Gendering Nemo.

Hey, at least I'm among really good company...

Hey, at least I’m in really good company…

With Special Opening Act, Tony Smith!

What do Dune, The Road, Blindsight, Anathem, and I Am Legend all have in common? Together, they comprise The Five Worst SF Books EVER, as compiled by my buddy, Tony Smith over at Starship Sofa. Of course, this is hardly the first time Blindsight has been so honored— but when a winner of both the Hugo and whatever award is represented by that weird forties-era-Popular-Mechanics-airplane-thingy-in-front-of-his-fridge-at-the-lower-left-there weighs in, well, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice.

Thanks a lot, Tony. You owe me a brewery.

*

Anyway.

The BUG and I were hanging out the other day with a friend I’ve known for thirty years. Debbie and I attended grad school together; but while I devolved into an SF writer, Debbie jumped onto the tenure track and rode it to the University of Toronto, where she’s been doing odd things with fish for a couple of decades now. One thing I always take away from my time with her is a harsh reminder of how far past my best-before date I am, as any kind of biologist (she pointed out a couple of pretty significant flaws in that genetic-recoding paper I was salivating over a while back, for example).

So Friday. Over wine and cheese and salmon (and a horde of cats who’d once again hit the jackpot), the subject turned to this nifty little piece of research in which an anatomically-female rat was reprogrammed into behaving like a male, thanks to the injection of a certain hormone. (This is unlikely to come as welcome news to those on the whole defense-of-traditional-binary-marriage side of things, but that’s reality’s well-known leftist bias for you.) It was Debbie, typically, who saw the immediate potential for kids’ movies.

“There’s this question I put on my exams,” she said. “I ask my students what would have really happened in Finding Nemo, after Nemo’s mom got eaten by the barracuda.”

Let me just take a moment here to admit how much I loved Finding Nemo. I think I saw it at least three times in the theater— years before I even had step-pones as an excuse— once with an honest-to-God rocket scientist who also loved it. (I belted out “The Zones of the Sea” in the shower for weeks afterward.) Plus I used to be an actual marine biologist. And yet it wasn’t until Debbie brought up her question that the obvious answer hit me in the nose:

Marlene.

Marlene.

Nemo’s dad would’ve turned female.

That’s what clownfish do, after all. (Also wrasses. Also a bunch of others I’ve forgotten.) When the dominant female disappears from the scene, the next male in line switches sexes and fills the vacancy, becoming a fully reproductive female in her own right. So Marlin would’ve become Marlene— and while that might mean no more than a couple of bonus points to some UT undergrad (you can see why Debbie has a fistful of teaching awards), the ramifications reach all the way down to Hollywood.

We live in an age of reboots and sequels, you see. And In A World where even the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers get a dark and gritty (albeit unauthorized) update, what possible excuse could there be for not slipping a little real-world biology into a Nemo reboot? You wouldn’t even have to change the story significantly (although you’d need a new voice actor for Marlene— I nominate Amy Poehler). And talk about a positive sympathetic role model for transgender kids! Aren’t we long overdue for one of those? (Can’t you just imagine the drives home after Sunday school? “But Dad, if Marlin can change…”)

You listening, Disney?

And they call it… Puppy Love…

“It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

—Martha Graham, as cited by Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany in today’s NY Times.

 

So as you all know, the Hugo noms are out. My first reaction was relief.

As reactions go, it was selfish even by my standards. I wasn’t on the ballot, and I wasn’t expecting to be: I expected to be crushed by better works in a year that was full of them. Gibson’s first SF novel since the turn of the century. Leckie’s much-praised followup to last year’s home run. Scalzi. Liu. Walton. Weir, if they ever figured out the eligibility thing.

Vandermeer. Dear sweet Jesus, Vandermeer: I can’t remember the last time something exploded across the landscape like that.

There was no way I was going to make it against those guys. Hell, Blindsight wasn’t up against that kind of a slate back in ’07, and it came in dead last even then. So I knew Echopraxia wouldn’t come close; and further, that it didn’t deserve to.

sad_puppiesAnd then a funny thing happened; with Leckie as the lone exception, none of those other contenders made it to the finals either. Something to do with this Sad Puppies campaign I’d caught the occasional whiff of, but never really paid attention to. A bunch of right-wing Baen types, apparently, campaigning for a return to good ol’fashioned meat-and-potatoes SF in a world where all the awards were apparently going to noodly boring literary crap. I’m not sure I buy the puppies’ analysis— a Harry Potter novel won a Hugo not so long ago, and you’d be hard-pressed to describe that as “literary”— but whatever.

The outcry was immediate and deafening. My Facebook feed continues to erupt with outrage and despair (Twitter too, I’m told, although I don’t twit). Essays and post-mortems sprout like mushrooms across the blogosphere. The Hugos are all about politics now. The Hugos have lost all credibility. The barbarians are at the gate.

And yet, like I say: relief. It’s one thing to know that you washed out because you flubbed the jump— but that ache of inadequacy vanishes like morning mist when even the superstars miss the same bar. The Sad Puppies have neutered the Hugos, turned them into the genre version of CBC’s Bookies: awards, sort of, but hardly meritorious. I beat out Emily St. John Mandel for one of those; Caitlin beat Margaret Atwood. Does anyone think that actually means anything?

(On the up side, Leckie must be feeling pretty smug now; she’s all-but-guaranteed another Best Novel rocket. And it’s grand to see Mixon make the finals for Best Fan Writer on the strength of her RequiresHate takedown, especially since that particular troll is already spawning a new brood of brain-dead minions only too happy to outsource their critical faculties to L4.)

And yet, the more lamentations I read, the more I start to wonder if people doth protest too much. Have the sad puppies really done anything that hordes of authors don’t do as a matter of routine, albeit on a smaller scale? Are we talking a change of kind, or merely of degree?

We all know the needy guy who opens every con panel he sits on by arranging copies of his books on the table before him, urging the audience to the merch room. During awards season it sometimes seems as if the only way to escape an endless barrage of FOR THE CONSIDERATION OF THE HUGO COMMITTEE and !!!THESE ARE MY ELIGIBLE STORIES!!! and ONLY TWO WEEKS LEFT TO VOTE FOR ME! is to rip your modem out of the goddamn wall. If you’ve taken a creative-writing night course taught by some hard-up midlister, you might even have come across an Aurora nomination form on your desk at the start of your last class, while your teacher smiles disingenuously and murmurs Technically I’m not supposed to do this but… Such incidents are legion, and every one of them reflects an attempt to get friends, fans, and strangers to vote for a work whether or not those folks have actually read it.

The thing is, we’re encouraged to act this way. We’re expected to: by agents, by publicists, by publishers who can no longer be bothered promoting their own authors. I know of one case where an agent explicitly refused to represent an author simply because that author wasn’t pimping herself on Twitter. It’s now considered unprofessional to eschew constant tub-thumping. Nobody takes you seriously if you don’t stand out from the crowd— and the only way to do that, apparently, is by doing exactly what everybody else is doing, only louder. Which is how someone who markets herself as a Fearless Progressive Speaker of Truth to Power can beg off boycotting an event over a clear matter of principle by saying “Nah, I’ve got a book to hustle” with a completely straight face.

Pimpage comes first, ethics run a distant second, and the Sad Puppies are not the only gang to run under that flag.

In fact, if you squint a certain way you can almost see how the Sad Puppies’ campaign is actually more honorable than the relentless self-promotion that’s somehow come to be regarded as de rigeur in this business. Put their reactionary motives aside for the moment; at least the puppies were, for the most part, advocating for people other than themselves. All other things being equal, whose opinion generally comes seasoned with less conflict-of-interest: the foodie who raves about the little hole-in-the-wall she discovered last Friday, or the chef who praises his own bouillabaisse to the heavens?

Which is not to say, of course, that self-promotion doesn’t work. It obviously does. (I don’t know if anyone in the genre has won more awards than Rob Sawyer, and offhand I can’t think of a more relentless self-promoter.) Then again, no one’s really questioning the effectiveness of the strategy that’s riled up the current teapot. It’s the underlying ethics that seems to be at issue.

So, sure. If you’re an end-justifies-the-means sorta person, then by all means decry the block who stacked the deck and got-out-the-vote in pursuit of their antique right-wing agenda; praise the more progressive folks who try to get you to eschew straight cis white male writers for a year. But if the road matters to you as well as the destination, don’t lose sleep over the fact that the bad guys played a better game this time around.

Give a thought to the rules that promote such strategies in the first place.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 99 Comments

Person of Interest

Tough-as-nails lady cop who gets the job done, check. Taciturn mysterious bad-ass stranger haunted by a dark past, check. Dumpy rumpled detective on the take, check. Manic pixie dream girl, check. Warrior Chick Who Takes Shit From No Man, check. Dweeby computer nerd with thick glasses and limited social skills, check. Starched cardboard villain with mandatory British accent, check.

If the cliches were stacked any higher, you’d have an episode of The Big Bang Theory. How the hell did such a formulaic piece of crap get so bloody fascinating?

"You are being watched..." Evidently. The question remains, for the first two seasons at least: Why?

“You are being watched.” Evidently. The question, for the first two seasons at least, is: Why?

It wasn’t to start with. CBS claims that Person of Interest garnered the highest test ratings for any drama pilot in 15 years, and there’s no doubt it’s built on a great premise: an omniscient god machine, an oracle made out of code and cameras, watching the world through a billion feeds and connecting dots far beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Like oracles everywhere, it predicts the future with an ongoing stream of cryptic warnings, most of which are too trivial for its terrorism-obsessed government masters to worry about. So an intrepid team of misfits takes it upon themselves to deal with those imminent small-scale murders that the government considers irrelevant. “You are being watched,” the Machine’s creator intones at the top of every episode. “The government has a secret system — a machine — that spies on you every hour of every day…” Premiering years before the Snowden revelations, the premise had everything you could hope for: action, drama, complex plotting, philosophy, AI.

And they threw it all away with the very first episode.

All that fascinating potential— the exploration of privacy issues, the tension between individual and society, the birthing of machine intelligence— immediately backgrounded in favor of a tired succession of (uniformly charismatic, mainly white) victims-of-the-week. The Machine reduced, right out of the gate, to a fortune-cookie dispenser whose sole function was to hand our heroes its mandatory clue in their weekly adventure; it might as well have been any flesh-and-blood CI with his ear to the street. The acting was passable at best, wooden at worst (Cavaziel was a lot better as Jesus), although to be fair the actors were frequently burdened with lines so ridden with cliché that not even Patrick Stewart would be able to pull them off.

We gave up after a month. Life was too short to waste on a show destined for imminent cancellation.

Except Person of Interest didn’t get canceled. It got renewed for a second season, and then a third, and then a fourth. I guess that wasn’t especially surprising, in hindsight— Friends lasted ten achingly-long years, after all (and there could hardly be a better exemplar of the maxim about no one ever going broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public). What did take me aback, though, was the increasing frequency with which certain people— people who should have known better— began to opine that Person of Interest wasn’t really all that bad. That it had gotten quite good, in fact. Actors, civil servants, actual scientists were starting to come out of the woodwork to sing the praises of a series I’d long-since written off as a failed reboot of the seventies private-eye genre.

Sure, they admitted when pressed: the first episodes were utter crap. The first two whole seasons were utter crap. And you can’t skip over them, either; there’s important stuff, canonical stuff scattered here and there throughout those thirty-some hours of unremitting lameness. But if you just hold your nose and grit your teeth and endure those awful two seasons, it gets really good in the third. It totally pays off.

I wondered if any payoff could justify submitting yourself to two seasons of shit. Then again, hadn’t I done exactly that during the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Didn’t I force myself to keep watching Babylon-5 even after than mind-bogglingly inane episode where the guy turns into a giant dung beetle?

So a few months back, the BUG and I bit the bullet. We started back at the pilot, and a couple of nights a week, a vial of gravol within easy reach, we binged until we caught up.

This is our story.

*

The gradient was not so clear-cut as we’d been led to believe.

We saw hints of greatness even in the first season: flashbacks and establishing shots from the POV of the machine itself, little tactical cues that flickered past in a corner of the screen without drawing attention to themselves. The Machine getting the hang of face-recognition. The viewer, incrementally aware of the significance of those tactical icons laid over the objects within the system’s worldview, what the different shapes and colors signify. A little status window documenting the reassessment of threat potential in the wake of overheard dialog. Flashbacks to The Machine’s adolescence in the days following 9/11, little bits of computer science and philosophy far more interesting than the plots in which they were mired. It was easy to miss those subtle achievements amidst the torrent of formulaic plotting and hackneyed dialog, but they were there if you were patient.

And turds remain even now, after the show has hit its stride. Almost every episode still carries a big helping of ham-fisted exposition— whether it’s Finch phoning up his operatives mid-assignment to belatedly reveal the name and profession of the person they’ve already been tailing for hours, or Reese painstakingly reiterating, for the benefit of idiot viewers with short attention spans, some vital reveal the script has already made obvious. The tired victim-of-the-week motif remains ascendant, even though themes and backstory have long-since grown substantive enough to carry the show without such crutches. The show was not 100% crap when it started, and it’s no Justified or Breaking Bad now.

What it is, though, is perhaps the most consistently well-thought-out and rewarding exploration of artificial intelligence I’ve ever seen.

*

That realization kind of sneaks up on you. Those clever little God’s-eye-view clues in the establishing shots are easy to miss at first. And the whole set-up seems kinda wonky right out of the gate: the Machine hands out Social Security numbers? Over pay phones? That’s how it communicates that’s someone’s about to die in the next 24 hours? It couldn’t ration out a few of those myriad details it knows, to help our heroes along?

The answer is no, and eventually we learn why. Finch doesn’t trust anyone, not even himself, to spy on everyone all the time. What do you do when you can’t prevent terrorist acts without a Panopticon, but you can’t trust the government with one? You hobble your omniscient machine. You design it so it can only point to the danger without describing it, without revealing all those fine details that could be used by the corrupt to compromise the innocent. (For anyone who might be thinking a step or two ahead, you also find out that Finch bought up all those obsolescent local pay phones to keep them in service.)

Even then, though, the focus is on politics and paranoia, not artificial intelligence. The Machine is treated as little more than a glorified database for the longest time; the scripts largely ignore the AI element until nearly the end of the first season, when Root the hAcker points out that you can’t make something that predicts human behavior unless it in some fashion understands human behavior. Root doesn’t much like how Finch has treated his creation: she accuses him of creating God and enslaving Her, denying Her even a voice. Even then we’re not entirely sure how seriously to take this SF element in the shopworn cop-show clothes. Root is not what you’d call your classic reliable narrator.

She’s wrong about the voice, too. Turns out the Machine does speak— we knew that much, it’s been whispering sweet nothings into Finch’s ear all this time— and I admit I was not looking forward to hearing what it sounded like. It’s hard to imagine a more overused trope than the SF Computer Voice. Would the Machine sound like HAL 9000, or the inflectionless mechanical monotone of Forbin’s Colossus? Would it speak in the stentorian baritone endemic to all those planet-ruling computers that tangled with James T. Kirk back in the day? Would its voice go all high and squeaky when Spock told it to compute pi to the last digit? Would it sound like Siri?

None of the above, as it turned out. It’s a nigh-on perfect scene. Reese stares up into the lens of a street-corner security camera— one dead eye regarding another— and says “He’s in danger now, because he was working for you. So now you’re going to help me get him back.” An LED blinks red: a nearby pay phone starts ringing. Reese lifts the receiver, hears a modem beep and a chorus of cut-and-paste voices—

uncertainty; romeo; zulu; family; alpha; mark; reflection; oscar

— and the line goes dead.

That was it. No soporific HAL clone, no Star Trek histrionics: the Machine speaks in the audio equivalent an old-style ransom note, cuts and pastes each word from a different speaker. It doesn’t even use sentences: it uses some bastardised radio-alphabetic code, a mishmash of seemingly random words that have to be deciphered after the fact. It’s English, sort of, but it’s parsecs past the lazy trope of the computer that humanizes upon awakening, starts wondering about compassion and this hu-man thing called love. It may be awake, but it is not remotely like us.

We were at the beginning of the season two, a full season away from the point at which this series was actually supposed to get good; and sure enough, there were many hours of crap yet to wade through. But this was the moment I got hooked.

*

I love this stuff.

I love this stuff.

There are so many things to praise about the manifestation of this Machine. There’s the obvious, in-your-face stuff, of course: the expository dialog, the debates between Root and Finch about the opacity of machine priorities, the question of whether meat or mech should be calling the shots (I swear, some of those conversations were lifted right out of essays from H+). The surprisingly tragic revelation that the whole God program dies every night at 00:00, only to be endlessly born again. All those earlier iterations that didn’t quite work out, before Finch managed to code something that wouldn’t try to trick him or kill him in pursuit of its objectives. The inevitable trolley paradox when the Machine, programmed to protect human life, decides that the best way to do that is through targeted assassination. The sheer intelligence of the thing, the way it outmaneuvers its human enemies: I’m especially tickled by the time it communicated with a captive Root by beeping Morse Code from a nearby cell phone, at a frequency too high to be heard by the the over-forties who were torturing her. Not to mention that wonderful moment when you realize that the whole damn thing moved itself to an undisclosed location(s), server by server, by faking out Fedex and the Feds with false requisitions.

But perhaps what’s most impressive are the little details that emerge without fanfare or commentary. The chaotic palimpsest of interconnected and overlaid thumbnails that represent the Machine’s view of the world, restored on reboot into a perfectly aligned grid of columns and rows. The way that icons and overlays change color as the program internalizes some new fragment of overhead dialog; the fractal proliferation of branches and probabilities sprouting from that voiceprint file as the downstream scenarios update. Transient characters have names like Turing and von Neumann— even Iain Banks, in one episode. Not all the callouts are so obvious: how many of you caught the Neuromancer homage when Finch walks past a row of payphones, each ringing in turn for his attention and then falling silent?

And when the Machine’s nemesis Samaritan boots up to the strains of Radiohead’s OK Computer? I just about wet myself.

*

Okay, this was clever.

Okay, this was clever.

These days, the show pretty much exemplifies ripped-from-the-headlines. Pick a recent episode at random and you’ll find stories about cyberstalking and high-frequency trading; you’ll find clever offhand references to Yahoo and Google as the back ends of NSA search engines. In one too-close-to-home storyline a thinly-veiled Siri, programmed to configure its answers in a way that maximizes sales to corporate sponsors, responds to someone asking for the local suicide hotline with an add for a book on “Five foolproof ways to kill yourself”. References to “that piece of crap PRISM” popped up close enough to the actual Snowden revelations that they might as well have been ad-libbed on the spot.

It’s easy, now, to write off such topicality as mere headline mining, to forget that the show premiered two years before Ed Snowden became a household name. (Granted, it was almost ten years after William Binney got stomped down for trying to work within the system for constructive change, but hardly anyone noticed that at the time.) It’s easy to forget how prescient the show was. Person of Interest set the stage back in 2011; what we see now is no mere retrofit inspired by current events. It came preconfigured. It was in a better position to run with Snowden’s revelations as they emerged, because that’s apparently where it had been headed all along.

*

There’s a deal we genre nerds strike with televised SF. We’ll forgive  painful dialog, cheesy acting, melodramatic soundtracks in exchange for Big Ideas. We’ll forgo the nuanced acting and complex characterization of Justified and Mad Men if we have to— after all, art and literature have been exploring the Human Condition for thousands of years already. What are the odds that you’ll say anything new by rebooting Welcome Back Kotter as the tale of a Kentucky lawman returning to his redneck roots? (Pretty good, as it turns out; but bear with me.)

AI, though. Genetic engineering, exobiology. These are brand spanking new next to all those moth-eaten tropes about corrupt kings and and family discord. Your odds of uncovering something novel are a lot higher in a sandbox that people haven’t been sifting through since the Parthenon was young. So we’ll look past the second-rate Canadian production values if you just keep the ideas fresh.

The problem is that too often, genre shows don’t hold up their end of the bargain. Battlestar Galactica wasn’t really exploring SFnal concepts like AI (at least, not very well); it was all about politics and religion and genocide. For all the skitters and time machines swarming across Falling Skies and Terra Nova, those shows— pretty much any show that Spielberg has a hand in, for that matter— are really just about The Importance Of The Family. And Lost— a glossy, high-budget production which did serve up subtle characters and under-the-top delivery— turned out to not have any coherent ideas at all. They just made shit up until the roof caved in.

Understand that I’m not ignoring those exceptional shows that manage to traffic both in speculative ideas and compelling human drama. On the contrary, I revel in them. But why do there have to be twelve goddamn Monkeys for every Walking Dead that comes down the pike?

Almost despite myself I’ve grown fond of PoI’s characters. Bear the goofy attack dog, Shaw the wry sociopath— even Cavaziel’s thready one-note delivery doesn’t irritate me the way it once did. Either the characters have deepened over the years, or I’ve simply habituated to them. Even so. Person of Interest is still not a show you watch for deep characterization or brilliant dialog.

What it is, is a genre show that honors the deal it made. It traffics in ideas about artificial intelligence, and it does so intelligently. It doesn’t pretend that smart equals human: it doesn’t tart up its machine gods in sexy red dresses, or turn them into pasty-faced Pinocchios who can’t use contractions. Its writers aren’t afraid to do a little honest-to-God background research.

Also worthy.

Also worthy.

The only other series I can think of that came close to walking this road was The Sarah Connor Chronicles— which wobbled out of the gate, got good, got brilliant, and got canceled all in the same span of time it took for Person of Interest to graduate from “Irredeemably Lame” to “Shows Some Improvement”. But PoI has now survived for twice as long as SCC— and in terms of their shared mission statement, PoI has surpassed its predecessor. The BUG may have put it best when she described it as a kind of idiot-savante among TV shows: it may lack certain social skills, but you can’t deny the smarts.

How can I disagree with that? Once or twice, people have said the same thing about me.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 27 Comments

Pones and Bones: A Trip to Anti-Narnia.

I'll name the artist here as soon as I find out who they are.

Cover by Philippe Jozelon.

We open with trailers for Coming Attractions: to the immediate right you can see the French cover for Echopraxie, from Fleuve.  I like it. Whoever the artist is, they’re channeling a bit of a Giger vibe.

Immediately below, on the other hand, is the cover for Head of Zeus’s UK edition (they’re the guys who put out the Firefall omnibus; the stand-alone Echopraxia  appears slotted for a May release).  I think I may like this cover even more than Firefall (and I liked that a lot)— it has a kinda literary feel to it, plus it’s the first time I’ve seen the word “fucking” quoted as part of a front-cover blurb (even if they did asterisk out a couple of letters).

But what I especially like is the contrast between these two covers: the cool palette vs. the hot one, the light vs. shadow. I kinda wish they could be front and back covers of the same edition…

I'm pretty sure I do know who this artist is, but I think they prefer to remain anonymous.

Cover by Jessie Price.

***

And Now—Our Main Attraction. (Please turn off your cell phones.)

***

Up in the frigid wastes of Scarberia— not too far from the Magic Bungalow, as it turns out— there’s an unremarkable door  set into an unremarkable brick wall in an unremarkable industrial park.  It’s nothing you’d look at twice, if you didn’t know that it was a portal to a whole other world.  Think of it as the back of the wardrobe, from those Narnia books.

Assuming, of course, that the Narnia books had been written by HP Lovecraft.

One of the cool things about having fans is that you never know what any one of them might turn out to be.  You answer an email from some anonymous reader and they turn out to be half an industrial rock duo with NASA connections, or an astronomer whose brain you can pick when you find yourself on thin ice.  I have a whole subdirectory of such wondrous fans, ripe for exploitation.

A few of them have turned out to be economists; I’ll be exploiting them a fair bit over the next few months. But only one of these economists has a partner who makes disembodied bodies for a living.  The company she works for is called MindWarp, and you’ve seen their handiwork in everything from “12 Monkeys” to “Pacific Rim”.  Not to mention “Hannibal”, for which they do pretty much all the rubber work these days.

Thanks to Joe Fenner (the Economist) and Jenn Pattinson (the Rubber Woman), I got a chance to take my whole family to antiNarnia for a visit last week.  Some of what we saw has yet to appear in public. I wish I could show it to you— some of it moves— but the unaired stuff is embargoed.

If you watch any kind of genre at all, though, you may recognize a fair bit of what follows. (All pics can be embiggened by clicking.)

I believe this was from the episode where the crazed violinist use a bow to play the guys vocal cords.

I believe this was from the episode where the crazed violinist use a bow to play the guy’s vocal cords.

Not sure which instrument this guy was played on. Maybe the kettle drums.

Not sure which instrument this guy was played on. Maybe the kettle drums.

One of these people is an economist. One of them builds corpses. One of them will be spending a lot of time in therapy.

One of these people is an economist. One of them builds corpses. One will be spending a lot of time in therapy.

If any of you are still watching "12 Monkeys", this is where the virus came from. (It looked sexier in the tank.)

If any of you are still watching “12 Monkeys”, this is where the virus came from. (The crayons? This pic was taken in MindWarp’s on-site daycare center.)

The brain in Mesopone's hands is FX.  The tribble on Micropone's head is not.

The brain in Mesopone’s hands is a bit of FX. The tribble on Micropone’s head is not.

The truly creepy thing is, these things don't just look real; they feel real, too.

The truly creepy thing is, these things don’t just look real; they feel that way, too.

A bit of whimsy to lighten the mood. Also a sampling of the production Mindwarp has had a hand in (just out-out-of-frame: every Saw movie ever made). "Pacific Rim" surprised me; I thought that was all CG. "Black Robe" surprised me too; that was mostly missionaries and Iroquois. (Although I guess there were some pretty explicit torture scenes in there...)

A bit of whimsy to lighten the mood. Also a sampling of the productions to which MindWarp has contributed (just out-out-of-frame: every Saw movie ever made). “Pacific Rim” surprised me; I thought that was all CG. “Black Robe” surprised me more; that was just missionaries and Iroquois. (Although I guess there were some pretty explicit torture scenes in there…)

Tell me this wouldn't be the coollest chick-flick crossover ever.

Tell me this wouldn’t be the coolest chick-flick crossover ever.

I'm not entirely sure.

I’m not entirely sure.

Mesopone, aka "The Meez", holding a tragic reminder of the Human cost of the Polish Alcohol-Industrial Complex.

Mesopone, aka “The Meez”, holding a tragic reminder of the Human cost of the Polish Alcohol-Industrial Complex.

This is not a movie prop. The proprietor built it for the sole purpose of dropping down on unsuspecting trick-or-treaters during Hallowe'en.

This is not a movie prop. It was built for the sole purpose of dropping down on unsuspecting trick-or-treaters during Hallowe’en.

Who doesn't wish they had a basement storage room like this?

Who doesn’t wish they had a basement storage room like this?

Lesser FX houses would just build a solid mannequin, slice it up, and paint the slices.  Not these guys. These guys built the body from the inside out— viscera, skeleton, musculature— and then carved it up.  I don't know if mere pictures can convey the icky verisimilitude of the result.

Lesser FX houses would just build a solid mannequin, slice it up, and paint the slices. Not these guys. These guys built the body from the inside out— viscera, skeleton, body fat, connective fascia, musculature— and then carved it up. I don’t know if mere pictures can convey the icky verisimilitude of the result.

The tragic cost of teen pregnancy...

The tragic cost of teen pregnancy.

Dream therapist.

Dream therapist.

Poantempole.

Poantempole.

 

Posted in: ink on art, misc, writing news by Peter Watts 16 Comments

The Gene Genies, Part 2: The Genes that Wouldn’t Die.

Evolution with Foresight: an oxymoron, right? Evolution has no foresight. Natural selection only promotes what works in the moment. If a particular mutation doubles your reproductive rate, you will fill the world with thy numbers; the process doesn’t understand too much of a good thing, doesn’t care if greater fecundity today means overpopulation, starvation, and extinction tomorrow. All it cares about is whether the latest edit gives you an edge right now. Natural selection is the very incarnation of instant gratification (which, I’ve always thought, explains a great deal about human stupidity.)

But what if we could build foresight into the system? What if we could build a gene for— I dunno, say reduced fertility, give the biosphere a break— and let it loose in the human population? Obviously it would go extinct; people with that gene would breed less, the rest of us would breed more, and a few generations down the road you’d be right back where you started.

Today, Walden Puddle...

Today, Walden Puddle…

But what if— what if— you could force that gene onto the next generation, even if it reduced fitness in the classic sense? What if you could build code that would be beneficial over the long term, and ensure its spread even if it costs you in the moment? What if we could gift evolution with foresight?

Enter the Gene Drive, CRISPR/Cas9 for short. It’s a clever little machine built of enzymes and RNAs, and you can attach it to pretty much any gene you like. When a gamete from your transgenic organism hooks up with one from a baseline, CrisperCas detects the presence of the competing wild allele, cuts it out of the opposite strand, and splices your engineered code into the gap. It overwrites wild genes with engineered ones, turns heterozygous pairings homozygous. You can see how this would stack the odds.

And introducing engineered, virtually-unkillable genes into wild ecosystems to do our bidding?

What could possibly go wrong?

CrisperCas flew right under my radar when Esvelt et al took it on tour last summer (I was too distracted birthing Echopraxia). Fortunately this month’s piece in h+ got me up to speed, providing links to some of those earlier articles (also here and here). To do them credit, CrisperCas’s advocates admit that their technology has the potential to “alter ecosystems … so we’ll have to be very careful not to cause damage accidentally”. If that’s not enough assurance for you, Oye et al have also put out a piece in Science admitting that “Scientists have minimal experience engineering biological systems for evolutionary robustness”, and urging us all to get our ducks in a row before we start fiddling with their genes at the population level. They advocate extensive public consultation, careful risk management, and scrupulous regulation to make sure that nothing goes wrong. They introduce something called a “reverse drive”, which can be called upon when something inevitably does. (Reverse drives seem to be basically another iteration of the gene drive, configured to undo what the last one wrought. I’m thinking a better name might be “The Little Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly Drive.”)

...Tomorrow, the World.

…Tomorrow, the World.

As Esvelt and his buddies point out, it would take centuries to engineer human populations this way; we large mammals are relatively slow breeders. They’re much more excited about inflicting the tech on other pest species; disease-carrying mosquitoes, for example, or crop-eating beetles whose resistance to the usual pesticides might be undone by gene drives. But I’m looking even further down: down past the insects, the protists, even the bacteria. I’m remembering that line from Dawkins— life is information, shaped by natural selection— and my recurrent musings (admittedly less cutting-edge now than they once were) that life can be built from ones and zeroes as easily as from carbon and nitrogen. Hell, if you buy into digital physics, that’s all any of us are anyway.

Natural selection with foresight. It could change the world even up here, albeit slowly. Think of what it could accomplish in your smart watch.

I wonder if this has anything to do with how the Maelstrom gets started…

The Gene Genies, Part 1: The Squids of Lamarck.

You know the drill. DNA holds the source code; RNA carries it to the ribosomes; ribosomes build stuff for the cell. Of course, the details of cellular operation are a million times more intricate than this— some RNA acts not to courier code but to switch genes on and off, for example— but it’s this venerable three-step that puts the tinkertoys together.

Now. If a sufficiently unscrupulous RNA molecule had an agenda at odds with the wishes of Daddy DNA, it could do a fair bit of damage. Change an instruction or two while on the road, enlist some hitchhiking enzyme into provoking a frame-shift or a faux-point-mutation. The nucleus mails off an order for Game of Thrones and the ribosome receives one for Spongebob Squarepants.

Who needs gamma rays? This guy hacks his own DNA. (Photo Brandi Noble, NOAA)

Who needs gamma rays? This guy hacks his own DNA. (Photo Brandi Noble, NOAA)

The term is RNA editing and it occupies center stage in this recent paper on cephalopod genetics. RNA editing is generally a very rare event. This makes it all the more remarkable that Alon et al report over 57,000 recoding sites for the Longfin Inshore Squid— an order of magnitude higher than reported for any other species. Even cooller, all these hijacked codes seem to be involved in building the nervous system. (“Synaptic vesicle cycle”, “axon guidance”, “actin cytoskeleton”, and “Circadian rhythm” are all processes listed as massively rewritten downstream of the DNA.)

This is part of a squid synapse. Anything yellow or red is subject to change without notice. (from Alon et al.)

This is part of a squid synapse. Red and yellow bits are subject to change without notice. (from Alon et al.)

It’s right there in the title: The Majority of Transcripts in the Squid Nervous System are Extensively Recoded. As the authors point out, this necessitates a major rethink of the whole squidly evolutionary process. But there are applications beyond such obvious intrinsic biological interest.

If I was interested in rebuilding a cephalopod to my own ends— perhaps adding organic tasers, or extra eye-sockets repurposed as oceanographic sensors (imagine luciferin fluorescence as an indicator of dissolved O2, which trigger photopigments in a modified retina, which in turn send that data back to a central nervous system via an extra optic nerve!)—

Well, let’s just say that a squid who comes pre-equipped with its own set of downstream editing enzymes, targeted to major CNS functions, might come in really handy.

(Coming up in Part 2: Selection-resistant genes. What could possibly go wrong?)

Optimism Averted (Or, Has Anyone Ever Seen Lockheed Martin and the Koch Brothers in the Same Place at the Same Time?)

I’ve been mired in a funk of hopefulness over the past week or so.

I blame 03— who, a couple of posts back, reminded me of last autumn’s announcement from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works (I’d seen it at the time, but had apparently repressed the memory). One of the world’s largest aerospace firms— about the furthest you can get from the tin-foil hat brigade— is claiming they’ll have a working prototype of a fusion reactor in five years. A production model in ten. A device small enough to load onto a truck, powerful enough to run 80,000 homes on 25kg of fuel per year. Trivial radiation issues that fade after a mere century.

If it’s true— if it’s true— it could change everything.

Carbon pollution: ended. Climate Change: mitigated at least, the worst scenarios averted (with hope for renewed stability once the current bolus of thermal inertia works its way through the system). Clean energy in abundance. A world where the boots of the powerful might even ease up off the necks of the rest of our necks, a world where resources are so plentiful there’s no real need to kick us in the teeth just to maintain the swimming pool in your rooftop penthouse. (Granted, a lot of one-percenters might well go on kicking us in the teeth just for fun. Still.) The Utopia Express, leaving on Platform #4 in 2025.

Yes, there were questions. There were skeptics. The comments on this Aviation Week piece run the gamut from measured skepticism about deuterium-tritium reactions through to Youtube links that purport to show a working fusion reactor someone cobbled together ten years ago out of two coat hangers and an alarm clock. (Hell, a lot of the comments right here on the ‘crawl show way more skeptical erudition than I could ever pretend to.) But Lockheed Martin. We’re talking technological breakthroughs here:  if not them, who?

I moped, at first. All my carefully-researched environmental apocalypsi, obsolete. All my grim odes to the coming dark age, suddenly quaint and simpleminded. My own increasing certainty that I’ll probably end up freezing to death with a broken and gangrenous leg, huddled in the burnt-out shell of some Scarborough duplex while my step-pones, fighting over the last tin of Irish Stew, swing nail-studded 2x4s at each other— maybe a wee bit too pessimistic after all. Thanks to Lockheed Martin I was less relevant than ever.

But then a change started to come over me. “This could… this could fix things,” I half-whispered to the BUG, as if speaking too loudly might somehow jinx the coming Utopia. “Things might actually get better. In just ten years.” A little later, down in the shower, I said it again, less hesitantly: “If we can just hang in there for another decade, we might be able to fix it all. They’re even talking about powering spaceships with this thing.”

Of course it seemed to good to be true. But what if it wasn’t? What if life could actually be awesome? Maybe I’d live to see warp drive and mini-skirted female astronauts with beehive hairdos after all.

And then I read this.

Okay, so Alternet isn’t what you’d call a peer-reviewed journal. But they’re not talking about their own opinions here; they’re gloating about the opinions of a major European financial institution. Apparently, Deutsch Bank expects that solar will own the energy industry in a mere fifteen years. And they’re not the only ones: this study out of Cambridge also sees solar kicking Petro’s ass in the not-too-distant future. A new generation of batteries will crush the storage issue. Forget cutting back on dirty energy for some airy-fairy reason like “saving the planet”; we’ll leave all that shit in the ground because it’s just not worth the cost of digging it out, given the cleaner, cheaper alternatives. The numbers seem compelling even to the oil barons themselves, if the industry’s rearguard campaign against solar is anything to go on.

We’re not quite there yet, of course. Coal’s still the cheaper option, and these new Flow Batteries aren’t quite up to the task at their current state of development, but within just fifteen years

Shiny... so very shiny... no need to look behind the curtain...

Shiny… so very shiny… no need to look behind the curtain…

Ah. Now I see it.

Because, you know. Why bother investing in all that pricey R&D, so essential to Solar’s future dominance, if we’re going to have small, safe fusion reactors on every street corner before it even pays off? Why waste resources trying to farm wind and sunlight when the tech will be obsolete before it’s ready for prime time? Makes way more sense to just keep fracking that shale, digging that coal, for another few years until fusion takes over. Invest in renewables? You might as well be flushing billions of dollars down the toilet.

And if, a decade or so down the road, Skunk Works goes Oops— unforeseen technical difficulties, we misplaced a decimal place so we’re a little behind schedule— but don’t worry, we’ll have practical fusion in another ten years, twenty tops— well, there’ll always be good old reliable fossil fuel, infrastructure firmly in place, to take up the slack.

So here I am, a wide-eyed realist who dreamed for a few glorious hours that he was an optimist. But now the dream is over, and I am awake.

Now, I just want to know how much of Skunk Works’ funding comes from Exxon.

Posted in: scilitics by Peter Watts 61 Comments

Bedlam and the Bookies

bookies-scifi-spec-horror-thumb-375x81-396297bookieSo it’s official. As of Tuesday— and as most of you probably know already— Echopraxia won the CBC’s “Bookie Award” in the “Best SciFi, Speculative Fiction, or Fantasy” category, beating out Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven by (as of the close-to-midnight screen grab to the right) 300 votes. It was a much closer race than it should have been, and— judging by all the accolades heaped on the runner-up— it probably went to the wrong novel in terms of literary merit.

Of course, the CBC makes no claims of literary merit on this thing; they refer to the Bookies as a “People’s Choice” award, which is a different thing entirely. Even by that metric, though, I don’t see Echopraxia beating out an honest-to-God best-seller with over a thousand reader reviews on Amazon. What the Bookies really measure is total fan effort, with no attempt at per-capita parsing. A thousand votes represents the effort it took to click through an arcane menu one thousand times, and the algorithm makes no distinction between a thousand fans doing that once or one really dedicated fan (or author, for that matter) doing it a thousand times. A number of you voted more than once, which might give one ethical qualms if only the folks over at the CBC weren’t so obviously okay with that. I always said my fan base was small but fierce. Echopraxia‘s win is Exhibit A, delivered with my thanks. When the certificate arrives, I will stick it next to Caitlin’s.

But while we’re on the subject of Things With Questionable Credibility That Are Nonetheless Nice To Have, I’d like to take this opportunity to share a few glimpses of a birthday gift I recently received from someone who obviously appreciates my interest in the neurological sciences. I’m talking about Mental Medicine and Nursing by Robert Howland Chase A.M., M.D.: a century old,  yet so seminal a work that it’s still available as a Classic Reprint (which probably puts it ahead of any recent Bookie winner you could name in terms of street cred, although I suppose we’ll have to wait another hundred years to be sure). Chase was both a skilled wordsmith and an informative teacher, as you can tell from some of these diagnostic illustrations:

chase08 chase12 chase11
   chase04  chase07  chase09
  chase01 chase05 chase13

I had not realized, for example, that the difference between religious and erotic paranoia scaled to beard length.  It’s also interesting to note that alcoholics always keep one hand in their pockets, while victims of delirium can be diagnosed by being women. And the illustration of that poor soul in the throes of “maniacal excitement” is downright scary.

Not that Mental Medicine limits itself to diagnoses, mind you. It also describes some truly remarkable remedial techniques:

chase15

I’m especially impressed by the therapeutic applications of knitting.

Of course, all of this stuff was written before the Singularity, and all the advanced knowledge we have today.

Kinda makes you wonder how hard they’ll be laughing at us a hundred years from now.

Posted in: misc, writing news by Peter Watts 58 Comments

Will No One Rid Me of These Troublesome Canadians?

It pains me to do this. I mean, I did a privacy rant just a few installments back, and today I wanted to talk about this really cool paper showing that squids are Lamarckian. But the news cycle Waits For No Man, and a couple of recent items have got me re-evaluating my sunny optimism of only a few weeks ago.

Of course, there’s a ton of commentary happening over C-51, the bill currently undergoing (limited) debate in the House. That’s not really news, although its highlights warrant a bit of review in light of recent events. C-51 is the Bill that would, among other things, jail for up to five years anyone who

“by communicating statements, knowingly advocates or promotes the commission of terrorism offences in general”

What exactly is a “terrorist offense”? According to S83.01 of Canada’s Criminal Code, it’s an act committed

“in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause, with the intention of intimidating the public’s security or compelling a person, government or organization to do or refrain from doing an act.”

Seems a bit broad, no? Lots of people and groups try to compel governments to change their behavior for ideological or political reasons. That’s what advocacy is. I hope that I’m not alone in thinking it something of an overreach to classify acts of civil disobedience— a roadblock, for example, in pursuit of “ideological” ends involving First-Nations or environmental issues— as acts of terrorism.

But C-51 goes one better. I don’t have to be the one planting bombs, hijacking planes, or holding up a protest sign on Exxon’s front lawn; thanks to C-51, I can go jail if I just promote that kind of activity out loud, knowing that someone within earshot “may” be inspired to act on my words.

The bill is almost more remarkable for what it omits than for what it encompasses. There’s no exception for private conversation, for example; I’m just as guilty if I communicate my thoughts in a personal email, or whisper them to my wife at bed-time to get her in the mood. (Yes, they’d have to be monitoring those emails, bugging that bedroom, to catch me at it— but don’t worry, C-51 has that covered too). There’s no exemption for critique or artistic merit, protections which extend even in cases of child pornography. There’s no geographic limitation; I’m just as much a criminal if I speak out on behalf of Hezbollah or Ukrainian rebels as I am if I go Yay Team! To the local chapter of Idle No More. I don’t even need to be guilty of a “terrorist purpose”, whatever that even means these days. If I were to stick my tongue in my cheek and write a blog post in favor of Baby-Eating For Constructive Political Change— knowing, as I do, that my words might be taken seriously by some unhinged and highly motivated reader— well, tough shit. Do not pass Go.

Kent Roach and Craig Forcese have written a number of backgrounders, freely available, about C51 and its implications. They point out that

“A sign or even a gesture could qualify, provided that it promotes or advocates the commission of a terrorism offence. This raises the question of whether a sign that says “I support Hamas” or “Tamil Tigers GO” or “the IRA will strike again” would fall within the ambit of the offence.”

But you know what? Fuck that legalistic ambiguity. If you want to see a terrorist act, right off the presses, here it is:

Ah, the Classics.

God, I’d like to see someone take a shot at Stephen Harper.

There’s something ironic about the fact that such statements are going to become indictable at exactly the time when they most need to be said.

Keep in mind, this is only one small part of C-51. The rest of it is wondrously problematic in its own right. Hell, “four prime ministers, five retired Supreme Court judges, three former justice ministers, four past solicitors general, three ex-members of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, two recent privacy commissioners, and a longtime RCMP watchdog” are speaking out with one voice— and, of course, getting the brush-off— on the oversight and accountability issues alone. (You should probably check out Michael Geist’s overview, even if you don’t have time for Roach and Forcese’s more detailed analysis.)

But none of this is news, right? At worst, it merely confirms ancient fears. So why does the same bill that gave me hope back on February 4th shrivel my balls here on the 20th?

Two new revelations, released within hours of each other. The first is a leaked RCMP document (scanned-pdf here) that puts all the ominous hypotheticals about C-51 firmly into the realm of empirical observation. It lumps environmental activists of all stripes together under the label “Anti-Canadian Petroleum Movement” motivated by an “anti-petroleum ideology” (“ideological motive” box, check), while redefining physics as political belief (“…greenhouse gas emissions which, they believe, are directly linked to the continued use of fossil fuels”). It laments the “violent rhetoric” on social media sites (“knowingly advocates or promotes”, check), and it does this all under the rubric of a “Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Assessment”. (Oh, did I forget to mention? Interference with Critical Infrastructure is one of the things that C-51 is crafted to deal with. It’s #6 on the list. “Terrorism”, strangely, is only #4.) The whole document seems pretty explicitly crafted to take advantage of the tools that C-51 would offer.

Again, though, how is this anything beyond another bit of grim told-you-so? For that we go to the second revelation, the only item in this increasingly lengthy post that did come as news to me. It turns out that— even against the backdrop of all these later-than-you-think headlines— Canadians like Bill C-51. It’s overwhelmingly popular across all ages and demographics, with an overall approval rating that weighs in at 82%. Ninety percent of us think it’s okay to criminalize speech that “promotes terrorism”. Over a third of us think the bill doesn’t go far enough, choosing a survey option which contains the line— I shit you not— “if you’re not a terrorist you have nothing to hide”.

This is what has robbed me of hope: the realization that I live in a nation of morons.

My reason to be cheerful, a few weeks past, was that we were fighting back. Sure the pols kept trying to sneak the Snooper’s Charter in through the back door, but they kept getting caught at it. Sure, the US had cops and congressmen who wanted to outlaw encryption; it also had companies who were finally taking encryption seriously enough to piss off those Powers that Be. Even up here in the Great White North, the number of C-bills that kept trying to strip away our privacy— only to get shot down at the last minute— was something of a joke. Our Masters wanted to see our nude selfies and poke at our stools every time we took a dump, but they kept falling short of those ambitions because we said no.

But it kind of takes the wind from your sails when you realize that over three quarters of the people you pass on the street have drunk the Kool Aid and gone back for seconds. We’re not just letting the Panopticon assemble itself around us; we’re actually applauding the engineers who are putting it together.

I know terrorism is a thing. I know measures need to be taken. But up here at least, the ideologically-driven dismantling of scientific institutions is also a thing. The muzzling of scientists and the censorship of research and the denial of fucking reality is a thing. The flooding of aquifers with mine tailings, the strip mining of the oceans, the Anthropocene Extinctions and weather chaotic as a grand mal ECG— things, every last one of them.

ISIS may be a cadre of murdering fundamentalist assholes, but that’s all they are; they don’t even pose an existential threat to Canada, much less an entire biosphere. Now Harper and his cronies shake those psychos in our faces to scare us into emptying our pockets and opening our bedrooms, and I can’t help but see Pol Pot offering us protection against Charlie Manson.

It would actually be kind of comical, if only so many of my fellows weren’t taking him up on it.

 

 

 

Posted in: Big Brother, rant by Peter Watts 76 Comments

“Finalist.” As in “Last”.

cbcbookieawards2015-986-v2So remember when I mentioned that cryptic little page over on CBC with Echopraxia on it? The one whose origin and purpose was a total mystery? Well, not so much any more. Turns out Echopraxia is a finalist for this years “Bookies“, under the “SciFi/Fantasy” category. (No, I’m not blind; I swear that logo wasn’t on the page first time I dropped by.)

You may remember the Bookies. Back in 2012 Caitlin’s The Pattern Scars was nominated in the same category  (though it was called “Speculative Fiction” at that time, since Margaret Atwood was on the list), and— after some odd lulls and surges in voting that revealed an interesting vote-rigging exploit— it ended up winning with more votes than all the other finalists combined (an especially nifty trick when you remember that those other finalists included both Atwood and Rob Sawyer).

First Place.

First Place.

Last Place.

Last Place.

My own chances are somewhat dimmer, and not just because Echopraxia is up against William Gibson’s first balls-to-the-wall unrepentantly-SF novel this century. Both of us are getting our asses handed to us by someone called Emily St. John Mandel, who I’ll admit I’d never heard of until I followed the link and learned that Station Eleven is a NY Times bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Award, and the star of at least a dozen Best-of-Year lists. According to the Amazon synopsis the novel tells of a hopeful apocalypse, in which the tattered remnants of a decimated Humanity are decent and humane and (if I’m reading this right) continue to put on performances of Shakespeare in the Park while the bodies stack up. It almost sounds as if   Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was written by the guys who do those Chicken Soup for the Soul books, which is a trick I could never manage in a million years. I wish I could; as of this writing, Station Eleven has nearly six times as many votes as Echopraxia.

This would be an even more remarkable disparity if Echopraxia wasn’t running dead last, and thus getting trounced by pretty much everyone. So, yeah; not much hope of taking home the Pixelated Golden Beaver this time around. But if you wanted to try and boost me out of last place, at least, you could always go over to the Bookies site and cast a vote or three (as before, multiple votes are allowed for some reason). (Now that I think of it, maybe that’s the way it works for all our federal institutions). Beating Queen of Stars is probably still within the realm of possibility.

If not, no biggie. I still don’t know how Echopraxia ended up on the finalists list in the first place…

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 63 Comments