raved about the art Bruce Jensen created for my rifters books, but in all honesty, I like this one better.
And this is hardly the only winner in the bunch. Go over to the gallery, where I've posted a bunch of Pringle's paintings (with his permission, of course). You'll see haunting renditions of lonely spaceships above fractured worlds. Planetary catastrophes in slag and brimstone. Earth caught in the converging mesh of Firefall, from three or four different angles. Go on. Look. These aren't even finished pieces, these are preliminary sketches, and they're gorgeous.
Now go and look again at the piece Tor decided to use, and look at what they did to it.
Does this make any fucking sense at all?
April 15 2006: Noted while crossing the 49th
Descent. When US Customs hauls you aside late at night — along with with your 87-year-old retired Baptist Minister father — for special treatment as a potential tewwowist, it's not always a good idea to list "chronic masturbation" as one of your professional activities. It doesn't particularly phase the Customs doofii, but your 87-year-old Baptist Minister father will never look at you the same way again.
Ascent. Official traffic sign seen during subsequent escape from US:
"Bridge to Canada / Psychiatric Institution"
Fortunately, it was not an all-or-nothing deal.
April 12 2006: None of my ß-Wax
Here's something I haven't seen for a while: a new review of ßehemoth (Book 1 and Book 2), this time from overseas. I don't believe I've encountered Stephen Hunt's SF Crowsnest before, but it describes itself as "Europe's most popular science fiction & fantasy site" (which must be true, because I read it on the Internet), and that's good enough for me. Besides, if I hadn't stumbled across their site you'd be getting treated to a previously-unpublished excerpt from The Book of Sodom right now, or perhaps the lyrics from a neuro-rap song about vasectomies. As it is, you get spared those until tomorrow.
Pretty good review, all things considered. A couple of formatting glitches (the headline reads "Behemoth: B-Wax", and the illo for the Seppuku review is the cover art from someone else's book); the usual (justified) complaint about book-splitting. Overall, though, this Shaun Green guy really liked it. "Highly recommended", he said. "Contemporary SF at its best". I was particularly flattered by his approval of my endnotes, "made all the more readable because Watts has a caustic and highly cynical wit". If only those on the home front shared his appreciation of my demeanour...
Anyway. Excerpts over in Behemoth Blurbs (scroll to the bottom).
April 8 2006: The Ultimate Open-Source Project
Interesting piece in New Scientist (thanks to Andrew Fergusen for the pointer, and here's the original paper from Science): engineered virii that self-assemble themselves into battery components. This is how I've always thought nanotech should be done: not by the old Drexlerian IBMoid route of cobbling together cogs and levers at submicron lengths, but by practicing copyright infringement on living cells. Nature has had the better part of four billion years to tinker with molecular machinery—your common Euglena-variety flagellum is a kickass rotary engine, complete with bearings— so why bother reinventing the wheel? Nature even provides ready-made building instructions, amenable to tweaks and edits. She's the Ultimate Mother of Open Source.
Although granted, Big Biotech is doing everything it can to slap DRM stickers all over her organic ass…
April 7 2006: SF legitimised: Two Case Studies
Exhibit A: Battlestar Galactica got a Peabody Award for "distinguished achievement in electronic media". This absolutely kicks ass. (BG has also been cited as one of the few television shows which actually explores the "down side" of torture, although it's pretty damn depressing that such a perspective should even be considered unusual— you listening, Jack Bauer?)
But perhaps this week's nod for Most Respectable Science Fiction has to go to a piece in, of all places, The Economist. It describes a biotech firm's plan to genetically engineer pet dragons, gryphons, and other mythical beasts within a few years. Yes, it's an April Fool's joke (and the fact that I didn't read it until yesterday might perhaps excuse me for being so thoroughly suckered when I first read the damn thing), but it reeks of plausibility: the virtual-cell biology, the biomorphesque selection techniques, even the reference to an earlier project (itself an April-Fool's piece from 2001) about "The Real Goldfish", a botched attempt to create goldfish with real gold in their scales (and which, weighed down by one of the heaviest metals known, suffered the cruel side effect of sinking like rocks). I wish I had written this.
April 5 2006: Man vs. Nature
Still puddling through this e-mail interview with Szedman and Whiteman (and if you guys are out there, never fear; only three more to go). Man, some of these questions are involved. Not that I'm complaining—I'm flattered that at least two people encourage me to be so long-winded, and fearful of the day they discover that nobody in their right mind would publish such ramblings— but it takes longer to sound coherent on such matters than you might think.
They did, however, ask one question about Humanity's relationship with Nature that I thought I'd share, because it presupposes that we are in some way different from Nature, that we are isolated from it, that Nature is, in a very real way, better than us just because we're kicking the shit out of it. To wit:
Q8: Human beings seem to exist in a exterior relationship to nature in the trilogy—organic, to be sure, but also deeply disconnected from the biosphere, too. In βehemoth: Seppuku we get the sense that insects and plants will make their way past the global bloom of βehemoth, come what may. It is less certain that people will do so—in part due to their own destructive and violent tendencies. What is the status of nature in the trilogy?
To which I've responded (albeit in the first draft):
We are Nature. Our tendencies are no more "violent and destructive" than those of any other species on the planet; in fact, in evolutionary terms, they're identical. There's this widespread impression that Nature is somehow efficient, that only Humans kill for the sheer joy of killing, yadda yadda yadda. It's kind of a noble-savage sentiment extended to every species that isn't EuroCaucasian, but it's flat wrong. Nature is only efficient when energy constraints force efficiency upon it. Predators frequently kill for the sheer sake of killing (at least, they often leave theirs kills uneaten). The problem with Humans is not that we've isolated ourselves from Nature— it's that we embody Nature, cranked to the nth degree. We are selfish, we care only for what works in the moment, and we have no real sense of future consequences, just like every other product of Darwinian processes. The fact that we're presently crushing the rest of Nature under our boot doesn't mean that we ourselves are being "unnatural" when we do it. Cancer is natural, too.
Mar 31 2006: Prayer: Worsening the Sick. (A Perspective from the 3% Gallery)
Actually, for the most part, prayer doesn't make a damn bit of difference, according to a study out of the Mind/Body Institute in Boston. A decade of research, 1,800 patients, three devout congregations all asking God to intercede on behalf of the ailing, and— zippo. No effect. Except among those patients who had been told that people were praying for them: they ended up suffering a significantly greater rate of post-operative complications.
There are a number of ways to interpret these findings. Perhaps the informed patients just got themselves worked up over the knowledge that battalions of prayer junkies were straining on their behalf, and all that stress resulted in additional complications. Perhaps God is a sadist who likes to hear people beg, then grind their faces in the rejection of their own supplications. (While I do not subscribe to this latter interpretation, it would certainly explain a lot.)
The simplest explanation, of course, is that God doesn't exist and the M/BI has just spent ten years chasing a fairy tale. You won't find much mention of that possibility if you Google News for mainstream coverage of this study. You'll find a lot of doctors and academics— a curiously-disproportionate number of them hailing from theological colleges— weighing in on how God Doesn't Work That Way and how Science Is Not Equipped To Test The Spiritual So These Findings Don't Count. Mushmouthed mainstream mags like Time, ever fearful of losing the heartland demographic, hasten to add that regardless of any scientific findings, whether prayer "helps save your soul, is up to you". (Time is otherwise to be commended, however, for naming "Battlestar Galactica" as the best television show of 2005.)
I find it odd how few people seem willing to entertain the possibility that science may not be able to test the Spiritual simply because it's really tough to test things that don't exist. I'm not just talking about the stereotypic ignorant redneck doofi that we effete intellectuals like to invoke whenever anyone disagrees with us. I'm talking about the effetiati themselves-- journalists, academics, a fair number of pretty smart people. Friends. Colleagues. Respected rivals. Point out that religious experiences can be invoked by the judicious application of magnetic fields to the brain— hell, even cite it as a theoretical possibility (and speaking of which, you might want to check out "A Word for Heathens" over on my Backlist)— and at least a few of them will respond that "you haven't explained religious rapture—you've merely simulated it". The unspoken assumption seems to be that it doesn't matter how much it squawks, waddles, humps, breeds, or looks like a duck, it can't be one because there is some ineffable essence of duckness that will forever be beyond scientific understanding. Exactly what this essence does, why it is necessary— given a simulation that matches up to the so-called "original" in every measurable way— remains unclear.
I do not know why people insist on adding additional speculative elements to models that work better without them. Haven't these guys ever heard of parsimony?
It seems that the more irrational your adherence to Invisible Friends, the more you can get away with in the name of religious freedom. Even those commentators who publicly deplored the recent (and ongoing) violence over those Danish Mohammed-depicting (peace be upon him) cartoons were careful to begin their arguments with some variant of "While we must respect the religious beliefs of others…"
No. Why should I respect any belief predicated on the irrational, unprovable commands of Imaginary Masters? Why can I oppress my women, persecute gays, force TV shows off the air with my irrational sense of offended values, and have these idiotic behaviours not only excused but exhalted on the grounds of religious freedom? Why is it that if a teenage athiest brings a ceremonial dagger to school it most likely gets confiscated without a ripple, but when a Sikh student does the same the Supreme Court of Canada affirms his right to do so for fear of offending his Invisible Hamster God?
Maybe my friends, colleagues, and rivals aren't so dumb. Maybe their insistent affirmation of the supernatural is a survival strategy, maybe they're just trying to blend in against the background. After all, it's okay to believe in Invisible Friends— hell, it's almost mandatory. But if you choose to believe only in that which is supported by empirical evidence, almost half of the US population (47.6%) would not want you marrying their daughter; in fact, atheists are the most despised group in America today, according to a survey conducted out of the University of Minnesota. Even post-911 Muslims are looked upon more kindly.
Christ in a blender. It's a miracle I ever got laid without opening my wallet.
Mar 15 2006: "This may be the best hard SF read of 2006"
Had a chat with Denis Wong today, about the Blindsight cover. Not much satisfaction. I don't hold it against him; the dude's professionally obligated to keep me in the dark about certain things, and he's not really authorised to fire people who outrank him even if he wanted to. I have not yet given up, however. Assassination remains an option.
However, Denis did front me official glowing quotes from Stross and Asher, which I've now posted over in Blurbs. He also sent me some extrablurbular stuff from Spider Robinson, stuff I'd never quoted before because it wasn't part of the official blurb, so I didn't know whether it was fair game. But Denis was responding to my request for material to post on my website, so I guess it is:
"Seriously, what a pair of balls on that cat, to tackle a narrator like that! The fact that he pulled it off is almost less impressive than having the hairs to try in the first place. Nobody's had that kind of chutzpah since Ted Sturgeon. The scene where the poor sap tries to win over his girl with the Oogenesis poem is heartbreaking, hilarious and horrifying in equal measure. Thanks for the advance look at that one. I hope there are enough people smart enough to enjoy his work to keep him working."
I hope that too. But I bet there aren't.
Mar 13 2006: Abysmal Blindsight Cover Art
Some time ago, David Hartwell (my editor at Tor) sent me three concept sketches for Blindsight's cover. You can check them out in the Gallery. They were all pretty good, and we agreed on one, and I was happy— because while Tor has dropped the ball on a number of occasions, the one thing they have always delivered unto my books is great cover art.
Until a couple of weeks ago, when I got a look at, well, this:
You can see the original concept sketch easily enough— in fact, it still looks pretty sketchy. But they flattened the color down almost to black and white. They replaced the spaceship with something that looks like a wood screw. And what's with that awful border, and the Exorcist-vomit hue of the lettering? We appear to be looking at a corkscrew in orbit around a floating forest of pubic hair.
So I showed this illo around to a variety of folks, most of whom can usually be counted on to tell me that I'm overreacting, that it isn't all that bad, that it's no worse than the covers of a lot of other books that do just fine. "That's just terrible," one said. "Completely amateurish," said another. Everyone hated it. Even the Pollyannas.
I played around a little bit in Photoshop. Minor things— whitening the letters, getting rid of the border, pasting the original spaceship back where it belonged. Even those minor tweaks improved the look 100%, in my opinion anyway:
And then Dave Nickle, a very bright and supremely talented dude to whom I would be linking if he even had a website, took a more radical approach, changing the format and aspect ratio completely:
…and man, I really liked that iteration. So I wrote David Hartwell and suggested, oh so diplomatically, that even relatively minor changes might greatly improve the look of the cover. Hartwell told me to send down the edits, and he'd see if he could coax the Art Department to make such changes. I did so.
Two weeks passed. And now I'm told— via Denis Wong, David's right hand and surrogate when David's out of town— that it's too late to do anything because the cover is "already with the printer". So, that horrible first figure is what I'm stuck with.
I don't know what to make of this. Editorial suggestions are received at a time when changes can be made: two weeks later it's too late to do anything because the Art Department didn't receive that input before sending the cover to the printer. Where were those jpegs during those two weeks? And why is the final version of a cover being printed seven months prior to publication anyway? Flats for advertising purposes, sure— but a final, unchangeable dust-jacket for the novel itself? I'm skeptical. Somewhere here, there is bullshit.
I'd be tempted to conclude that Tor just gives less of a shit than usual— that they're contractually obligated to publish Blindsight, but they expect it to tank so they're cutting their losses by investing absolutely no effort in things like cover art. And yet, if it were that simple, why did they burn my Vampire Domestication talk onto all those CDs and send them around to distributors? Why did they send ARCs out for blurbs? They never did that for Maelstrom or ßehemoth, but they did it for Blindsight. These are not measures you take if you're washing your hands of something.
I'm thinking, maybe factions in conflict. I'm thinking the greater part of the machine has given up on Blindsight, the Art Department doesn't give a shit, but that someone— David Hartwell, most likely—is fighting for it against the greater odds. If that's the case, I'm pulling for my champion; but knowing the world as I do, I'm betting on the bigger system.
For all that other authors have raved about this book, Blindsight's premise is uncompromisingly bleak and it is full of hard science. Even granting a best-case scenario, it won't be an easy sell in a country where two thirds of the population believes that "Intelligent Design" should be taught in science class. And we are no longer living the best-case scenario. This cover is going to send people screaming. The only folks who buy Blindsight now will be those specifically looking for it, who've heard good things and will not be put off by third-rate design. We can pretty well kiss the impulse-buy crowd adieu.
This book is so going to tank.
Mar 9 2006: Schroeder Blurbs Blindsight
Karl Schroeder, the high-concept space-op dude with whom I lectured a couple of nights back, has passed on this quote for use on Blindsight's dust jacket:
"Peter Watts has taken the core myths of the First Contact story and shaken them to pieces. The result is a shocking and mesmerizing performance, a tour-de-force of provocative and often alarming ideas. It is a rare novel that has the potential to set science fiction on an entirely new course. Blindsight is such a book."
And of course, I am hugely pleased and honoured by this, since Karl himself is quite the master at science-fictional thought experiments, not to mention the immersive evocation of alien environments. In fact, there are only two things I regret in regard to this development:
- I hope it does not become widely known that we are friends, because that would totally blow the credibility of the blurb (and no, announcing it on this newscrawl will not bring this fear to pass; do you seriously think anyone besides you reads the damn thing?); and
- Tor is releasing Karl's own Sun of Suns at the same time as they're releasing Blindsight, which really sucks because— while SoS may not be as philosophically challenging as BS— it's way more fun. I think he's going to kick my ass.
Still, you take what you can get, and in that case, that's a killer blurb. And since I now have more than one of those, I've started up a new Blindsight page over in Blurbs. No, there aren't any negative comments there yet. Give it time.
Mar 8 2006: Post-mortem
The talk went well. Small room, but a reasonably full one. Video water bear footage, discussion of the pulverised-bat interpretation of the Karala red rain event, and slide showing the Up Yours Nebula in Eta Carinae
all went over well. Still pretty busy until month's end, but I should at least have time to post a bit more often. Next up, reactions to, and edits on, the cover art from Blindsight. But I'll hold off on that for a bit because my editor has yet to get back to me on whether said art is going to be fixed, or slapped onto my novel in its current execrable state. Such news is likely to affect the nature of my posting.
Feb 28 2006: Placeholder
Still here. Much to report, even: Karl Schroeder and I are giving a pair of lectures next week up at the University of Toronto; I'm currently doing an in-depth e-mail interview with Imre Szedman and Maria Whiteman (both of McMaster University), who are writing an academic paper on the rifters trilogy; I saw the "final" cover art for Blindsight (er, not great—presently trying to get them to make it a little less "final"). But I'm laid low by a bronchial infection, a shattered molar, a cold sore, and more imminent deadlines than God can count, so I've been neglecting the newscrawl. I'll try to make it up to you—hell, to both of you— when the dust settles a bit.
Feb 20 2006: The Rifter Dialectics
I've finally got my hands on "Reproduction without End: Ecological Breakdown in Peter Watts’s Rifters Trilogy ", a paper presented by Imre Szedman at the Annual Conference of the Society for Utopian Studies back in 2004. I've known about this paper for some time, but didn't want to approach the guy out of the blue and ask for a copy because, well, I don't know why exactly. I thought it would be gauche or self-aggrandising or something. But then Szedman himself e-mailed me for an interview, and that gave me an opening.
And I have to say, I really had no idea that my writing was so, well, political. Szedman coins the wonderful term "disaster capitalism" to describe the economics of RifterLand, and if I'm reading this right (I may not be, since I'm running a fever, my throat is lined with broken glass, and my brain is stewing in its own juices), he regards the heart of the trilogy as an analysis of social systems. Explicit references to Marxism and Capitalism abound, and while I won't quote those at length (they lose something out of context), here are a few snippets to hint at where the man is coming from:
"What I hope to have gotten across are some tentative ideas for a politics which takes the present political conjuncture seriously, while not giving up on the future. For this, dystopian fictions like Watts are as essential to the task as political theory and philosophy."
"…what the Rifters trilogy adds to this question is: has the technological capacity to manage the reproduction of capital through every crisis changed how we should understand the logic of reproduction and the politics of inventing ways to interrupt its ceaseless creation of the same, but with a difference?"
"…it is worth saying that faced with what Thomas Homer-Dixon has described as the “ingenuity gap,” that is, by a world whose systems are so fast, complex and interconnected that we lack the intellectual resources to properly address its now constant fractures and breakdowns, the speculative possibilities of science fiction makes it possible to crack open these systems and peer inside them in an important and distinctive way. Or at the very least, it has the potential to do so. What distinguishes Watts’s trilogy from other contemporary fictions is how relentlessly it takes up just this task, probing hard at the political situations produced when economic, technological and biological systems overlap in a series of cascading intensifications. Though its narrative flows through several characters, including the unforgettable “Meltdown Madonna,” Lenie Clark, the focus of these novels is really the system itself…"
"Though we are free to point to impending, unfixable problems that are on the horizon in any number of distinct fields and social practices, one thing that apparently cannot be mentioned is a possibility that might challenge the dystopian direction of contemporary society. I am referring to a global revolution that would undo the very system that generates these impending crises through its daily operations."
To that final point I would say, well, duh. The sheer entropic inertia of our planet-killing efforts is so great that even if we were to gun down everyone in the upper echelons and replace them all with ecologists tomorrow, there's no way we could fix things by mid-century. Big ships turn slowly, and this one has sailed. (In fact, the reason I occasionally claim to write Utopian fiction is because the people populating my dystopia are, by and large, an honorable bunch, faced with horrible choices, and trying to pick the lesser of a myriad evils. They are honestly trying to save a world beyond saving; they are not trying to make a quick buck off of it. They are better human beings than we are.)
To the other points, and to the paper in its entirety, I can only conclude that the political rises from the biological which rises from the physical. I was not trying to take a political stand; I was trying to explore the consequences of radical change, to follow the data where it led. I am uncomfortable with politics in general, because political beliefs that feel right in the gut are so hard to justify rationally. My gut is outraged by torture; but I cannot argue that it's wrong from first principles. There is no wrong in an empirical universe, no right. No good or evil. There is only what works, and what doesn't. Predators tear prey apart. The strong abuse the weak. 'Twas ever thus, and there's no empirical evidence to suggest that Humans are "divine" or "spiritual" or "sacred" in any real way. We're just meat, and in an indifferent universe we don't matter.
I hate believing that. I would give so much for a compelling argument against it. But so far, all anyone's been able to come up with are Imaginary Friends who speak through scriptures and through helmet-haired televangelists stealing from the poor.
Which brings us to empirical arguments in favor of torture…
Feb 17 2006: Know Thyself. Not.
Those who've hung around here a while will know that I'm fascinated by the idea that sentience (as opposed to intelligence, a very different thing) may not be all it's cracked up to be— that it may, in fact, be a bad thing in Darwinian terms. Now, courtesy of Razorsmile (whose own newscrawl is worth checking out), comes a link to this article suggesting that sure enough, the conscious mind sucks at complex decision-making, while the unconscious mind performs significantly better. The conscious mind only works well for trivial choices "like buying drugs or shampoo". Anything more complex, and it can't handle the variables.
Quoth one researcher: "At some point in our evolution, we started to make decisions consciously, and we’re not very good at it."
Scramblers 1. Humans 0. I really wanted to be wrong about this.
Update Feb 20: Here's the original paper from Science.
Feb 10 2006: On Spec Blows It
On Spec bought a story by Jim Anderson. On Spec ran the wrong version. On Spec can't bothered to set it right. So with Mr. Anderson's permission, I'm posting the correct iteration of "Ashes" over on Backlist. Read it and weep.
Feb 7 2006: Another Blindsight Blurb
Spider Robinson blurbed Blindsight. Spider Robinson thought that Blindsight fucking rocked:
It seems clear that every second Peter Watts is not actually writing must be spent reading, out at the cutting edge of all the sciences and all the arts at once. Only that can't be so, because he obviously spends fully as much time thinking about everything he's read, before he sits down to turn it into story. His latest starts by proving that there are circumstances in which half a brain is better than one, or even a dozen— and then builds steadily in strangeness and wonder with every page. If Samuel R. Delany, Greg Egan and Vernor Vinge had collaborated to update Algis Budryss classic ROGUE MOON for the new millenium, they might have produced a novel as powerful and as uniquely beautiful as BLINDSIGHT. Its narrator is one of the most unforgettable characters I have ever encountered in fiction.
He said more nice things outside that blurb— even compared me to Theodore Sturgeon— which I won't post because extrablurbular text is presumbly not for distribution. Even so, that's at least five authors who've got their hands on an ARC and liked it, three of whose opinions I can actually trust (the other two are friends, whose opinions by defintion I must discount because they're predisposed to be pro-Squid). But Neal Asher, Charles Stross, and Spider Robinson— I've never even met these guys. They wouldn’t promote my stuff unless they meant it.
Feb 5 2006: If you use a condom, the terrorists have won.
Now here's an interesting abstract from the bowels of the behaviorists (and thanks to Lisa Beaton for the reference): "From the Grave to the Cradle: Evidence That Mortality Salience Engenders a Desire for Offspring." The bottom line, as the authors put it, is that "a desire for offspring can function as a terror management defense mechanism."
Terror Management Defense Mechanism. I love that phrase. What wonderful bureaucratese for when you're scared of dying, you want more kids. It even makes sense in evolutionary terms; at least, it's easy to see how organisms in dangerous environments might benefit from a higher reproductive drive. I'd even go a step further and wonder if this might account for the imperative among certain religious sects (the Catholics, for example) to large families: are such believers, as a group, more fearful of the real world than the rest of us?
Or is it just the pope?
Feb 2 2006: Terror. Abortion. Banana.
Pursuant to the preceding post: according to my editor, Stross says he was "devastated" by Blindsight, and is trying to come up with some kind of official blurb that "won't terrify serious readers". I don't know what to make of this. I don't even know if I believe it. I mean, "devastated"? "Terrify"?
On other boards, I note that "Aborted Homeworld Script by Peter Watts!" is now the most frequently-viewed thread on Relic Entertainment's "General Discussions" board by a comfortable margin, stomping all over competing threads on Star Wars FPSs, smoking bans in restaurants, and even (unjustifiably) the return of Battlestar Galactica. It's nice to know that my abortions are remembered so fondly.
Of course, this is not always the case. Back at James Nicoll's blog, according to some of the posts on this thread, both my writing and this website pretty much suck the hairy banana…
Jan 31 2006: Charlie Stross on Blindsight
Christian Sauvé just pointed me to James Nicoll's blog, where, in the midst of a discussion about hard SF, Charlie Stross weighs in with
If you're looking for hard SF you need to get your hands on "Blindsight" by Peter Watts … Imagine a neurobiology-obsessed version of Greg Egan writing a first contact with aliens story from the point of view of a zombie posthuman crewman aboard a starship captained by a vampire, with not dying as the boobie prize.
He's playing badminton with a howitzer and the net up, and it gave me nightmares.
After which Nicoll himself responds:
Peter Watts is very talented but I have to be in the right mood for his worldview. He makes HP Lovecraft's attempts at bleak and depressing look like an Anne McCaffrey romance.
which is I think the most complimentary thing anyone has ever said about my writing. This goes on for a few more lines until some fellow called Robert Prior calls me, at long last,
…an optimist — without rose-coloured glasses, though.
He's also really good at following ideas where they lead, without trying to twist consequences to be more 'nice', but also without being nasty for the sake of shocking readers.
And that's even nicer than the Lovecraft/McCaffrey quote, because dammit, that's exactly what I try to do. I just follow the data.
It's not my fault if they keep leading me into Dante's Inferno.
Jan 29 2006: Absolution, reprise
An update in the I-saw-it-coming Department: scientists in Canada, France, and the U.S. are exploring the use of a beta-blocker called Propranolol to blunt the impact of traumatic memories. They're talking about an end to that old chestnut, post-traumatic stress disorder. You can get raped in an alley or mutilated on the battlefield, pop a pill the next day, and it just won't seem like such a big deal. Grand.
The half-dozen of you who real "Maelstrom" or "ßehemoth" may feel a twinge of déjà vu. The fast-response catastophe-management folks in those books used a drug called "Absolution" to allow them to deal with the horrible decisions they had to make every day. You see, while the head may say it's okay to kill ten people to save a hundred, the gut plagues you with guilt-ridden nightmares when you actually commit that act. "Asolution", in my world, let you live with yourself after taking "necessary steps". It blunted the effects of post-traumatic stress. It was, from the sound of it, Propranolol's great-great-great grandchild.
A question my novels raised— and I haven't seen it raised in any of the recent articles on this subject (although I think the Village Voice raised it a couple of years back, when the state of the art was somewhat less advanced)— is if it's good for the goose, what about the gander? If this drug makes it easier to bear the memory of being raped and tortured, wouldn't it also make it easier to bear the memory of being the rapist and the torturer? Wouldn't it be easier, now, for the average Joe to waterboard and electrocute enemy combatants, for the average head-thumping cop to use her truncheon in Authority's ongoing dialog with Dissent, and then just pop a pill to wash away the guilt and head on home to dinner?
Call me paranoid, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that whatever agencies are funding this research are all too aware of such applications…
Jan 28 2006: Another Nod for "Mayfly"
I see that Locus has included "Mayfly" on its annual Recommended reading list.
Jan 18 2006: I Seem To Be A Joke
Kind of a dry one, actually, one of those subtle extended New York in-jokes designed to make the literensia sniff appreciatively, as opposed to laughing out loud. In the January 15 issue of the NY Times book review (here's the link, but you gotta register first), some dude name of Henry Alford has written what appears to be a parody of the Acknowledgments section for some fictitious novel. Every acknowledgment therein is footnoted to the work of some other author (for example, the line "If something in this novel approaches accuracy, it's probably a mistake" is footnoted with a reference to "The Broker", by John Grisham). And there, nestled among twenty-six other obscure authors (at least, Grisham was the only one I recognised), is footnote #9: "This is not a complete novel". Peter Watts, "Behemoth: Seppuku".
I'm actually pretty damn pleased by this. It suggests that some literary highbrow type (not the kind you usually associate with skiffy) has actually read my work; more, that he expects his target audience to get the joke, which means at least a half-dozen of his literary friends have read my stuff too. It's recognition of a sort, from a completely unexpected quarter— and while actual royalties would be nicer, I suppose it will have to do.
Thanks to my brother Jon for telling me about this, by the way. We Wattses can always count on family to point out little personal digs that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Jan 13 2006: Covert, Complexity, Chaos
Last night, after numerous majitos quaffed to live local music, we were either pumped by a CIA spook or hit upon by a dough-faced gay dude. I immediately defaulted to the latter— after all, why would a spy be interested in a couple of white guys digging reggae on a hotel patio?— but Dan, who's from the US, figured he was a spy. In retrospect, maybe he was right— this guy did keep shoehorning the conversation into political realms that didn't seem entirely appropriate to the context. And when Dan described how Cuba became a communist country (short version: it was Nixon's fault), our new acquaintance's plastered-on smile got noticeably tight around the edges.
Didn't really matter, though. Whether he was trying to pump dick or intel, he came away with his hands both empty and dry.
Not here on vacation, by the way. International Complexity Conference. There was a huge range of quality in the work—from cutting-edge work in evolutionary ethics and nonequilibrium thermodynamics, to artsy wannabes in English Departments who seem to think that "complexity theory" refers to anything with a lot of moving parts, and who think it would be cool to apply that fractal stuff to Adult Education. I caused a minor stir at a luncheon by admitting my own reductionist opinion that God amounted to a temporal-lobe malfunction. Seemed like conventional wisdom to me, and not particularly radical, but one of the organisers commended me on my "courage" for disagreeing with the prevailing view of the conference, and the winner of the Tobias Funke Impersonation Contest talked about my "charmingly dangerous" opinions. I smiled and kept less-charming thoughts to myself.
Also met a local physicist named Victor Bruno Henríquez Pérez, who works on Cuba's renewable-energy program by day and is an sf-part-time-local-TV personality by night. Amazingly, he knew my books. He actually wanted to be introduced to me. (I don't know if that's ever happened before.) And he seems quite enthusiastic at the prospect of cross-cultural skiffy exchange— he's already involved in an annual Canada-Cuba literary event, and has made some serious contacts with the Merrill Collection (which, for those of you who can't be bothered to follow the link, is the Toronto Library's Big Honking Science Fiction Collection, accreted around books originally bequeathed by the late lamented Judith Merrill).
Now we're gearing up for the trip home. At our last breakfast in the Hotel Nacional, our server gave each of us a gift: Dan received a Spanish biography of Loette Lenya (the actress who played the stiletto-toed Klebs in "To Russia With Love"), and I got Koontz & Anderson's Frankenstein. I like this place. Every second building is falling apart at the seams, people live in the ruins, and the whole system is held together by duct tape and sheer Human obstinacy in the face of overwhelming odds. But the restored architecture is breathtaking, and even the ruins are beautiful. And these guys choose to let the paint peel on their capital, let their own government buildings go to shit, so that they can divert their limited resources into keeping the citizenry fed and housed. Show me a N'Am government that would do the same.
I hope to come back. Wheels are already turning.
PS. As promised, the hyperlinks are now working in the html version of Maelstrom, posted over on the Backlist.
Jan 10 2006: "Mayfly" Ascendant, Cat Curry
Havana looks a bit like Beirut might have if it had been built of pastel Lego before the bombs and the bullets started flying. Here in Cuba, a few years ago, they had to eat their cats. Despite this, and the ubiquitous Men in Black, and the surprising habit that money has of, well, disappearing— I rather like it here.
But peeking over the horizon through the ethernet cable at the local Internet café, I see the tiny ant-like figure of Derryl Murphy on a distant hill, jumping up and down and waving semaphore flags. I think he's saying that Gardner Dozois has selected "Mayfly"— the story he and I coauthored a while back— for inclusion in the next "Year's Best SF". That's actually a pretty prestigious annual anthology. That makes this cool. But as I recall, "Mayfly" got rejected by everyone and their dog, including Asimov's, before Tesseract 9 finally took it. And wasn't Dozois editing Asimov's back then? So how come something that didn't even rate publication back then is year's-best material now?
I'm not entirely convinced this is on the level.
Jan 8 2006: Closing the Barn Door After the Maelstrom.
Remember how, last summer, I got all miffed because well-intentioned people grabbed my free pdf's of Starfish and Maelstrom and screwed up their conversion into other file types so that the formatting and special characters got hashed? And how it was kind of my fault because I only gave them pdfs to work from, whereas if I'd given them html code all that stuff would have ported over just fine? Well, months ago I fixed that problem with Starfish, offering it up as html both in a zip file or to be read right on-site; and finally I've done the same for Maelstrom. Of course, it's too late now. Everyone who was going to convert the books has probably long since done so. But there may be a straggler or two— or more likely, some reader who gave up on a Plucker version because the formatting was wonky, and who may be dropping by any day now. This is for them. Check out Backlist.
One note: the Table of Contents isn't working yet. For Starfish, the headings link to the chapters in question; that'll eventually be true for the Maelstrom page as well, but I wanted to get this uploaded before I left for Cuba and it's already 1a.m. I'll add the hyperlinks after I get back.
And then, maybe I'll do the whole thing all over again for Behemoth.
Gone for a week. Be good.
Jan 6 2006: FTL in five years?
No shit. The theory's obscure and largely incomprehensible even to particle physicists, but it predicts the mass of elementary particles as accurately as measurement error allows, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics has just awarded it its top prize in the Future Flight category. NASA and the US Military are interested. Basically, wrap a strong enough magnetic field around a spacehip and you drop into subspace. Mars and back in five hours. Eleven lightyears in 80 days. They're talking proof-of-principle within five years.
I almost hope it does turn out to be bullshit. Working FTL by 2020 would throw 90% of science fiction into the trash.
Jan 4 2006ß: To Those I Owe B.S.
I've promised to send advance pdfs of Blindsight to some of you, because I want to sate your curiosity, or solicit your input, or merely inflict pain. I've done so now, but I think I may have missed some people on the list; so if you're one of those who has been promised but not yet fulfilled, remind me and I'll get right on it. (For that matter, those who've already received their file might want me to send it to them again— there were a few formatting glitches in yesterday's version that I've since fixed.)