Diamond Blogs

By Dan Ghiordanescu. Unsurprisingly.

By Dan Ghiordanescu. Unsurprisingly.

We had a legend, we denizens of Eriophora, of a cavern— deep aft, almost as far back as the launch thrusters themselves— filled with diamonds. Not just ordinary diamonds, either: the uncut, hexagonal shit. Lonsdaleite. The toughest solid in the whole damn solar system— back when we shipped out, at least— and laser-readable to boot.

Build your backups out of anything less and you might as well be carving them from butter.

Nothing’s immortal on a road trip of a billion years. The universe runs down in stop-motion around you, your backups’ backups’ backups need backups. Not even the error-correcting replication strategies cadged from biology can keep the mutations at bay forever. It was true for us meatsacks cycling through mayfly moments every thousand years; it was true for the hardware as well. It was so obvious I never even thought about it. By the time I did, the Chimp was on its eighty-third reincarnation.

Not enough that the processors lived down near the event horizon, where the subtle pull of Eri’s time-dilating heart stretched operational lifespans epochs past their expiration dates. Not enough that the circuits themselves were almost paleolithically crude; when your AI packs less than half the synapse count of a human brain, fiddling around down on nano scales is just grandstanding. Still, things fall apart. Conduits decay. Circuits a dozen molecules thick would just— evaporate over time, even if entropy and quantum tunneling didn’t degrade them down to sponge first.

Every now and then, you have to renovate.

And so was born the legend of The Cave: an archive of backups, slabs of diamond statuary a thousand times larger than life, like some crystal cubist Easter Island. When the inventory of backup Chimps ran too low— or of grav lenses, or air-conditioners, or any other vital artefact more short-lived than a proton— Eri would send lumbering copyeditors back to the Secret Place to read great mineral blueprints so vast, so stable, they might outlast the Milky Way.

The place wasn’t always so secret, mind you. Or so legendary. We trooped through it a dozen times during construction, a dozen more in training. But one day, maybe our third or fourth pass through the Sagittarius Arm, Ghora went spelunking at the end of a shift while the rest of us lay dead in the crypt; just killing time, he told me later, staving off the inevitable shut-down with a little recreational reconnaissance. He hiked down into the hi-gee zone, wormed through crawlways and crevices to where X marked the Spot— and found the Cave scoured clean: just a dark gaping cavity in the rock, studded with the stubs of bolts and anchors sheared off a few centimeters above the substrate.

The Chimp had relocated the whole damn archive while we’d slept between the stars.

He wouldn’t tell us where. He couldn’t tell us, he insisted. Said he’d just been following prerecorded instructions from Mission Control, hadn’t been aware of them himself until some timer ticked over and injected the new instructions into his job stack. He couldn’t even tell us why.

I believed him. When was the last time coders explained themselves to the code?

We still go searching now and then, on those rare occasions when there’s time to kill and itches to scratch. We plant tiny charges in the rock, read the echoes vibrating through our worldlet in search of some undiscovered grotto. The Chimp doesn’t stop us. It’s never had to; we’ve never found anything.

“They don’t trust us,” Kai said, rolling his eyes. “Seven million years down the road, all long gone to dust, and they’re afraid we might— what? Trash our own life support? Write Sawada sucks farts on their scale models?” He spoke for all of us; this was hardly the first evidence of head-up-ass syndrome we’d encountered.

Looking back, though, we really should’ve taken the hint. Job descriptions notwithstanding, we weren’t really crew after all. Never had been. We were just another set of tools.

And if we’d somehow left orbit under the wrong impression, grandiosely inflated our own roles in Humanity’s Grand Exodus To The Stars— well, at least it had kept the departure protocols on track.

Posted in: fiblet, Sunflowers by Peter Watts 49 Comments

The Smoke of That Great Burning.

There was a time, a few weeks ago, when I reconsidered my decision to stay out of the US.

Most of you know that I’m banned from entering that country anyway. What you may not know is that, as of last summer, I don’t have to be. There’s a kind of expiration date on my conviction; after five years I can apply to have my record “expunged”. I’ve never bothered, never even explored the possibility. Why would I? Exile doesn’t seem to have harmed my career (such as it is), has actually helped it in a few ways I could name. And the overall quality of my border-crossing experiences has vastly improved ever since that particular boundary got scratched off the list. Why waste effort gaining re-entry into a country which qualifies as third-world along every metric from religiosity to life expectancy?

USA highlighted in yellow. In comparison with 16 other "first-world" nations around the globe.

USA highlighted in yellow. In comparison with 16 “other” first-world nations around the globe.

I suppose it might be nice to be able to prove that my aversion to the US isn’t just sour grapes, that I choose to keep my distance even though I don’t have to; but anyone who’d seriously raise such an argument in the first place would be a card-carrying member of the Dunning-Kruger Club, and not worth the effort. Besides, I got hassled enough crossing that border even before I was on the radar; does anyone really think I’d ever get across the US border again without falling victim to a “random” cavity search, no matter what my legal standing might be?

And yet, just a few weeks ago I was seriously thinking about it. It was during that brief bright window when it looked like Bernie Sanders might have a shot. Think of it: a presidential candidate who didn’t arrive pre-pocketed by the multinationals. A candidate who consistently maintained the same forthright positions for decades, even when they were politically unpopular. A candidate who, instead of  sheepishly apologizing for jumping on the Iraq bandwagon, could say: hey, I voted against that fucking war from the outset.

Talk about making America great again.

I would gladly return to a country that voted for such a candidate. It might even be worth enduring the velvet touch of Andrew Beaudry’s latex-covered hand up my ass. But you all know what’s happened since. The Democrat machine put its foot down, told its bitches how to vote, and— barring some late-breaking statistical miracle— relegated Sanders to footnote status. Further to the right, Trump’s ascension has pretty much sealed the deal. Suddenly the court jester is within a stone’s throw of the crown. Pundits on both ends of the spectrum have stopped laughing. Conventional wisdom is that no sane person has a choice any longer: unite behind Clinton, lest the country burn.

Hey. Could be worse.

I make the best conflagrations.  Nobody makes better conflagrations than me.

I agree with that math. Which is exactly why I so fervently hope that Trump becomes the next US president.

A child-rearing analogy might come in handy here. Some believe that the way to teach a toddler to avoid hot stove-tops is to scoop them up whenever they get too close to the burner, followed perhaps with firm warnings of potential consequence. Personally, I think the take-home message in that scenario might not be Stove-tops are dangerous so much as If I want to find out what’s the deal up on that cool stove-top thing, I should wait until there aren’t any grown-ups around to stop me. If you really want to teach the little darlings to avoid stove-tops— if you want the lesson to stick— step back and let ’em discover that red-hot element for themselves. Once should be enough (or if it isn’t, at least you now know to cut your losses on this one and invest your efforts in any other offspring that might be crawling around.[1])

A Clinton presidency would be tantamount to the interventionist approach. Business would continue pretty much as usual; we’d continue toward the iceberg (or at least, we would if there were any icebergs left), albeit with a stern finger-wagging and whatever teensy course corrections might be permitted by Clinton’s corporate owners. The USA might experience a few more years of what currently passes for “stability”, but the only ones who got burned would be those who always have been. Little would change— except that at the end of it, we’d be that much closer to the precipice.

It’s admittedly a better fate than what might have awaited the world if Cruz had made it to the finals: even ongoing environmental catastrophe doesn’t stack up decisively against the immediate threat posed by a batshit religious fanatic with his hands on half the world’s nuclear arsenal. But Trump doesn’t have Cruz’s focus, or his agenda. Or any agenda, maybe. Trump just seems to make shit up as he goes along— and while both his strategic foresight and his impulse control might evoke images of The Joker, as far as I can tell he doesn’t want to watch the world burn.

The world will burn, though. Or enough of it, at least. If Trump gets in, there are gonna be a lot of screaming toddlers with scorched hands. Shouldn’t take him more than one term to bring that whole damn country down around his ears.

And once the pot has well and truly boiled over— when even the Guccis of the one-percenters are slick with the blood in the streets; when Flint-level infrastructure has spread to every corner of the fifty states; when those damned Mexicans finally build Trump’s wall for him, but along the original Mexican/US boundary— why, the Land of the Free will be just begging for someone like Elizabeth Warren to take the helm.

It might be the only way to return sanity to the US political process, in a world where the Overton Window has moved so far to the right that yesterday’s centrism is today’s radical loony tune. In order to reset the scale to the point where workable solutions are even visible, you might have to shatter that window entirely and start over. Or— if you prefer pendulum metaphors— pushing the bob all the way over to Trump might be the only way to build enough energy to reach Warren/Sanders territory on the return swing.

It sounds grim, but at heart this is a hopeful message. True democracy might yet play a constructive role, even if its voice is dominated by toddlers who thus far have refused to accept the danger posed by stove-tops. So let them prevail, I say. Let them burn. Let them learn the hard way, and the sooner the better.

There’s a nice fringe benefit for the rest of us, too. Once those burns have been sustained, perhaps the toddlers will be so busy trying to stamp out the fires within their own borders that they’ll be less inclined to keep starting them elsewhere in the world. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Maybe I’ll head down south after all, in a few more years. Hang out with some old friends I haven’t been able to visit in a while.

In the meantime I’ll keep playing Fallout 4. Just to get ready.


 

[1] It’s such an obvious— and yet, such a rarely-mentioned— approach that I’m thinking of writing a book on child-rearing, right after the BUG and I complete Nellie the Nephron.

Posted in: politics, rant by Peter Watts 78 Comments

Art, from Ice to Fire

Some new artwork for you, scavenged from my last bout of ego-surfing, because I’m holding off on fiblets until I have something to actually announce; and because any comments I’d make on the ongoing immolation of tar-sands boomtown Fort McMurray by (increasingly less-unseasonable) forest fire activity would be so laden with irony as to be insensitive to the 88,000 who’ve had to flee.

So let’s stick with self-absorption for the mo.

First up, Dmitriy Vishnev’s absolutely glorious rendering of “The Things”, which is going onto the cover of Beyond the Rift‘s upcoming Russian edition:

BtR-DmitriyVishnevskiy

 

Followed by some Rifters fan art scraped from the web:

I don't know who "catchfiya" is, beyond an Australian artist, but man, I really like this: it's almost a stained-glass window of the Meltdown Madonna

I don’t know who “catchfiya” is, beyond an Australian artist, but man, I really like this: it’s almost a stained-glass window of the Meltdown Madonna

I know even less about Eric He, because I can't find any art site he might have set up (I screen-grabbed these off his twitter feed). Nice alien rendering of Lenie and her spirit-echinoderm.

I know even less about Eric He, because I can’t find any art site he might have set up (I screen-grabbed these next two off his twitter feed). Nice alien rendering of Lenie and her spirit-echinoderm.

Really original and evocative rifter aesthetic here. Obviously these guys have been down there for awhile. Love the mouth apparatus.

Really original and evocative rifter aesthetic here. Obviously these guys have been down there for awhile. Love the mouth apparatus.

(And of course, if either of these folks would rather that their stuff not be conscripted into service of the ‘crawl, I will take it down forthwith.)

Moving forward, through time: some Blindsight illos from a— shall we say a range of aesthetic perspectives.

I don't know whether these are real or not. They appear to be audiobook covers by Thomas Jaworsky, but if so no one's sent me any comp copies. Not that it matters. I like 'em anyway.

I don’t know whether these are real or not. They appear to be audiobook covers by Thomas Jaworsky, but if so no one’s sent me any comp copies.
Not that it matters. I like ’em anyway.

I don't even know where this came from. I don't know who did it. Whoever it was, we're probably both in some kind of copyright violation

I don’t even know where this came from. I don’t know who did it. Whoever it was, we’re probably both in some kind of copyright violation

I don’t even know where this came from. I don’t know who did it. Whoever it was, we’re probably both in some kind of copyright violation

And finally. Finally:

dan-ghiordanescu-watts2

Remember this guy? The guy who did all the awesome concept art for that ill-fated Sunflowers project?  Well, in between his recent travels around the world, Dan Ghiordanescu managed to squeeze out a couple new paintings— and I’m pretty much speechless at the preceding evocation of the following passage from “Giants”:

We fall towards ice. Ice falls towards fire. Both spill through the link and spread across the back of my skull in glorious terrifying first-person. Orders of magnitude aren’t empty abstractions in here: they’re life-size, you feel them in your gut. Surtr may be small to a textbook — at seven million kilometers across, it’s barely big enough to get into the giant’s club — but that doesn’t mean shit when you meet it face to face. That’s not a star out there: that’s the scorching edge of all creation, that’s heat-death incarnate. Its breath stinks of left-over lithium from the worlds it’s already devoured. And the dark blemish marching across its face isn’t just a planet. It’s a melting hellscape twice the size of Uranus, it’s frozen methane and liquid hydrogen and a core hot and heavy enough to bake diamonds. Already it’s coming apart before my eyes, any moons long since lost, the tattered remnants of a ring system shredding around it like a rotting halo. Storms boil across its face; aurorae flicker madly at both poles. A supercyclone pinwheels at the center of the dark side, fed by turbulent streamers fleeing from light into shadow. Its stares back at me like the eye of a blind god.

Holy fuck, did Dan ever nail it. Every time I look at these pictures the bitterness wells up anew, that Eriophora— for all its galaxy-spanning travels never made it as far as a video game. What glorious mission levels these could be.

Dan did another one, too, but I think I want to hold onto it for the time being. It’ll make a better fit with an upcoming fiblet.

Anyway.  All this stuff should be up in the gallery within the next day or so. I just wanted to post here fast, so I can get my exercises out of the way before the pones get home from school. They tend to mock me whenever they catch me trying to stay in shape.

Fuck.

Too late.

Posted in: art on ink by Peter Watts 20 Comments

Ad-A O’Riley.

So, I’m off to gear up for the inaugural night of Ad Astra, but I thought I’d leave the rest of you with a fragment of a (sadly unrealized) science fiction opus about VR, biofeedback, and the addictive properties of targeted music (although this particular fragment was apparently about some farmer). “Baba O’Riley”, from the ill-fated Lifehouse project. (As was “Won’t Get Fooled Again—which, of course, they also played):

 

Thanks to Dave Olsen, and to the Meez for pointing me to his link. I do not know this Olsen dude, but judging by the angle he was sitting about 5-10m to the right of us. Also, his camera is way better than mine.

If you’re more in the mood for instrumentals, check out this bit from Quadrophenia.

Honestly, it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever experienced. I can only pray that I’m half as spry at 72.

I’d call that a Bargain…

baba

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 2 Comments

Ad Astra and the Battle of Agincourt

You know those dreams where suddenly you’re back in high school and it’s finals week and it’s just dawned on you that you never went to any of your classes? I just had one of those. Except I was awake.

It was actually my first high-school appearance since a disastrous encounter with a bunch of bovine cheerleaders at one of those “alternative” schools, back around the turn of the century. (That actually turned out okay in the long run; the student who’d coaxed me into appearing eventually grew up, got his own PhD, and now provides me with free drugs.) This week’s iteration turned out somewhat better; for one thing, the science teacher who’d recommended me for the gig (and who, as it turns out, is a regular here on the ‘crawl) brought me a bag of homemade cookies to mellow me out before I started.

Agincourt students did this. I was still reading Star Trek books when I was their age.

Agincourt students did this. I was still reading Star Trek books when I was their age.

I gotta admit, there was some apprehension up front. I’m not bad at public speaking— even won the occasional award for it, in both scientific and popular arenas— but high school crowds are something different. And these guys had the potential to be an especially hard crowd. Agincourt Collegiate is the only secondary educational institution I know of with a functional space program for Lego People, and science/engineering isn’t even their star program. Plus I was talking to a mixed audience of science and creative writing students; target one demographic, you risk losing the other.

Honestly, I think they wrote this off as a hoax. Like the moon landing.Maybe they're right.

Honestly, I think they wrote him off as a hoax. Like the moon landing.
Maybe they’re right.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried. The pictures of Banana the cat, and of me picking maggots out of the giant hole in my leg, seemed to go over well with both groups. (The slide showing details of US Patent #6,356,440 B1 didn’t provoke quite so many gasps of amazement, but I think they appreciated it in context.) I’m not entirely sure they believed the bit about Reagan. Based on their expressions I think at least some of them regard him as a myth. I can’t say I blame them; looking back, anyone who believed that there was no race problem in Ammurrica, that trees caused air pollution, and that eighties-era technology was up for the task of building a geosynchronous network of orbital lasers, particle-beam cannons, and autonomous battle computers was obviously way too sane, too down-to-earth, to have succeeded in US politics.

Anyway, I got out of it alive, and relieved, and actually pretty pleased with the reaction (apparently I was “inspiring” to several in the audience). And now I have to delve into a couple of other myths even less plausible than the Legend of the Gipper. Now, I must turn my attention to Ad Astra, the local con (if by “local” you mean way-the-hell-up-in-fucking-Richmond-Hill) that I’ll be attending this weekend. It’s vaguely possible I might finally get to meet Tom Doherty, the guy behind Tor Books and one of this year’s GoH’s (although it’s more likely I’ll just end up drinking with Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory, two of the other GoHs and the BUG’s publishers).

Of course, there’s also the possibility the whole thing’s just another cruel hoax— I note that two days before ignition, I’m still not listed on the panelist page. But they’ve told me, at any rate, that I will in fact be sitting on panels. And they’ve told me that said panels will look like this:

  • April 29, 9-10 pm: Cropsey Slender Man and the Angels of Mons: the Roots of Religion and Folklore – Newmarket

Fantasy and even SF have been influenced by folklore and legend, and the processes that generate monsters and heroes have not stopped. From Cargo Cults to wartime angels, from Urban Legends manifesting as reality to Internet creations inspiring killers, we look at the ongoing processes of mythmaking and how they might inspire and influence contemporary writers. Alisse Lee Goldenburg, JD Deluzio, Peter Watts.

  • April 30, 10-11 am: Bio-Technology and Transhumanism – Newmarket

Vernor Vinge wrote about the technological singularity: “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” The Transhuman debate is alive and well with lively discussion on techno-utopia, life-extension, super-intelligence, immortality, and virtual bodies. Recent films such as Lucy, Transcendence, Elysium, Ex Machina and others touch on the debate. Ray Kurzweil extols a Transhumanist future of immortals free of disease—perhaps even of biology. And what about those who may be left behind? Join the debate. Will you be a MOSH? Nina Munteanu, Peter Watts

  • April 30, 1-2pm: Modern Anxieties and Post-Apocalyptic LandscapesMarkham A

Zombies. Outbreaks. Warfare. Environmental cataclysm. Sometimes all of the above. In recent years, post-apocalypses have become all the rage. But why? Why are we so interested as a culture in exploring the end of Western civilization in the 21st century? How do the post-apocalypses we create reflect real fears and anxieties in our own time? In this panel, we’ll explore the link between post-apocalyptic fiction and worlds and modern events. Alyx Dellamonica, Catherine Asaro, Naomi Foyle, Peter Watts, Stephen Kotowych.

  • May 1, 11am-12pm: The Rise of Environmental FictionRichmond B

The rise of environmental fiction, both in literature and film, has spawned several sub-genres such as climate fiction, eco-thrillers, eco-mystery, eco-punk, and eco-romance. Is eco-fiction part of science fiction? In Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior, climate change plays a major role in a story about people’s beliefs and actions. Environmental catastrophe plays a major role in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam and Ian McEwan’s Solar. Is eco-fiction simply a new fad or does it reflect a cultural awakening to current environmental issues? What role does eco-fiction play in storytelling and defining ourselves. Who are its readers and why? Should eco-fiction educate? How can an eco-fiction writer prevent it from becoming polemic? Douglas Smith, Hayden Trenholm, Nina Munteanu, Peter Watts.

So, great. Now I have to figure out what the hell a MOSH is.  Some kind of pit, if memory serves…

But first, I have to decide what Jethro Tull shirt to wear to the Who concert tonight.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 15 Comments

Upgraded to Lightspeed.

It’s not often you get a second chance, after your writing’s hit the market.

You predicate a whole subspecies on a genetic glitch that, as it turns out, only occurs in males. A character dramatically closes her eyes while wearing corneal overlays that prevent the closing of eyes. You use a friend’s name as a placeholder for a violent borderline personality in one of your novels, fully intending to swap it out it before it goes to press— then totally forget about it until you receive an email from said friend, wondering what he ever did to piss you off.

Oops.

Where Version 1.0 appeared.

Where Version 1.0 appeared.

Once in a blue moon, though, you get a do-over. And I am pleased to announce that as of this past midnight, the eZine Lightspeed has reposted my story “Collateral”, which originally appeared in Neil Clarke’s cyborg anthology Upgraded. And they didn’t just reprint it; they let me upgrade it in its own right.

Not that I didn’t like the original “Collateral”, mind you. It played with some interesting ideas about ethics vs. morality, collateral damage, the culpability of augmentation. But while the themes were solid, the execution was a bit lacking. A gun on the mantelpiece got used in the last act (which is exactly what’s supposed to happen with guns on mantelpieces), but it was also introduced in the last act— which made part of the climax look kind of shoehorned and contrived. I always wanted to take another run at that story, but deadlines are deadlines and the ship sailed.

When John Adams approached me for the reprint rights, I asked if I could take that second run— and he said Sure. (He even agreed that it would improve the story.) So what you’ll find over at Lightspeed is “Collateral, the Director’s Cut“: same story, same payoff, but you notice the critical gun a lot earlier in the story. The payoff unfolds more organically now. Plus, the need to relocate that element also gave me the opportunity to tune up some dialog, coax a little more tension out of the exchanges between Becker and Sabrie.

V1.2. I do not know why this woman is literally tossing her cookies, but I can only hope the rest of you react more favorably.

V1.2. I do not know why this woman is literally tossing her cookies. I can only hope the rest of you react more favorably.

It’s not a radically different story, by any means. But I think it’s a better one. I’m grateful to Lightspeed for letting me tune it up.

I’m also grateful that they threw their “Author Spotlight” on me in the same issue. Interviewer Sandra Odell hit me with a nice mix of questions, ranging from the familiar (who do you like to read) to some finely-focussed probing into the specifics of this particular story (the manipulation of identity to military and propagandistic ends). About the only thing she got wrong was her allegation that I write “fully realized and complex” characters, but I corrected her on that score.

Anyway, check it out. If you’ve already read the story, see if you can spot the differences. If you haven’t, I hope you like it.

Also I really like the author pic they used.

Posted in: interviews, writing news by Peter Watts 23 Comments

Adaptive Management and the Walking Dead

According to Rule 34, someone, somewhere finds this hot.

According to Rule 34, someone somewhere thinks this is really hot.

So. Another year, another season of The Walking Dead. Not the worst time to weigh in, now that the Season finale is behind us. An even better time would have been a few days back, but I was busy getting cowified and I’m still in the medicated recovery phase. Basically there isn’t enough bone between my maxilla and the overlaying sinus to properly anchor the titanium Terminator Tooth that has to ultimately go in there. So back on Tuesday they implanted in my face a lattice of bone fragments grown from bovine stem cells. Over the next few months my own osteoblasts will crawl all over that scaffolding; by the time they’re done there’ll be enough new bone up there to anchor the CN Tower.

In the meantime it hurts, and it’s puffy and swollen, and my tongue can’t keep from poking the stitches. On the plus side, the new tusk seems to be coming in fine.

*

Anyway.

*

Although we cancelled our cable years ago, television is a time-honored tradition at the Magic Bungalow. It’s not only our primary technique for educating the pones, it’s also the only time we ever get to see them. Fortunately, thanks to television, we get to see them a lot: we’ve shared everything from Breaking Bad to BSG to Game of Thrones on that bed (with occasional retro forays into Buffy and The Prisoner). Each series contributes its own educational insights. The Sarah Connor Chronicles introduces Turing Tests and the Singularity; Breaking Bad lays out the essential concepts of small business management; Buffy’s subtle progressive analysis teaches us that feminism consists of being a hot cheerleader with superpowers who teams up with a hot lesbian with superpowers who together triumph over the world’s assholes by beating the living shit out of them.

Only one of thse pones still likes The Walking Dead.  Guess which.

Only one of these pones still likes The Walking Dead. Guess which.

One show the four of us watched religiously was The Walking Dead; we’d climb onto Big Green every Monday to watch Ian Anderson’s son-in-law lead his merry band of survivors through a postapocalyptic zombie-infested hellscape where no one, curiously, ever used the word “zombie”. It was a glorious time, a family time, until the Meez decided it was too predictable and dropped out. “It never changes,” she said. “They wander around until they find some place to settle down and they start off thinking it’s wonderful. Then the wonderful place turns out to be horrible, and it gets bombed or burned to the ground or something, and they just go back to wandering around again.”

Let us chalk up to coincidence the fact that the Meez came to this conclusion about the same time she discovered sex and started holing up down in the Ponearium with her boyfriend. Let’s take her critique at face value. Her sister does not share that opinion (which is not to say that Micropone doesn’t have her own criticisms; her observation, for example, that by now the survivors should all be living in Ewok-like treehouse communities because Walkers can’t climb is particularly astute). Micro owns the graphic novels. Micro was on the edge of her seat waiting for the season finale (although, like many of you, she was pissed at the coyness of that final scene. I was fine with the cliffhanger; I just didn’t like the pacing of the scene that led up to it.)

Everybody's a critic.

Everybody’s a critic.

So: one show, two pones, two opposing opinions. The Meez isn’t alone in hers; a lot of folks have grown disillusioned with TWD over the years. The second season was especially trying for many: I remember one person who, afterward, facebooked that the prospect of watching Season 3 was like having an abusive boyfriend promise he wouldn’t beat you again if you just gave him another chance. (This person markets herself as a Serious Feminist; you can imagine the visceral revulsion a mere TV show would have to instill, to drive her to jokes about domestic violence). And complaints about the relentless, grinding sameness of seasonal arcs are laughably easy to find: Googling “The Walking Dead” with “repetitive” just got me 166,000 hits.

If you listen carefully, you'll actually pick out a few Walking Dead references in the lyrics.

If you listen carefully, you’ll actually pick out a few Walking Dead references in the lyrics.

I think all these people are wrong. And not just because I can’t watch an episode without thinking Wow, that guy is married to Ian Anderson’s daughter. He probably hangs out with Ian Anderson at Christmas. I wonder what they talk about. I wonder if he ever asked whether the “sleeping flies” lyric in A Passion Play was a nod to Shakespeare. I regarded the pacing of Season Two— all those motionless episodes spent on Herschel’s farm— not as a boring snoozefest, but as a deliberate slow burn that made the final climactic payoff all the more devastating. And I think those who complain about the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of Sanctuary-found-Sanctuary-Lost are completely missing the point. It’s almost as though they think The Walking Dead is a show about zombies or something.

It’s not, of course. It never has been, any more than The Road was about asteroid impacts. The Walking Dead is about lifeboat ethics— about what people are willing to do, to sacrifice, to stay alive. It’s a monte-carlo exercise in adaptive management: knock back the population, seed the survivors, set the clock running and observe the results. The scenario doesn’t have to change so long as the people do; in fact, the very point of the exercise is lost if the scenario does change. The point is to see how different people react to a common apocalypse.

There are as many different answers to that as there are survivors left in the world. You could be a complete wuss, an overweight schoolteacher with no skills and no hope— until you become the world’s best cosplayer, presenting yourself as a black-ops scientist with vital intel Who Must Be Protected At All Costs. You could be a military hard-ass with all the survival skills in the world, lacking the will to do anything but put a gun in your mouth— until some overweight dweeb tells you about a “mission” that gives you a reason to go on living. You could be the well-meaning survivors who try to establish a refuge for your fellow humans, only to see your loved ones brutally killed when marauders show up at the table you welcomed them to; if you survive that experience, you could well decide to be the butchers next time around, and not the cattle. You could decide to enforce a Darwinian regime where the tech remains relatively high but the consequences of not pulling your weight are— draconian…

Or you could just carve a big W into your forehead and go native.

"I wanna show you the new world, Carl." Uh, okay. Just hope 3D movies aren't a big part of it, though.

“I wanna show you the new world, Carl.” Uh, okay. Let’s just hope 3D movies aren’t a big part of it.

It doesn’t matter whether you set it in Terminus or Woodbury, Alexandria or Grady Memorial Hospital. It’s like Stephen Jay Gould’s metaphor for the irreproducibility of evolution: you can rewind the tape, start at the same point, and go off in entirely different and endlessly fascinating directions. (Here’s a new direction for you: The Bobbing Dead, the upcoming second season of the WD spin-off Fear the Walking Dead. Survivors on yachts, safe from zombie depredations until bacterial methane bloats enough walkers to let them float out to sea after the escapees. Tell me you saw that coming.)

Even when the characters stay the same, they change. Look at Ian Anderson’s Son-In-Law. Look at Carol Peletier, perhaps the most awesome character in an ensemble made of awesome. One begins the gauntlet as a career cop: the idea of rules, of recourse to the law is built into his DNA. Carol starts off as a mousy middle-aged battered wife; she knows with every thrown punch, with every “accidental” fall down the stairs, that there’s no cavalry coming over the hill. She knew it years before the apocalypse ever got off the ground.

So who fares better? The police officer— trained in the use of force and firearms, with years of experience under his belt— hears spectral voices from dead telephones. He wanders the forest in the grip of hallucinations. He veers between blood-eyed preemptive murder and a bucolic desire to farm tomatoes.

Meanwhile, Carol— in slow, irreversible ratchets— turns to steel. She leaves trolly paradoxes in the dust while everyone else is still wittering on about morality and the sanctity of human life. She makes the hard calls, kills the vectors and burns the bodies to protect the very people who cast her out for her heartlessness. She keeps a grim distance, surviving alone on her own wits; comes back in the nick of time to save, yet again, the people who’d have killed her if they knew what she’d done for them.

She doesn’t like it. Rick snarls that it’s Us or Them when he pulls the trigger, but Carol only grits her teeth. She wishes it were different. She pleads with her victims to walk away, before she guns them down. And in so doing, she confirms again the insight Rick Grimes shared with his fellow survivors a season or two back, a line that turns the entire premise of the series inside out: “We are the walking dead.”

And I haven’t even mentioned Michonne, or Daryl, Herschel or that glorious understated moment when Governor brushes his undead daughter’s hair…

So, yes. I come down firmly on Micropone’s side, and shake my head at her sister and all those others who complain about needless repetition and pointless deaths— as though the very pointlessness of most death isn’t a point in and of itself. To paraphrase someone whose name I’ve forgotten, most of us don’t get to be Mad Max; most of us just end up as one of those skulls piled up in the background.

There’s no drama in the center of one’s comfort zone, no excitement to be had in watching someone snarf Dorritos on a couch. Drama works by pushing people away from that center, towards their limits. Apocalyptic drama pushes to the limits of all of Humanity.

The Walking Dead goes even further. It quite deliberately asks whether retaining one’s Humanity is even a good thing.

I think it’s a question worth asking. More than once.

Posted in: art on ink by Peter Watts 57 Comments

Of Mice, and Men, and Magneto.

So lookee here (or here, for popsci coverage). Researchers out of the University of Virginia have successfully controlled behavior in mice— possibly instilled True Happiness, although it’s impossible to be sure about another being’s inner emotional state— using controlled magnetic fields. By hacking into the reward centers of the rodent brain they induced the little guys to assemble on command, drew them to any spot where critical lines of force brought down the rapture. (It’s a little like the “wirehead” tech that Louis Wu became addicted to in Larry Niven’s Ringworld books. Only wireless.) Faster than drugs, deeper than optogenetics, more precise than that run-of-the-mill transcranial magnetic stimulation that induces night terrors and “sensed presence”, the new technique represents “the first demonstration of bona fide magnetic control of the nervous system.”

A new view of mice and men.

Meet Magneto2.0

Wheeler et al rhapsodize about the benefits such methods will ultimately confer. A real boon to research, they say. A way to “better understand neural development, function and pathology.”

Meanwhile the US government is doing its damnedest to force the whole tech industry to break its own encryption. (Don’t breathe easy just because the spooks have backed off on the Apple case; they’ve already got their legal judgment and their cracked iPhone. Remember those heartfelt, wide-eyed assurances that we only want to look inside this one, tewwowist phone, how could anyone object to weakening the security on this single, solitary tewwowist phone? Just kidding! The DOJ have served notice that henceforth the entire tech industry is their bitch and can be commanded to unlock anything at any time, with or without cooperation from “the relevant parties”.)

I don’t know if anyone has drawn a line between these two developments, between happy mice and gloating spooks. To me, that line is drawn in neon.

It’s probably too early to worry about the Magneto tech just yet. It doesn’t work on any old field mouse; the critters have to be genetically tweaked beforehand, their very brain cells reshaped for increased sensitivity to magnetic fields. They had to retcon a whole new set of switches to control ion channels in the brain. The same invasive molecular reconstruction would have to be performed on people before evil government agencies could take over our nervous systems. Relieved sigh, right?

Then again, why wouldn’t evil government agencies just go right ahead and mandate such measures in the name of Security?

*

Our watchers employ a wonderful sort of doublethink to extend their reach: they pretend that nothing has changed, then grab more power by arguing that everything has. Why, we’ve always been able to tap people’s phones, or tail them, or bug their apartments: how is sifting through email and using face-recognition algos any different?

The fallacy, of course, is the ease with which one can indiscriminately surveil millions today, versus yesterday’s difficulty in targeting high-value suspects and following them around town in a van with fake FTD logos on the side. Governments and spooks want you to believe that a fishing rod equals a drift net, and they’re hoping you won’t notice that 99% of their haul is by-catch.

Trust him.

Trust him.

Of course, they’re just as ready to exploit the opposite rationale: OMG terrorists and child molesters are everywhere exploiting webcams and end-to-end encryption in ways that have never been done before! We need more power to combat this unprecedented and existential threat! The problem with that being— as I’ve argued before— that the moment you accept mass online surveillance because horrible things happen to innocent children on the Internet, you pretty much have to let Big Brother install cameras in private bathrooms and bedrooms because horrible things happen to innocent children there, too. I’d be tempted to call it “Mission Creep”, were it not for the fact that mission creep is something that happens inadvertently and this whole panopticon project is so damn deliberate.

We can already see it happening with the ambulatory computers we drive around in. A Rand report from last year— on a workshop  exploring the use of future tech by law enforcement— stirred up a blizzard of online commentary thanks to a scenario about Law Enforcement remotely commandeering driverless vehicles. Workshop participants apparently regarded such interfaces as “low” priority”. Still. We’re talking about people who reserve the right to Stingray your cell phone conversations and read your emails without a warrant. We’re talking about people who can prevent you, without explanation or recourse, from getting on an airplane to go visit your mum. People who seem curiously immune to indictment no matter how many unarmed black people they kill. It’s difficult to imagine such folks walking away from the power to remote-control your car from the comfort of their dashboards. Hell, thanks to OnStar, they’ve been remotely shutting down drivered vehicles since 2009. And how can we stop suspected terrorists from flying, yet draw the line at ground-based travel? Does anyone honestly think that evildoers never drive to the scene of their evil deeds?

Of course, evildoers sometimes walk, too.

*

Come on in. If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear.

Come on in. If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.

You can see where I’m going with this.

One line in particular jumped out at me while reading Wheeler et al: their description of Magneto2.0 as “a prototype for a class of magnetogenetic remote controlled actuators.” They targeted the striatum— a central element of the brain’s reward system— but they could have just as easily gone after the motor strip, provoked a case of alien-paw syndrome instead of a dopamine high. A few years down the road, they might be able to run the motor systems of those mice as easily as the LAPD runs other people’s self-driving 2022 Teslas.

Of course, if you were going to scale up to humans you’d need to tweak our genes first. That’s not as big a barrier as you might think, it’s not like you have to raise the new flesh from embryos or anything.  Wheeler and his buddies used adult mice, injected their customized genes directly into the brain using a virus as a carrier.

And if we can’t handle the inoculation of a few million North Americans, what the hell is all that vaccination infrastructure for?

Evildoers fly to their targets, so we keep them from flying. If they ride overland to their targets we take control of their vehicles, keep them from riding; it’s the same thing. If they walk to their targets— if they disobey a lawful command, try to run— well, how can we stop suspected terrorists from driving, yet draw the line at arms and legs?

Police have always had the right to immobilize suspects, tackle them physically, restrain them. For the good of society.

It’s the same thing, right?

William Gibson was right. The street finds its own uses for things.

Of course, so does the state.

It would not behoove us to forget that.

Dumb Adult.

Actually, this was pretty good.

Actually, this was pretty good.

We didn’t have “Young Adult” when I was your age, much less this newfangled “New Adult” thing they coddle you with. We had to jump right from Peter the Sea Trout and Freddy and the Ignormus straight into Stand on Zanzibar and Solaris, no water wings or training wheels or anything.

Amazingly, I managed to read anyway. I discovered Asimov and Bradbury and Bester at eleven, read Zanzibar at twelve, Solaris at thirteen. I may have been smarter than most of my age class (I hope I was— if not, I sure got picked on a lot for no good reason), but I was by no means unique; I only discovered The Sheep Look Up when a classmate recommended it to me in the tenth grade. And judging by the wear and tear on the paperbacks in the school library, everyone was into Asimov and Bradbury back then. Delany too, judging by the way the covers kept falling off The Einstein Intersection. Back in those days we didn’t need no steenking Young Adult.

Now get off my lawn.

I’ll admit my attitude could be a bit more nuanced. After all, my wife has recently been marketed as a YA author, and her writing is gorgeous (although I would argue it’s also not YA). Friends and peers swim in young-adult waters. Well-intentioned advisers, ever mindful of the nichiness of my own market share, have suggested that I try writing YA because that’s where the money is, because that’s the one part of the fiction market that didn’t implode with the rest of the economy a few years back.

But I can’t help myself. It’s not that I don’t think we should encourage young adults to read (in fact, if we can’t get them to read more than the last generation, we’re pretty much fucked). It’s that I’m starting to think YA doesn’t do that.

I’m starting to think it may do the opposite.

Hanging out at last fall’s SFContario, I sat in on a panel on the subject. It was populated by a bunch of very smart authors who most assuredly do not suck, who know far more about this YA than I do, and whom I hope will not take offense when I shit all over their chosen pseudogenre— because even this panel of experts had a hard time coming up with a working definition of what a Young Adult novel even was (beyond a self-serving marketing category, at least).

The rules keep changing, you see. It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t say “fuck” in a YA novel; these days you can. Back around the turn of the century, YA novels were 100% sex-free, beyond the chaste fifties-era hand-holding and nookie that never seemed to involve the unzipping of anyone’s fly; today, YA can encompass not just sex, but pregnancy and venereal disease and rape. Stories that once took place in some parallel, intercourse-free universe now juggle gay sex and gender fluidity as if they were just another iteration of Archie and Betty down at the malt shop (which is, don’t get me wrong, an awesome and overdue thing; but it doesn’t give you much of a leg up when you’re trying to define “Young Adult” in more satisfying terms than “Books that can be found in the YA section at Indigo”).

Every now and then one of the panelists would cite an actual rule that seemed to hold up over time, but which was arcane unto inanity. In one case, apparently, a story with an adolescent protagonist— a story that met pretty much any YA convention you might want to name— was excluded from the club simply because it was told as an extended flashback, from the POV of the protagonist as a grown adult looking back. Apparently it’s not enough that a story revolve around adolescents; the perspective, the mindset of the novel as artefact must also be rooted in adolescence. If adults are even present in the tale, they must remain facades; we can never see the world through their eyes.

Remember those old Peanuts TV specials where the grownups were never seen, and whose only bits of dialog consisted entirely of muted trombones going mwa-mwa-mwa? Young Adult, apparently.

Finally the panel came up with a checklist they could all agree upon. To qualify as YA, a story would have to incorporate the following elements:

  • Youthful protagonist(s)
  • Youthful mindset
  • Corrupt/dystopian society (this criterion may have been intended to apply to modern 21rst-century YA rather than the older stuff, although I suppose a cadre of Evil Cheerleaders Who Run The School might qualify)
  • Inconvenient/ineffectual/absent parents: more a logistic constraint than a philosophical one. Your protagonists have to be free to be proactive, which is hard to pull off with parents always looking over their shoulders and telling them it’s time to come in now.
  • Uplifting, or at least hopeful ending: your protags may only be a bunch of meddlesome kids, but the Evil Empire can’t defeat them.

Accepting these criteria as authoritative—they were, after all, hashed out by a panel of authorities— it came to me in a blinding flash. The archetypal YA novel just had to be— wait for it—

Don't blame me. The shoe fits.

Don’t blame me. The shoe fits.

A Clockwork Orange.

Think about it: a story told from the exclusive first-person perspective of an adolescent, check. Corrupt dystopian society, check. Irrelevant parents, check. And in the end, Alex wins: the government sets him free once again, to rape and pillage to his heart’s content. Admittedly the evil government isn’t outright defeated at the end of the novel; it simply has to let Alex walk, let him get back to his life (a more recent YA novel with the same payoff is Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother). Still: it failed to defeat the meddlesome kid.

So according to a panel of YA authors— or at least, according to the criteria they laid out— one of the most violent, subversive, and inaccessible novels of the Twentieth Century is a work of YA fiction. Which pretty much brings us back to 11-year-old me and John Brunner. If A Clockwork Orange is Young Adult, aren’t that category’s boundaries so wide as to be pretty much meaningless?

But there’s one rule nobody mentioned, a rule I suspect may be more relevant than all the others combined. A Clockwork Orange is not an easy read by any stretch. Not only are the words big and difficult, half of them are in goddamn Russian. The whole book is written in a polygot dialect that doesn’t even exist in the real world. And I suspect that toughness, that inaccessibility, would cause most to exclude it from YAhood.

In order to be YA, the writing has to be simple. It may have once been a good thing to throw the occasional unfamiliar word at an adolescent; hell, it might force them to look the damn thing up, increase their vocabulary a bit. No longer. I haven’t read a whole lot of YA— Gaiman, Doctorow, Miéville are three that come most readily to mind— but I’ve noticed a common thread in their YA works that extends beyond merely dialing back the sex and profanity. The prose is less challenging than the stuff you find in adult works by the same authors.

Nice try, Bloomsbury. It's still KidLit.

Nice try, Bloomsbury. It’s still KidLit.

Well, duh, you might think: of course it’s simpler. It’s written for a younger audience. But increasingly, that isn’t the case any more, at least not since they started printing Harry Potter with understated “adult” covers, so all those not-so-young-adult fans could get their Hogworts fix on the subway without being embarrassed by lurid and childish artwork. The Hunger Games was first recommended to me by a woman who was (back then) on the cusp of thirty, and no dummy.

All these actual adults, reading progressively simpler writing. All us authors, chasing them down the stairs. Hell, Neil Gaiman took a classic that nine-year-old Peter Watts devoured at age nine without any trouble at all— Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book— and dumbed it down to an (admittedly award-winning) story about ghosts and vampires, aimed at an audience who might find a story about sapient wolves and tigers too challenging. It may only be a matter of time before Nineteen Eighty Four is reissued using only words from the Eleventh edition of the Newspeak Dictionary. We may already be past the point when anyone looking to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea looks any further than the Classics Illustrated comic.

I know how this sounds. I led with that whole crotchety get-off-my-lawn shtick because the Old are famously compelled to rail against the failings of the Young, because rants about the Good Old Days are as tiresome when they’re about literacy as they are when they’re about music or haircuts. It was a self-aware (and probably ineffective) attempt at critic-proofing.

So let me emphasize: I’ve got nothing against clear, concise prose (despite the florid nature of my own, sometimes). Hemingway wrote simple prose. Orwell extolled its virtues. If that was all that made up Young Adult, even I would be a YA writer (at least, I don’t think your average 16-year-old would have any trouble getting through Starfish).

But there’s a difference between novels that happen to be accessible to teens, and novels that put teens in their heat-sensitive, wallet-lightening crosshairs. I know of one author who had to go back and tear up an adult novel, already written, by the roots: rewrite and duct-tape it onto YA scaffolding because that’s the only way it would sell. I know a very smart, highly-respected editor who once raved about the incredible, well-thought-out plotting of the Harry Potter books, apparently blind to the fact that Rowling— her claims to the contrary notwithstanding— seemed to be just making shit up as she went along.[1]

A long time ago, a childhood friend named Stuart Blyth gave me the collected tales of Edgar Allen Poe for my tenth birthday. I loved that stuff. It taught me things— made me teach myself things, in the same way a Jethro Tull song a few decades later forced me to look up the meaning of “overpressure wave”. I have to wonder if YA does that, if it improves one’s reading skills or merely panders to them. I doubt that your vocabulary is any bigger when you finish Harry Potter and the Well-Deserved Bitch-Slap than when you started. You may have been entertained, but you were not upgraded.

Of course, if entertainment’s all you’re after, no biggie. The problem, though, is that it acts like a ratchet. If we only allow ourselves to write down, never up— and if the age of the YA market edges up, never down— it’s hard to see how the overall sophistication of our writing can do anything but decline monotonically over time[2].

Who among you will tell me this is a good thing?


Late-breaking edit, 22/03/2016:  Courtesy of “Damon”, about whom I know very little except that he’s chosen an awesome ISP, Teksavvy, which puts him somewhere in my end of Canada. Apparently his buddies in the local bookstore have taken my insights to heart, and rearranged the YA section thusly:

young-adult-small

My work here is done.


 

[1] I mean, think about it: we have a protagonist whose central defining feature is the murder of his parents when he was an infant. And when he discovers that time travel is so trivially accessible that his classmate uses it for no better purpose than to double up her course load, it never once occurs to him to wonder: Hey— maybe I can go back and save my parents! This is careful plotting?

[2] This was one of the points I was trying to make a few weeks back when I announced my retirement from the word of adult fiction, and my new career as an author of stories written exclusively for preschoolers. That post was satirical, by the way, although I’m grateful to all of you who wished me well in my new endeavor.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 171 Comments

Destination X.

Hello, ‘crawlsters.  I would like to solicit your input on the following (utterly hypothetical) question:

If, sometime in the next year, you could send me somewhere on this planet— somewhere from which I’d be obligated to report back on my experiences— where would it be?

Probably out of the running, sadly.

Probably not, sadly.

Some conditions apply. I would not willingly go to the bottom of an unstable mine shaft, for example. The destination would have to be reasonably accessible— no lengthy Himalayan foot-treks to lost valleys, and I’m pretty sure low earth orbit is out of the running (although the ISS would be awesome). I don’t speak Portuguese or Hadzane or, really, any language other than this one here—  so if there were people there, some of them would have to be Anglophones. Finally, it can’t be anywhere in the USA. Much as I’d love to check out that country’s steroidally-overmilitarized police forces, clownish electoral politics— maybe even get one of those three-mass-shootings-or-your-money-back tourist packages— I’m not actually allowed into the country. (Which may well have added a few years to my expected lifespan, at least until the extrajudicial drone-strike program spreads north.)

Other than that, though, I’m open to suggestions.  Again, purely hypothetically.

I was thinking, maybe hitch a ride to a hydrothermal vent…


P.S. Also, it can’t be the location of some con which I would be attending anyway.

Posted in: just putting it out there... by Peter Watts 70 Comments