Climbing Mount CanLit.

“An adolescent girl comes to terms with her burgeoning lesbianism on the windswept shores of Canada’s west coast while dealing with her emotionally distant father.”

Thus goes my stock exemplar of that branch of fiction known as “CanLit”. Some of you may find it familiar; I’ve certainly recited it often enough. Others may find it resonant because they’ve, you know, actually read CanLit.

CanLit doesn’t like us genre types much, as many of those who’ve applied for a Canada Council grant might tell you. That’s okay. I don’t like CanLit much, either. (Except for Margaret Atwood, actually. I devoured her early stuff, back before she ascended into Heaven with the gods. Life Before Man, Cat’s Eye— I even liked Surfacing, believe it or not, although I suspect it may not have aged well. The woman’s biology connections really shone through, and this was way before she started stealing gengineered dystopias from the ghetto.)

Anyhow. CanLit and I don’t generally get along, and that’s okay. Like certain people you run into at cons, there’s a kind of unspoken agreement to look past each other when you both end up at the same room parties. But while I take a kind of live-and-let-live attitude to the stuff, I’d certainly speak up were anyone were to try to put my own writing in that camp. Not that that would ever happen in a million years, of course.

At least, that’s what I thought until yesterday, when Amazon.com declared otherwise.

It almost slipped past me. I don’t check my Blindsight ratings all that much any more; I’ve been hitting refresh a lot more often on the Echopraxia page, fighting off the inevitable growing despair that accompanies confirmation of that old rule about 90% of sales happening in the first 6-8 weeks. (My baby is already nine weeks old.) But for the past couple of days I’ve been poking at a retrospective comparison of the Blindoprax titles, weighing their reader reviews, running rudimentary stats on their respective rankings— and it was during such a data-gathering expedition that I encountered the following flag.

CanLit2

Click to embiggen. Because you probably don’t think you’re seeing it right at this scale.

Here are other titles on the list, just to show what odd company I keep.

Here are other titles on the CanList, just to show what weird company I’m keeping.

Yes, you read that right. For a few hours yesterday— at about the same time that a crazed gunman opened up on the steps of Parliament— Blindsight hit #1 on Amazon’s CanLit chart.  Pretty sure that was a coincidence.

Note that this isn’t even Amazon.ca. This is Amazon dot com. If you’d tracked that orange flag back to the .ca site you’d have seen— digging down within this Arkansas-sized market— that Blindsight was not only the #1 CanLit title, but it was also the #1 seller under both “Canadian Short Stories” and “Short Stories, Canadian” (although if anyone can see a meaningful distinction between those categories, I’d love to know what it is). Which, while inaccurate, is nice— although not quite so surrealistic as seeing Firefall sitting at #1 on Amazon.uk’s “Religious and Inspirational” chart a couple of weeks back.

You might also notice that the title most commonly bought together with my novels is Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. I reserve comment on the potential significance of this.

Presented without comment.

From Amazon.ca.

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 4 Comments

Psychotic Dreams and Strange Extremes

Where do you start with dreams?

People say you’re asleep when you dream, but you’re not really; it’s just that the input you’re consciously processing is generated internally, instead of coming from outside. It’s a kind of consciousness that believes the most ridiculous things, though. Your best friend doesn’t look anything like your best friend actually does in real life. Your girlfriend is a biker chick with three thick hairs the diameter of birch saplings growing out of her head. Doesn’t matter; you recognize them instantly and without the slightest whiff of discontinuity.

You can fly, in dreams.  Converse with the dead. Oozing octopus suckers sprout across your face for no reason. You swallow it all, without reservation, without question. In terms of critical analysis, dreams are the Tea Party of cognitive states.

It’s only upon waking that you realize, in retrospect, how utterly absurd it all was.

The circuits you have to thank for that belated insight lie in a little strip of tissue along the orbitofrontal cortex. They say it acts as a reality-checker, tells you whether the input you’re processing makes sense or not.  It doesn’t always get it right, even when you’re awake; if someone actually does turn into someone else in the middle of a conversation, or if a building really does disappear without warning in the background, you’re not likely to notice it consciously because that OFC censor throws it into the garbage  before you’re aware of it.

Usually the censor is powered down during sleep. Sometimes, though, it works overtime. That’s when you realize, mid-dream, that you are dreaming. That’s when you can take the reins and control the narrative, become the architect of your perceived reality instead of its passive observer-victim.  That’s when dreams turn lucid.

Once I was in a hotel elevator when it went rogue: shot right out through the roof like a cannonball, fifty stories up, and plummeted towards the earth. I realized this made no sense, conjured up a little control panel out of the wall, talked the elevator car— which now had panoramic wrap-around windows— into sprouting stubby little wings, and glided us down to a soft nighttime landing on a coral reef (which we could now explore at leisure because the elevator car also doubled as a submarine. It was awesome).  That’s a rare level of control in my experience, though.  More often I simply remember at the worst possible time that people can’t fly, or the red wagon I’m riding shouldn’t be able to travel in space even if I did tie two lengths of 2×4 onto its gunwales— and suddenly I’m  tangled in high-tension wires twenty meters up, or what I thought was flying turns out to be, on closer inspection, just me hanging off a climbing rope in some high-school gym whose dingy roof and rafters have been coated with a thin layer of blue paint and some cheesy cartoon clouds. Sometimes the recognition that I’m dreaming is more of a Hail-Mary, when I realize that the Thing In The Basement isn’t going to leave me alone and I might as well just get it over with and hurl myself into its maw.  The dream generally changes channels at that point.

Sometimes, though— sometimes dreams are positively inspirational.

Ramanujan was inspired by the Hindu Pantheon. I got inspired by this.

Ramanujan’s dreams were inspired by the Hindu Pantheon. Mine were inspired by this.

Kekulé dreamed the structure of the benzene molecule. Ramanujan swore that the mathematical theorems he derived were served up to him in dreams by Hindu deities.  The solution to my own Master’s thesis came to me in a dream (although I wasn’t nearly as excited by that revelation as I was by another dreamed insight, a solution to the age-old problem of how to build a walking beachball: I had the blueprints right there in my head).

So you are asleep when you dream, and you are awake. Dreams are unconnected to reality; dreams provide fundamental insights into reality. Dreams reduce you to passive observer; dreams elevate you unto godhood.

Or to paraphrase what Corlett et al report in a recent paper that Sheila Miguez pointed me to: dreams make you psychotic.

They mean this in the clinical, not the Gamergate sense: psychotic as in dissociated from reality, unable to distinguish fact from hallucination. (On second thought, maybe they mean it in the Gamergate sense after all.) Perhaps psychotics are merely dreamers who have not awakened, sleepwalkers whose experiences are not being properly filtered through the Orbitofrontal cortex.

Corlett et al looked at two possibilities. On the one hand, a high level of dream awareness might imply a greater grasp of waking reality— if your OFR is so on-the-ball that it even functions when it’s supposed to be off-duty, how much better will it perform during regular business hours? Alternatively, a high level of dream awareness might imply a reduced grasp of waking reality— because lucid dreamers are supposed to be characterized by “thin boundaries”, or a tendency to confuse fantasy and reality. Aspects of waking experience tend to leak across that boundary into the dream state (leading to greater “dream awareness”); but perhaps, by the same token, aspects of the dream state leak back into the waking world across the same semipermeable membrane.

Honestly, this will make more sense if you ignore the official caption and just read my interpretation to the left.

You can click to embiggen. But honestly, this will make more sense if you ignore the official caption and just read my interpretation to the left.

Corlett et al ran groups of lucid and non-lucid dreamers through a repeated series of memory tests;  subjects had to decide whether they’d seen a given image previously in the same experimental run (as opposed to previous runs in which that image might also have appeared). They describe this in terms of  “Signal Detection Theory”, but what it comes down to is the ability to distinguish between recent memories and old ones. A parameter called d-prime scales to the width of the uncertainty zone between new and old. The higher d-prime is, the narrower the zone and the more confident you are in your response. If lucid dreaming indicates an elevated grasp of reality, then lucid dreamers should have higher d-primes.

The other criterion is called, um, criterion— but that’s such a dumb and ambiguous name that I’m just going to call it C. C describes any tendency to make a default guess one way or the other in case of uncertainty.  If, when in doubt, you’re more likely to guess that the memory is old, C<0. If you’re more likely to guess that it’s “new”,  C>0. If lucid dreaming implies a reduced grasp of reality in the waking state, C should be lower for Lucids than for Nonlucids.

(This is the way I understand it, at least.  You can go to the paper for more specifics, but don’t blame me if you end up even more confused.  If it’s clarity you’re looking for, Corlett et al couldn’t write their way out of a fortune cookie if you held a gun to their heads.)

You may wonder what the conclusion would be if lucid dreamers turned out to have both a lower C and a higher d-prime than nonlucid dreamers. I wonder that too; I can’t see what in principle would prevent such a result. The two hypotheses that Corlett et al are testing here are mutually exclusive, but the actual tests are not. Statistically, this leaves me a bit queasy.

Fortunately for the authors, that bullet never fired. They found no difference in the width of the Uncertainty zones of Lucids vs. nonLucids, but they did find that C was significantly lower in the Lucid group (P=0.013), suggesting that Lucids were “more likely to indicate that a picture was familiar to them, even if it was novel.”

So. If you buy this, lucid dreamers have more difficulty than non-lucid dreamers when it comes to distinguishing fantasy from reality. As Corlett et al put it, “individuals with high dream awareness make a pattern of memory errors consistent with an impairment in a reality monitoring process involving the function of the OFC”.

More succinctly, lucid dreamers tend to be more psychotic. Do we buy this?

The Royal We would certainly like to; anyone familiar with my recent work might be reminded of the multithreaded “dream state” I imagine for vampires, or the increasing sense of disreality Daniel Brüks experiences as the conscious wetware is incrementally disassembled during the course of his salvation. Corlett et al embed their findings in all kinds of neurological context— schizophrenia, false memories, the role of dopamine in “reality monitoring”—  that’s pure uncut catnip for the likes of me. They even call up the Default-Mode-Network I invoked a couple of years back to explain my dumb gullible vulnerability to scam artists (and to explore the role of competing neurological subsystems in the production of conscious experience).  They describe déjà vu as a kind of neurological false-positive:

“False familiarity signals have also been invoked to explain Déjà vu and Déjà vecu experiences, which bear phenomenological similarity to lucid dreams – people report the uncanny (and surprising) experience of having had an experience before in their past (O’Connor & Moulin, 2010). This false familiarity is believed to emanate from fronto-hippocampal dys-interaction (O’Connor & Moulin, 2010). These models of comparable phenomena perhaps point to the generality of predictive learning mechanisms in the brain (Friston, 2009) and the consequences of disrupted predictive learning across brain systems (Corlett et al., 2010)…  We believe our data support the idea that dream awareness involves the intrusion of reality onto the dreaming state and that this overlap is also manifest during waking, whereby high dream awareness subjects experience false familiarity for memoranda causing them to make false alarm responses.”

How can I not cream my jeans over all this technobabbly goodness? Think of the extra infodumps that Echopraxia could have contained, if only I’d read these results earlier!

corlett2

What’s wrong with this picture?

And yet. In so very many ways, this paper is just bad. It leaves obvious methodological questions unanswered (even if you squint past the nonexclusive nature of the hypothesis testing, doesn’t the probability of error increase throughout the course of a task?  Isn’t the question “Have you previously seen X during this run?” a lot easier to answer for the first image in a sequence than it is for the last?).  One of the figure captions contradicts the legend in the same figure. The sentence-level writing is, to be charitable, not as clear as it could be. And for all the fancy neurological terminology being thrown around, the study reports no neurological findings (although we’re told that the subjects completed “a series of further neuropsychological tests to be reported elsewhere”).

This was basically a button-pushing test performed on a small (N=57) sample of self-selected male volunteers. Admittedly, even a journey of a thousand miles has to start with a single step— but did it have to be such a timid and slapdash one? Would it have cost anything more than a bit of additional time to— oh, I don’t know, include women in the study, double the sample size, and test for between-sex interactions? Cognitive Neuropsychiatry isn’t the most prestigious of journals, but it’s supposed to be peer-reviewed. Someone should at the very least have caught the figure errors.

This all might be a bit easier to take if Corlett et al didn’t seem to have mistaken their one small step for a Giant Leap for Mankind. As it is, it seems a bit questionable to go from Lucid dreamers slip up more when it comes to remembering how long ago they saw something to the claim that their errors are

… consistent with … patients with neurological damage to the OFC and its connections who  let old memories override or govern current perceptual inputs and they allow memory fragments to intrude upon their current conceptual understanding of the world, generating a set of beliefs about themselves that is bizarre and insensitive to change (Nahum et al., 2009; Schnider, 2001, 2003; Schnider et al., 2005).

Consistent with? Maybe so. But “consistent with” doesn’t necessarily translate into “evidence for”. This deep in the 21rst Century and we still need to keep reminding people that correlation ≠ causation?

Of course, that’s me the former-scientist talking. Me the SF writer is thinking Oooh,  programmable déjà-vu.  Deja-vu and pareidolia.  Pareidolia and intuition and the religious experience.  Maybe Bicamerals can be hacked, I’m thinking. Maybe vampires can be; maybe the connection between dreams and déjà vu and multithreaded dream-state awareness gives us a weapon to use against the Legions of Valerie.

Or a weapon for something to use, anyway. If we’re not around…

So for all their failings, let’s keep an eye on Corlett’s & Crew. Follow their follow-ups. See if hard neurochemistry supports their soft speculation. Draw up battle plans.  Scientist-me says, stay skeptical.

SF me says, Prepare to pillage.

Posted in: neuro, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 45 Comments

Data Dump

Rorschach15-01I put up a bunch of new stuff over the weekend: a mix of covers and fan art in the Miscellaneous and Blindopraxia galleries (Angus McIntyre’s digital Blindsight renders— to the right, at the bottom, and at the end of the “Fan Art” matrix— are especially nice), along with a couple of links to multimedia installations based on “The Things” (check the Miscellaneous Gallery under “The Things” or the Backlist page under “Multimedia). The A/V remix of Kate Baker’s performance over on Youtube has been up since 2012, and was made completely independent of me; but Jesús Olmo sent me his digital coffee-table book even earlier (2010, was it?). I’ve been sitting on it all this time, saving it for the unveiling of the new website.

Anyway, check the Updates page for details.

BeyondtheRiftEchinoidCoverAlso over the weekend, Locus posted another review of Echopraxia, this time by Gary K. Wolfe. Locus does that sometimes— posts multiple reviews of the same book— and like his August counterpart Paul Di Filippo, Wolfe invokes the works of other authors when he looks at mine: “Kress’s scientific rhetoric is in support of her plot, Watts’s is in dialogue with his plot, and Rajaniemi’s is the backdrop of his plot.” (I’ve really got to check out this Rajaniemi guy.)  Wolfe isn’t quite so enamored of my infodumps as Di Filippo was— “Watts makes sure we understand the biology and neurology behind both vampirism and zombieism, whether we want to or not”— which, well, fair enough. And he adds his voice (in the nicest possible way) to the growing Pessimism Chorus that seems to go on tour whenever I have a new book out.

“[Watts'] famously dismal brilliance … stuns you with its barrage of smart ideas and cutting-edge research, then disarms you with its grim determinism and unsympathetic, semi-posthuman characters, and ends up, pretty much, by just making you want to crawl under a rock. This is not a novel that wants to invite anyone in for tea.”

He does, though, there at the end. Compares Echopraxia to both Childhood’s End and I am Legend, calls it “undeniably powerful” and “surprisingly humane.” You can almost hear the good china tinking against the stirring spoons.

I’ll take that, and gladly.

That's Bowie in the middle, right?  That's not my imagination?

That’s Bowie in the middle, right? That’s not my imagination?

Posted in: art on ink, reviews by Peter Watts 43 Comments

Echopraxia Q&A

icarus-smallIt’s been barely a month since I did that AMA thing at reddit.  Tomorrow I’m doing it again, only this time it’s an AMAE, which is pronounced exactly the same but  stands for Ask Me About Echopraxia. People have had a chance to actually read that book since the last time I reddited; apparently some of them have questions about it.

I can’t imagine why. It all seems pretty clear-cut to me.

The AMAE will go down the same way the AMA did. In the morning I’ll log in to  http://www.reddit.com/r/SF_Book_Club/ as The-Squidnapper (because the more-concise handle “Squidnapper” has been taken by some other doofus). I’ll write an introductory post to kick off the exchange, and go away. Throughout the day, those of you with questions can pose them in that thread; I’ll come back later and answer as best I can.

Notice that neither of the A’s in AMAE stand for “anything”.  There are some questions I won’t be answering, beyond stating that they are meant to go unanswered (for now). Anybody wanting to know if Siri really underwent a sex-change operation out in the Oort, or if his dad is still alive at the end of Echopraxia, can save themselves the carpal. On the other hand, if you’re mystified about something that would have been clear if I’d just run the manuscript through one more edit, I’ll do my best to clarify (and apologize when necessary).

At least one reader opined that Portia was an irrelevant distraction because it never appeared, or figured into the plot, after Icarus. The rest of you were clear on that, right?

Well, if not, tomorrow’s your chance.

Posted in: Dumbspeech, public interface by Peter Watts 43 Comments

Peter’s Burg: A Fragmentary Reminiscence.

Translations welcome.

This traditional honey cake was about the size, shape, and moistness of a deflated football, until you got to the honey core which was great. Sadly, I only got halfway through before I had to abandon it; it would never had got past Customs.

At 2 a.m., on my last night in St. Petersberg, a small coterie of Russian SF fans pounded on my door and offered me balls of meat on a plate (not to be confused with meatballs, which are minced; these were not). I don’t know where they came from— the language barrier was pretty formidable— but I think there’d been some kind of late-night BBQ happening somewhere on the grounds.  I think they were inviting me to join them.

I couldn’t, sadly. The reason I was up at that hour in the first place was because I had a web site scheduled to go live in less than two weeks and a half-dozen pages yet to build (also because the wedding party across the pond was still belting out “Venus” and “Money for Nothing” at 50db, so it would have been a restless night in any event).

That gesture of carnivorous cross-cultural goodwill kind of epitomizes the whole St.-Petersburg trip for me.  Not quite sure why.

*

As usual, click to embiggen most of these pictures.

*

Google Earth map of The Village: my place was second red blob from the right, upper right quadrant

Google Earth map of The Village: my place was second red blob from the right, upper right quadrant

I had thought this thing was going to happen in St. Petersburg, Russia’s “Gateway to Europe”.  It did not. It happened deep in a forest full of totem poles and sculptures and strange pedestals big enough to accommodate sacrificial offerings. There was a pond stocked with ravenous fish, frequented by a happy couple being photographed on the afternoon of their wedding (and a mere nine hours before the newly wed bride stormed from the honeymoon suite in a rage, telling her friend that her drunken husband was “a complete asshole”).  There was a giant outdoor television embedded in stone; pools and fountains and petting zoos full of small children (none of whom I petted). There was a glorious bar with low ceilings and tree drunks and stuffed animals on the walls; conference halls full of weird angles and steampunk chandeliers.  There was some Lovecraftian variant of the Scandinavian sauna, some new strain that involved beating yourself with dead branches between the scorching air and the freezing water.  I think the concept mutated on its way across the Baltic (Which is not surprising; I read some papers about Baltic heavy-metal levels back in grad school. Nobody crosses that sea without suffering an inversion or two.)

*

This bar was awesome.  Contrary to popular conception, I didn't see a single person drinking vodka the whole time I was in Russia.

This bar was awesome. Contrary to popular conception, I didn’t see a single person drinking vodka the whole time I was in Russia.

 europlus

thevillage2

I swear, I kept expecting Patrick McGoohan to appear around the corner.

 redmedia
Much higher production values than the Blair Witch Project.

Much higher production values than the Blair Witch Project.

*

The KGB was always close at hand, keeping an eye on things.

The KGB was always close at hand, keeping an eye on things.

I’ve only seen two Russian movies in my life. At least, only two stick out in my mind. One of these is Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (and while it has it’s charms, sorry, I think Soderberg did it better in 2002).  The other was an obscure post-apocalyptic downer called Letters from a Dead Man, which I saw in 1986 at a foreign film festival in Vancouver.  It blew me away. In a decade when nuclear war was being soft-pedaled with rosey-eyed sitcoms like The Day After, Letters had the unflinching balls to deny us any hope whatsoever.

Over in St. Petersberg I got to meet one the screenwriters for that movie, Vyacheslav Rybakov. We sat together on a panel discussing religion and state surveillance.

I think he was in favor of both.

*

There was a 2-hour Q&A. There were interviews: a couple of homegrown Russian magazines, and an iteration of Popular Mechanics that took root on these shores somewhere around the turn of the century. One of the locals asked me a question I’d never heard before, pointed out that I— a notoriously hard-SF writer— was married to a fantasy author. He wanted to know if that caused any discord on the home front; it was almost as though he was asking a card-carrying member of B’Nai Brith what it was like to shack up with the Treasurer of Hamas.

It was a good question, because it let me answer a different one; it let me air my thoughts on Fantasy in relation to SF in general. To my mind, there are two kinds of fantasy: the kind that uses the all-bets-off aspect of the genre as an excuse to be lazy, because everything’s just magic anyway; and the kind that regards that same element as a challenge to build new worlds rigorously and from scratch, without even the pre-existing scaffold of real-world science to help them out. I look down on the one with contempt; I look up at the other with awe. Basically— if you scale quality/merit along the vertical axis—  I regard SF as the filling in a fantasy sandwich.

It was during the Popular Mechanics interview, however, that I discovered that Russian chairs have it in for me.

It’s not just that they were defective blobs of cheap molded plastic.  That’s what I assumed when the first one collapsed under me. Nikolai, who must weigh at least as much as I do, offered me his, thinking that I must have simply chosen a defective unit. Except his collapsed under me too, after about ten seconds, despite the fact that it had been bracing his ass against the force of gravity without any trouble. As did the next. It was like some kind of antiCanadian autoimmune response.

I suspect smart matter, gene-locked against use by all but specific ethnic haplotypes.

*

It turned out okay, though.

It turned out okay, though.

Blindsight got my translator fired.

I learned this over a potato latte in the airport Starbucks, on my way back to London.  Apparently Astrel got sold on Blindsight solely on the strength of Nikolai’s own rabid enthusiasm; only after it had been bought and translated and put irrevocably into production did his bosses (who didn’t read English) have a chance to read for themselves what they’d bought.

Apparently they fired him on the spot. What the hell did you do to us? People will hate this book! It’s too complicated! Nobody will be able to make any sense of it unless they’re logged into a bunch of science journals at the same time! We’re completely screwed! Begone!

*

How To Make Friends By Insulting Them: My keynote speech was an updated iteration of Hive Minds, Mind Hives from a few years back, which incorporated my usual derogation of economics. You know the spiel: Dungeons & Dragons for geeks with MBAs, a beautiful model with little connection to the real world, There’s no such thing as Klingon and no matter how fluent you are, eventually the Laws of Physics are still going to beat the crap out of you and steal your lunch money. Followed by the token admission that A real economist would probably accuse me of horrendously mischaracterizing their profession

At which point a very pleasant gentleman with whom I’d been conversing prior to the talk stood up wearing a faint smile and said “Actually, I’m an economist…” Which is something that had never happened before, although I probably should have been expecting it.

It all worked out for the best, though. I even got his email, so I can run ideas past him while writing my next (economics-related) novel.  It’s an unexpectedly effective way of getting actual experts to help you out.

During my next talk, perhaps I’ll describe all neuroscientists as a bunch of New-Age witch doctors.

*

Breakfast, lunch, dinner.  Not necessarily in that order.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Not necessarily in that order. As I may have mentioned on facebook, the Russians are a stoic people.

The holding pen. The proximity of this picture to that of those nourishing meat dishes above is purely coincidental.

The holding pen. The proximity of this picture to that of those hearty and nourishing meat dishes above is purely coincidental.

Blindsight got my translator hired back.

It didn’t tank after all.  Turns out there were lots of people willing to hit the science journals. Turns out Blindsight actually became something of a cult hit, to Astrel’s astonishment— and after the numbers came back, Nikolai gets a phone call: So, how’s it going? Good, good— say, we’ve been thinking that maybe we were a little hasty before, we were thinking that maybe if you wanted to come back…

And Nikolai says Well, maybe, okay … but only if you publish this book about a bunch of misfits at the bottom of the sea…

I’m told that Blindsight‘s completely unexpected success opened a door for other N’Am authors, on whom Russian publishers wouldn’t previously have taken a chance: Cory Doctorow and Rob Wilson, among others.  Which would inspire me to gloat over the fact that Cory now owed me one, were it not for the fact that he’s already pimped my work and saved my ass so many times that this really doesn’t do anything but reduce the debt I owe him by some fractional amount.

Nikolai (translator/guide-dude), Vlad (translator), Елена (photographer).
Nikolai (translator/guide-dude), Vlad (translator), Елена (photographer).

 *

I was planning on writing much less— impressionistically— about this trip.  In fact, I’d jotted down extensive notes both during the con and on the flight thereafter, so I’d have a solid basis for the narrative. I’ve been trying for the past week and a half to find any trace of those notes, on any of my laptops, or on any of the external hard drives we keep as backups (one always physically offsite), because no one in this house is stupid enough to trust The Cloud.

But I can’t find so much as a word. This is all from memory.  Draw whatever moral you can from that.

*

There was this war with the Swedes. I learned a little bit about it during a walking tour during  my last morning in Russia, between four hours of sleep the night before and three hours of jetlag induced after.  (Details are fuzzy. I think I remember a Burger King in the shape of a flying saucer.) But beyond the armories, the immortalized microcephalics, and the bronze mutant rabbits, the waterfront of St. Petersberg is decorated by these, well, totem poles: studded by the stylized bows of vanquished warships, each memorializing Russia’s triumph over the dastardly Swedes.

Such monuments seem fairly common in St. Petersberg. I asked if Russia ever built monuments  commemorating its defeats.

“The Poles commemorate defeat,” they told me. “Russians commemorate tragedies.”

The Petersberglians do seem to have a thing for rabbits, though.

The Petersberglians do seem to have a thing for rabbits, though.

 thedanes

This is The Hermitage Museum, one of the biggest cultural repositories on the planet:

Click to embiggen

Actually just the left-hand side, but it’s still pretty big. That column in the square is not fastened to its plinth by anything except weight and gravity. Pray that Bruce Banner doesn’t take the St. Petersburg walking tour. Click to embiggen.

The building itself is massive, the size of city blocks. We didn’t dare go inside; it would have taken days just to find our way out again.  But I knew about this place. It’s famous. I’d read an article in the New Yorker:  it’s the home of a colony of feral cats down in the basement with its own staff of feeders and veterinarians, charged with keeping the seventy-odd furballs in good shape.

“This is the place with the cats?” I asked.

My guide shook his head. “This is one of the largest museums in the world. It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, and it’s got more da Vinci’s in its collection than any—”

“Yeah, but it’s famous for the cats, right?”

“No, it’s famous for being one of the largest galleries in the wor—

“But aside from that—”

Ultimately, we agreed to disagree.

 

The Petersburglians do like their cats, though. I’m given to understand that during and after the Siege of Leningrad they literally shipped them in by the truckload, as a vital anti-vermin strategy. They like their spiders, too.  Spiders are considered good luck here.  It’s nice to see arachnids getting a break.  I approve.

I do not approve of the (apparently Russia-wide) superstitious hatred of snakes, on the other hand. Snakes get demonized in Russian culture, much as they do elsewhere throughout the world. I blame the fucking Christians and their idiotic serpentophobic creation myth.

I’m pretty sure the Russians blame the Swedes.

This deeply disturbing piece of public art  commemorates either a famous Russian microcephalic or a sculptor raised on the early films of David Lynch.

This deeply disturbing piece of public art commemorates either a famous Russian microcephalic or a sculptor raised on the early films of David Lynch.

This is a bookstore. It sells actual paper books, and it's proud of the fact. Can you imagine anyone in North America gilding their bookstores so elaborately?Hell, can you imagine anyone in North America having a bookstore?

This is a bookstore. It sells actual paper books, and it’s proud of the fact. Can you imagine anyone in North America gilding their bookstores so elaborately?

Hell, it’s getting increasingly difficult to even  imagine anyone in North America having a bookstore.

"The Bronze Horseman", a tribute to Peter the so-called Great (although "great" is not the word that springs to my mind when I contemplate someone who deliberately crushes the skull of an innocent and utterly undeserving reptile beneath the hooves of his horse).

“The Bronze Horseman”, a tribute to Peter the so-called Great (although “great” is not the word that springs to my mind when I contemplate someone who deliberately crushes the skull of an innocent and utterly undeserving reptile beneath the hooves of his horse).

In St. Petersburg's Field of Mars gutters this "Eternal Flame", which I'm told has been burning continuously since the year before I was born. Having been raised by a Baptist minister in the heart of Alberta's Bible Belt, I've long been familiar with the prospect of eternal flames. I have to say, when you actually encounter them they're a lot less intimidating than their rep would have you believe.

In St. Petersburg’s Field of Mars gutters this “Eternal Flame”, which I’m told has been burning continuously since before I was born. Having been raised by a Baptist minister in the heart of Alberta’s Bible Belt, I’ve long been familiar with the prospect of eternal flames. I have to say, when you actually encounter them they’re a lot less intimidating than their rep would have you believe.

This is Nataly, who got me there and back again. I wish I spoke Russian.  Or she spoke English.

This is Nataly, who got me there and back again. I wish I spoke Russian. Or that she spoke English.

And finally, St. Petersberg Cathedral. I could not stop taking pictures of this, it was so amazing. It just about broke my camera. It's as if a Greek Orthodoc Church fucked a Fabergé Egg.

And finally, St. Petersberg Cathedral. I could not stop taking pictures of this, it was so amazing. It just about broke my camera. It’s as if a Greek Orthodox Church fucked a Fabergé Egg.
Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 18 Comments

Sunrise.

sunflowers-onassorted-onFor those who haven’t been checking the Updates Link to your right, The Shorts Gallery went up a few days ago; it gathers assorted illustrations (of varying quality) based on a number of my stories (likewise) which have appeared in various publications around the world.

The one popularly-reprinted story which is not represented in that gallery is “The Island“, which gets a wing all to itself. That gallery just went live today: a motley collection of “The Island” illos and concept art deriving not just from the story, but from occasional aborted attempts to translate it from print into the digital-interactive realms.  I haven’t heard anything new about any of those projects for at least a year now, so I’m assuming they’re all dead. Still, for all I know some ragtag fugitive fleet of indie designers is yet working away in a cave somewhere.  That’s the dream, anyway.

Someone emailed me the other day to ask if I could stick an rss feed into the Updates page.  Which I probably could, but having looked over the online tutorials and taken a quick stab at reverse-engineering the relevant files from this blog, I figure it’d take about a day for my obsolete squidly brain to work out the kinks and get it running properly.  And that is a day that will not arrive before 1) my e-mail backlog is significantly smaller; 2) I have fewer PRy things hanging over my head, and 3) I don’t jam out on running quite so often as I seem to be now. In the meantime, though, the rss feed for the ‘crawl works just fine, so I’ll post updates here instead.  Much as I’m doing now.

Next post will be more substantive.  Promise.  Probably I’ll do Russia at last.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 16 Comments

Casting Call

rifters-onYeah, I’ve been quiet lately.

Still working on the site, for one thing; finally got the Rifters and Blindopraxia galleries up and populated (Sunflowers and Shorts still to go): it’s a much cleaner layout than the old Gallery, and there’s a bunch of new material, so you might want to check them out. (Also, it’s worth keeping an eye on the “Updates” page linked to the right; I’ll announce any significant site developments there, which comes in handy if you want to keep up even though I can’t be bothered wasting crawlspace on every new bit of chrome that gets bolted into place.)

So site work is ongoing.  I’m also keeping my eyes on my feet as I haltingly try to relearn the steps of the New Release Rumba: the essays and interviews and what-if scenarios that come your way when you’ve just delivered. (One such interview just appeared in the latest issue of Albedo, in fact). It’s one of these what-ifs that I could use your help with, again.

blindopraxia-onSome of you know about this “My Book, the Movie” thing; as I recall there was some serious love on these pages for Ellen Page in the role of Lenie Clarke, back when I did it for the rifters books. I’m doing it again. The idea is to propose a dream team— mainly cast, but feel free to nominate a director or screenwriter if so inclined— for a hypothetical movie production of Echopraxia. Someone once suggested that Billy Bob Thornton  would make a decent Brüks, and I could see Edward James Olmos as Jim Moore if he lost a few kilos. Maybe Andy Serkis in a mocap suit as Portia.  Beyond that, I am bereft of clue; do you guys have any ideas?

Oh, and anyone who nominates Ridley Scott for director is banned for a week.  I still haven’t forgiven him for “Prometheus“.

Posted in: interviews, writing news by Peter Watts 94 Comments

Mote-turbation.

Oh, so many things I want to rattle on about with you people. The potential critical relevance of leaky cell membranes down in deep-sea vents, back when life was just getting started (and the resonance that might have for a certain fictional doomsday bug which will be trapped in such vents for another few decades because of the osmotic consequences of having inordinately leaky membranes).  The latest news in telepathy through technology (overhyped, IMO— in the same way the last big “breakthrough” was— but we’re getting there, we’re getting there).  The ongoing tale of Patrick McLaw, school-teacher, who was disappeared, held at an undisclosed location,  and forced to undergo psychiatric evaluation because of a couple of dystopian SF novels he self-pubbed on Amazon— no, wait, it wasn’t those books at all, it was a four-page letter that some thought might be a “cry for help”— no, no, it was really those books and the letter and the fact that he’d built a scale model of a high school that might have tewwowist implications (nothing said at first about McLaw’s background in architecture, or the fact that he’d also built models of a cruise ship and a house).  Oh, and while we haven’t actually got around to charging him with anything, we’re also investigating allegations that he had a relationship with a 16-year-old-boy in Delmarva

Riiight. When  they start yanking the gay-pedophile-won’t-someone-think-of-the-children routine out of their asses (never mind that 16 is the age of consent in Maryland)— more tellingly, when they don’t even lead with that, but only bring it up after days of being held up to global outrage and ridicule— you can probably tune out with a high degree of confidence that once again, the assholes are just making it up as they go along. Is it any wonder that over the course of my recent reddit AMA, the comment that won by far the greatest number of upvotes was my suggestion to a resident of Fergusen that maybe we should start randomly killing cops for a change? (I should do a post on that too, now that I think of it…)

All this and more, all infinitely more worthy of attention than what I’m actually here to talk about. Because I have this new book out, and the sink/swim window is only a few weeks, and we’re already into week two and I haven’t done any of the essays or quizzes or promo interviews I told everyone I’d get around to once August was out of the way. Hell, I’m still working on the fucking website (Gallery’s looking good, btw; soon, now), and answering e-mail (backlog holding steady around 80), and hitting the refresh button every five minutes over at Amazon while wondering why I’ve only got a dozen reviews up there while Scalzi has 57 for a book that came out the same day. (Wondering rhetorically, mind you; there’s no need for any of you to wade in and helpfully point out any of the two or three dozen reasons why The Scalz kicks my ass at selling books.)

All of which is just a long-winded way of saying that while the world continues to wobble from impacts that turn my own trivial concerns to dust motes, it’s my job for the next little while to be small-minded and mercenary and to nurture those fucking motes until either Echopraxia succeeds or I throw in the towel. If it’s any consolation, I do it grudgingly.

Today’s nugget of self-promotion comes via Clarkesworld, which has been kind enough to reprint “Giants”, from the Sunflowers cycle.  While “Giants” came out earlier this year, chances are you never read that first release because the publishers pooched the roll-out, buried the title, and didn’t get around to paying their authors our contracted pittance until months later.

Clarkesworld, in contrast, rocks.  And people read them.  So if you missed “Giants” last time around, now’s your chance.

It’s even free.

Posted in: misc, writing news by Peter Watts 70 Comments

Blurbs and Bufo

Blurbs are Reborn.  Looking at about a dozen advance reviews so far, all pretty glowy except for the Register piece which found Echopraxia plotless.  Even they used the word “brilliant”, though.  Fingers crossed.

Just last night, the LA Review of Books posted an insanely detailed review— more of an essay, really, the kind of thing you might find in the NY Review of Science Fiction if that’s still around— by Steven Shaviro. I think he may have coined the phrase “ferociously intellectual pulp”, but even if he stole it, it’s gold.

Also Alyx Dellamonica sings the Hallelujah Chorus over at Tor.com.  There’s mastodon-sized conflict-of-interest when Tor.com reviews Tor releases, and it swells to cachalot-sized when the Tor.com reviewer is bound to the Tor author by years of friendship and a mutual love of cats, so I felt obligated to point out the relationship on the Blurbs page where I posted the quote. And yet, the synopsis Lexus lays out is so engagingly wry that I can’t read it without seeing her sitting across the barroom table from me, drink in hand, one corner of her mouth tugged into a sarcastic little half-smile. Her précis might be better than the book.

Anyway: off now for a shave and shower, well-deserved after all these days of nonstop motion, and time to catch a breath before the AMA starts over on Reddit. Let me just leave you with his:

 seiun

It’s my Seiun for Blindsight, collected at Worldcon on my behalf by Patrick Neilson-Hayden and Caitlin Sweet. The certificate is pretty self-evident.  But it came equipped with that little vial in the box— which, I am told, is “toad grease”.  Apparently it’s a product of the local economy in the Japanese town hosting the con at which the award was originally bestowed. I believe it’s supposed to have medicinal properties.

It is definitely grease of some kind. I do not know if it actually contains toad, or if it is truly medicinal. Perhaps, the next time we have uninvited guests, we can try it out.

Posted in: public interface, reviews, writing news by Peter Watts 57 Comments

Facelift

Sotala-staticI owe a couple of travelogues. Russia and London. But given the whole down-to-the-wire thing on Echopraxia‘s release (officially tomorrow, just in case anyone’s counting), perhaps you can forgive me for putting those off for a week or so. More imminent items could spoil in the meantime.

First off, a reminder that I’m appearing on reddit for an AMA tomorrow at 7pm EDT. I think I’m supposed to sign in earlier and fire some kind of starting pistol though. Also there was a book giveaway. I’m sure I’ll be more clued in on the details after I’ve had a chance to go back over these 116 outstanding emails, and after a few more time zones have had a chance to diffuse out through my ears.

Even more imminently, the new site is up. Most of it, anyway; you won’t notice much difference here on the ‘crawl, or over in Blurbs or the Gallery (Blurbs may or may not be reno’ed later today). But Backlist, Author, and Kibble Fund pages are all sparkly and new.  More importantly, all the new Echopraxia-related content is live. Go click on that splash page none of you ever go to because it’s too confusing, and revel in the newness.  Follow the links. Tell me what’s broken; there hasn’t been a lot of time for cross-platform testing.

The rest of the renovations will roll out in the near future. (I’m especially looking forward to uploading a whole bunch of new material into the Gallery.) It’s been kind of a frantic slog even to get this much up and running in time for the 26th— both I and Łukasz Fedorowicz, my estimable web designer, ended up working on this thing in the wee hours and during our respective vacations, so you’re lucky to get this much.

That said, though— well, to these eyes, “this much” looks pretty damn spiffy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in: ink on art, writing news by Peter Watts 74 Comments