“If there’s an afterlife, is my place taken? Is heaven full of people who would call me an imposter?”

— Simon Jarrett, upon realizing that he is a digitized copy.

Ever since the turn of the century I’ve had a— well, not a love/hate relationship with video games so much as a love/indifference one. I’ve worked on several game projects that never made it to market, wrote a tie-in novel for a game that did. Occasionally my work has inspired games I’ve had nothing to do with; the creators of Bioshock 2 and Torment: Tides of Numanera cite me as an influence, for example. There’s a vampire in The Witcher 3 named Sarasti. Eclipse Phase, the paper-based open-source role-playing game, names me in their references. And so on.

For one reason or another, I’ve never got around to actually playing any of these games. But a fan recently gifted me with a download of Frictional Games’ SOMA, whose creators also cite me as inspirational (alongside Greg Egan, China Miéville, and Philip K. Dick). And in the course of the occasional egosurf I’ve stumbled across various blogs and forums in which people have commented on the peculiar Wattsiness of this particular title. So what the hell, I figured; I needed something to write about this week, and it was either gonna be SOMA or my first acid trip.

Major Spoilers after the graphic, so stop reading if you’re still saving yourself for your own run at the game. (Although if you’re still doing that a solid year after its release, you’re even further behind the curve than I am.)


In SOMA you play Simon: a regular dude from 2015 Toronto, who— following a brain scan at the notoriously-disreputable York University— suddenly finds himself a hundred years in the future, just after a cometary impact has wiped out all life on the surface of the earth. Simon doesn’t have to worry about that, though— not in the short term, at least— because he’s not on the surface of the Earth. He’s stuck in a complex of derelict undersea habitats near a  geothermal vent, where (among other things) he is attacked by giant mutant viperfish and caught up in a story centering around the nature of consciousness. “I’d really like to know who thought sending a Canadian to the bottom of the sea was a good idea,” he blurts out at one point. “I miss Toronto. In Toronto I knew who I was.”

So yeah, I can see a certain Watts influence. Maybe even a bit of homage.

I passed through this station en route to the very pub where I am typing these words.

I passed through this station en route to the very pub where I am typing these words.

If I was feeling especially egotistical I could really push it. Those subway stations Simon cruises through on his way to York— not that far from where I used to live. His in-game buddy Catherine once mistakenly remarks that he comes from Vancouver, where I lived before that. Hell, if I wanted to pull out all the stops I could even point out that Jesus Christ’s Number Two Man (and the first of the popes) was called Simon Peter. Coincidence?

Yeah, probably. That last thing, anyway. Then again, any game whose major selling point was its Peter Watts references would be shooting for a pretty limited market. Fortunately, SOMA is more substantive. In fact, it may not be so much inspired by my writing (or Dick’s, or Egan’s, or Miéville’s) as we all are inspired by the same scary-cool stuff that underlies human existence. We’re all drinking from the same well, we all lie awake at night haunted by the same existential questions: how can meat possibly wake up? Where does subjective awareness come from? What is it like to be attacked by giant mutant viperfish at four thousand meters?

Maybe something like this.

Maybe something like this.

SOMA’s influences extend beyond the the usual list of authors you’ll find online (or quoted at the top of this post, for that matter). The biocancer that infests and reshapes everything from people to anglerfish seems more than a little reminiscent of the Melding Plague in Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, for example. And while Simon’s belated discovery that he’s basically a digitized brain scan riding a corpse in a suit of armor might seem lifted directly from the Nanosuit in my Crysis 2 tie-in novel, I lifted that idea in turn from Richard Morgan’s game script.

So much for the parts SOMA cannibalized.  How does it stitch them together?



For starters, the game is gorgeous to behold and insanely creepy to hear. The murk of the conshelf, the punctuated blackness of the abyss, the clanks and creaks of overstressed hull plating just this side of implosion keep you awestruck and on-edge in equal measure. Of course, these days that’s true for pretty much any game worth reviewing (Alien: Isolation comes to mind— you might almost describe SOMA as an undersea Alien: Isolation with a neurophilosophy filling). SOMA’s technology seems strangely antiquated for the 22nd century — flickering fluorescent light tubes, seventies-era video cameras, desktop computers that look significantly less advanced than the latest offerings down at Staples— but that’s also true for a lot of games these days. (Alien: Isolation gets a pass on that because it was honoring the aesthetic of the movie. The Deus Ex franchise, not so much.)

There’s not much of an interface to interfere with the view, no hit points or health icons cluttering up the edges of your display. You know you’ve been injured when your vision blurs and you can’t run any more.  You have no weapons to keep track of. The inventory option is a joke: for 90% of the game, you’re completely empty-handed except for a glorified door-opener to help you get around. It’s way more minimalist than most player interfaces, and the better for it.

Likewise, dialog options are pretty much nonexistent. Now and then you can choose to start a conversation, but from that point on you’re essentially listening to a radio play. I think Frictional made the right choice here, too. All those clunky dialog menus that pop up in Fallout or Mass Effect— those same four or five options offered up time after time, regardless of context (Really?  I want to ask Piper about our relationship now?)— offer just enough conversational flexibility to really drive home how little conversational flexibility you have. It’s one of the inherent weaknesses of computer games as an art form— game tech just isn’t advanced enough to improvise decent dialog on the fly.

SOMA cuts the player out of the loop entirely during the talky bits. The cost is that we lose the illusion of control (which is actually kind of meta if you think about it); the benefit is that we get richer dialog, deeper characters, shock and tantrums and emotional investment to go along with the thought experiment. Simon isn’t some empty vessel for the player to pour themselves; he’s a living character in his own right.

I’ll grant that he’s not a very bright one. He mentions at one point that he used to work in a bookstore, but given how long it takes him to catch on to certain things I’m willing to bet that its SF and pop-science sections were pretty crappy.  Simon’s a nice guy, and I really felt for him— but if his home town was, in fact, a nod to my own, I can only hope the same cannot be said for his intellect.

On the other hand, who’s to say I’d be any quicker on the draw if I was the dusty photocopy of a long-dead brain, thrown headlong and without warning into Apocalypse? I don’t know if anyone would be firing on all synapses under those conditions; and the languid pace at which Simon clues in does provide a convenient opportunity to hammer home certain philosophical issues to which a lot of players won’t have given much prior thought.  The fact that Simon’s sidekick Catherine grows increasingly impatient with his “bullshit”, with the fact that she has to keep repeating herself, suggests that this was a deliberate decision on Frictional’s part.

Riftia somethingorothericus.

Riftia somethingorothericus.

But if Simon’s a bit slow on the uptake, SOMA isn’t. Even the scenery is smart. Wandering the seabed, at depths ranging from a few hundred meters to four thousand, the fauna just looks right: spider crabs, rattails, tiny bioluminescent squid and tube worms and iridescent, gorgeous ctenophores (ctenophores! How many of you even know what those are?) Inside one of the habitats, a dead scientist’s lab notes remark upon the sighting of a Chauliodus (“viperfish” to you yokels): “Not usually found at this depth— anomaly”. I wet myself a little when I read that. Writing Starfish back in the nineties, I too had to grapple with the fact that viperfish don’t foray into the deep abyss. I had to come up with my own explanation for why they did so at Channer Vent.

Smart or dumb, though, the ocean floor is mere setting: SOMA’s story revolves around issues of consciousness. Frictional did their homework here too. Sure, there’s the usual throwaway stuff— one model of sapience-compatible drone is dubbed “Qualia-class”— but stuff like the Body Transfer and Rubber Hand Illusions aren’t just name-checked; they actively inform vital elements of the plot.  People come equipped with “black boxes” in their brains that can be forensically data-mined post-mortem. (This proves useful in figuring out SOMA’s backstory, an ingenious new twist on the usual Let’s find personal diaries lying around everywhere more commonly employed in such games.) Most of the lynchpin events in this story occur not to effect the course of the plot, but to make you think about its underlying themes.

By way of comparison, look to SOMA’s spiritual cousin, Bioshock. For all its explicit in-your-face references to Ayn-Randian ideology,  Bioshock fails as analysis. (At best, its analysis amounts to Objectivism is bad because when capitalism runs amok, genetically-engineered nudibranchs will result in widespread insanity and the ability to shoot live bees out of your hands.) Andrew Ryan’s political beliefs serve as mere backdrop to the action, and as wall-paper rationale for the setting; but the events of the story could have just as easily gone down in a failed socialist utopia as a capitalist one. Bioshock was brilliant in the way it used the mechanics of game play to inform one of its themes (I’ve yet to see its equal in that regard), but that particular theme revolved around the existence of free will, with no substantive connection to Objectivist ideology. SOMA, in contrast, actually grapples with the issues it presents; it makes them part of the plot.

Yeah, don't get your hopes up, Bucko.

Yeah, don’t get your hopes up, Bucko.

In fact, you could argue that SOMA is actually more rumination than game, an extended scenario that systematically builds a case towards an inevitable, nihilistic conclusion (two nihilistic conclusions actually, the second superficially brighter and happier than the first but actually way more depressing if you stop to think about it). If there’s a problem with this game, it’s that the the story is so tight, the rumination so railbound, that it can’t afford to give the player much freedom for fear they’ll screw up the scenario. There’s really only one way to play SOMA. Discoveries and revelations have to happen in a specific order, conversations must proceed in a certain way. The obligatory monsters— justified as failed prototypes, built by an AI trying to create Humanity 2.0— don’t really do anything story-wise. You can’t kill them. You can’t talk to them. You can’t scavenge their carcasses for booty, or fashion a makeshift cannon from local leftovers and  blow them away. Your interactive options consist exclusively of run and hide. SOMA’s monsters serve no real purpose except to creep you out, and slow your progress along a narrative monorail.

Yes, dude, you are very creepy. You are ominous. But what are you for?

Yes, dude, you are very creepy. You are ominous. But what are you for?

There are choices to be made— surprisingly affecting ones— but they don’t affect the outcome of the plot. Your reaction to the last surviving human— wasting away in some flickering half-lit locker at the bottom of the sea, IV needle festering in her arm, pictures of her beloved Greenland (gone now, along with everything else) scattered across the deck— who only wants to die. The repeated activation and interrogation of an increasingly panicky being who doesn’t know he’s digitized (although he sure as shit knows something‘s wrong), a being you simply discard once you have what you need from him. The treatment of your own earlier iterations, still inconveniently extant after your transcription into a new host. These powerful moments exist not so much to further the story as to inspire reflection upon a story already decided— and they might be missed entirely by a player with too much freedom, able to go where they will and when. It’s the age-old tension between sandbox and narrative, autonomy and storytelling. Frictional has sacrificed one for the other, so— as immersive as this game is— it’s bound to suck at replay value.

It’s easy enough to justify such creative decisions in principle; in practise, the result sometimes feels like a cheat. I spent half an hour tromping around the seabed looking for a particular item among the wreckage— a computer chip— that would spare me the need to kill a sapient drone for the same vital part. It would have been easy enough for Frictional to give me that option;   they’d already littered the seabed with wrecked drones, it wouldn’t have killed them to leave me some usable salvage. But no. The the only way forward was to slaughter an innocent being. It made the point, philosophically, but it felt wrong somehow. Forced.

Post-human Nature.

Post-human Nature.

This would normally be the point at which I bitch and moan about how, for all the “inspiration” game developers attribute to me, it would be really nice if they might someday be inspired to actually hire me instead of just mining my stories. It would be an utterly bullshit whinge—  I’ve admitted to gaming gigs in my past on this very post— but I’d make it anyway because, Hey: if one of your inspirations is sitting right there in the corner next to the potted philodendron, why not ask him for a dance? He might just teach you a couple of new steps.[1]

This time, though, I’m going to restrain myself. SOMA could not have been an easy assignment; I could bitch about the monorail gameplay constraints or the intermittent dimness of the protagonist, but given the limitations of the medium I don’t know that I could do any better without compromising mission priorities.  SOMA is a game in the straight-up survival-horror mode, but the horror is more existential than visceral. And those conventional mechanics serve the most substantive theme I’ve ever encountered in a video game.

Bottom line, I think they did a damn fine job.


[1] This metaphor is in no way meant to imply that I am any kind of dancer.  My most recent memories of dancing involve jumping wildly up and down and slapping my thighs in approximate time to Money for Nothing.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 7 Comments

Know We Kant.

He died of undiagnosed medical issues too.

He died of undiagnosed medical issues too.

The single most vital thing I learned at the neurologist this week was: I really need to read up on Immanuel Kant.  Apparently he made a pretty valiant stab at rescuing the concept of Free Will from science, but only by redefining science itself as an unreliable construct.  Or something. My neurologist is pursuing a PhD in philosophy. It made for some really interesting conversation in and around the needles he kept sticking into my muscles, and the little jolts of electricity he used to make them jump.  And the utterly unremarkable spikes and scribbles scrolling across the monitor.

Nothing to see here, he says. Judging by my reported symptoms and the way I winced when I pulled myself onto the examination table, he thinks it’s rheumatological. I pointed out that it was a rheumatologist who’d sent me to a neurologist. It was like being on the phone to Dell Tech Support.

He tells me that this is what I want, that the moment a doctor gives you a firm diagnosis then there’s definitely something wrong with you. I find this a surprisingly quantum-mechanical way of looking at it— it doesn’t exist until you measure it— but then again, the dude is pursuing a philosophy degree. And if any medical professional is going to find something wrong with you, you don’t want that person to be a neurologist.  Neuro is bad. Neuro always seems to mean wasting and spasms and paralysis and death. You never hear about people who come down with a fully understood, trivially-treatable neurological condition that can be cured with a couple of Advil. Nobody ever comes down with Singular Sclerosis.

This particular neurologist says it’s not unusual for weird suites of symptoms to manifest without ever leading to a definitive diagnosis. At the same time, he admits that my particular suite— the ability to run 10K without incident, coupled with fever and near paralysis when I walk the same distance— are “unusual”.  He has no explanation (although I myself am starting to wonder about a malign post-hypnotic suggestion somewhere along the line).

My strength seems to have largely returned at least, even if the pain and stiffness persist. My main fear is that some trivial bit of exertion— taking out the garbage, trying to hold more than three cats at once— might kick me past the Invisible Threshold and into another collapse. At which point, I guess I go to Emergency while all those acute symptoms are still on display, and tell them to figure it out.

Sometimes, apparently, this stuff just goes away on its own. If you’re lucky.  Whether I am depends on whether you put more stock in the fact that I survived Flesh-eating disease, or the fact that I came down with it in the first place.

Anyway. It’s not cancer, and it’s not Lyme (the blood work finally came back). It’s not arthritis or PMR or myositis or Giant-cell arteritus. And now it’s not neurological either (although I’ve got a card that gets me to the front of the line in case of another collapse). Who knows, maybe it’s gluten after all. Or maybe I’ve got some kind of weird new disease yet undiscovered by Science.  Maybe they’ll name it after me when I’m dead.

Just in case, I’ve prevailed upon The BUG to agree to the following terms: if it turns out that I do have something terminal and incurable, I get to stop working and just play video games in whatever time remains to me. It could be a slow, lingering death— it might take 40 or 50 years to kill me— but at least I can take comfort in the fact that my wife has agreed to let me pass with some semblance of dignity.

Speaking of which, a video game is what I’ll be writing about next time I sit down here. Enough of this open-ended, narratively-unsatisfying medical whingeing.  Next time I’m gonna review SOMA, only a year after it came out.

They say it was partly inspired by me.

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 35 Comments

Blight Gallery

OK, so it isn’t cancer. Also not myocitis. Apparently that would’ve shown up in the several liters of blood they already sucked out of me over the past couple of weeks.

Lyme? “Well, we could test for Lyme. If you really want. You do have the symptoms, I guess…”  Not quite sure why I sensed such reluctance given that I actually meet the criteria— I felt as if she was indulging some dotty old hypochondriac— but the bottom line is, even as I type they’re testing for several strains of Lyme.  Including, apparently,  a time-traveling European variant which might be to blame even though this whole thing manifested two weeks before I went to Greece. I’m not complaining: the more comprehensive the better, far as I’m concerned. If there’s anything to this late-onset stuff I suppose I could have picked it up when I was overseas in 2014.

Neuro, though. My GP agrees that a lot of these symptoms— the weakness and tingling, sure, but even the stiffness and joint pain— are consistent with something neurological. An appointment with a specialist is in the offing. And on the one hand, Cool: neuro. I get to have my brain scanned. I get to see my own CNS mapped out like a subway system. I owe a big chunk of my career to neuro. Neuro rocks.

On the other hand, fuck: neuro.

Some really bad shit falls under that particular umbrella.  Let’s hope for Lyme. Or even something psychosomatic— after all tests to date haven’t turned up anything, beyond (presumably) the acute anemia that results from having half your blood volume siphoned away.

Anyway. Holding pattern until I see the neurologist. And of course I’ve fallen behind on The Freeze-Frame Revolution, so not a lot of time to invest in depthy blog posts right now. (Although if you read Polish, I’m thinking the next column is probably going to be about these recent Russian claims of a dolphin language. It was similar claims, after all, that got me interested in the whole marine-mammal field back in the seventies.)

So here’s some simple eye candy to plug the gap for the next little while (all available in the Gallery too, of course, at higher rez).


I can’t honestly claim that this new reissue of Starfish (by way of Paul di Filippo) improves on Bruce Jenson’s original cover art in any technical or aesthetic sense. I do, however, expect that it will result in much higher sales. At the very least, it adds a new dimension to the term “wet dream”:


In contrast, a little nightmare fuel: Rifters as Greys, courtesy of a Russian Deviant Artist going by the handle “Hokapk” (which probably translates phonetically as “Hieronymus Bosch Does Pointillist Woodcuts”).


Finally— although it can’t quite compete with the transcendent inspiration of the di Filippo piece— here’s the definitive cover art for Le Bélial’s upcoming French edition of Au-Delà du Gouffre (aka Beyond the Rift), for those of you who didn’t catch the earlier draft that showed up on facebook a few weeks back. By the legendary artist “Manchu“.  At least, I assume he’s legendary; the man’s portfolio certainly warrants it.


I like this enough to be using it as my desktop wallpaper; the design of the ship doesn’t really map on to anything  in my own oeuvre, but in a moment of prescience Manchu seems to have nailed the setting of Freeze-Frame‘s climax.

At least, I hope it was a moment of prescience. Otherwise I’d have to conclude he was channeling “Interstellar“. Which would carry, well, less-pleasant connotations.

Posted in: art on ink, misc by Peter Watts 31 Comments

The Salt Vampire’s Ugly Cousin

Way back in Grade Seven— Dr. Oakley Junior High, Calgary— Keith Gill spat on my bike. He was half my size, but I knew that if I spat on his bike in return that he would beat the shit out of me. That was the whole idea. This was an act of provocation. He was looking for an excuse.

I did not spit on Keith Gill’s bike. I went home, and I started doing push-ups. I got to one-and-a-half before I collapsed.

By that summer, though, I was up to 35. By the time I hit Grade 9 I was doing fifty. First-year university, 75. At the height of my pushing prowess— mid-eighties, doctoral studies at UBC, routinely slinging 25-horsepower Evinrudes across my back and lugging them around in the field like sacks of potatoes— I was doing 125 pushups at a stretch.

There were other elements to the regimen, of course, ranging from the cheesy spring set I inherited from an older brother to the home gym I bought in the nineties. For I while there I actually joined a fitness club; other times I availed myself of the workout facilities at whatever campus I was calling home that year. Running was a constant part of the workout from the early eighties on. These last years, here at the Magic Bungalow, it’s been mainly running and free weights and chin-ups, mixed in with (significantly lower) numbers of push-ups (tougher variants, though— where your feet are on a chair, or you put your hands on stools so your face descends below “floor level” on each dip). Point is, while I’ve never been any kind of athlete, I’ve been in pretty good shape ever since I was a kid. I’ve kept strong. Why, just last Wednesday I ran 10K. I did 13 chin-ups.

These sequences were written less than 48 hours apart.

I wrote these sequences less than 48 hours apart.

This morning I couldn’t hold a half-full pot of coffee without trembling, without feeling as though my forearm was going to snap off. I had to use my thumb to depress the shaving-cream stud, because my finger wasn’t strong enough. I can barely hold a goddamn pen: look what’s happened to my handwriting.

It happened literally overnight. I have no idea why. Nobody does.


Some background: this started about four months ago, around mid-June. The BUG decided that she hated the sandals I’ve been wearing since before we met, dragged me over to Queen Street in search of replacements. I love the BUG— she saved my life, after all— and so did not complain. We each purchased a pair of Birkenstocks, slid them on, and proceeded to walk for 6.5 miles.

Thirty-six hours later I could barely move. Every groinal tendon was on fire. My knees felt like little exploding schematic diagrams of cartilaginous balls and sockets and springs, ready to go sproiiiinnggggg! the moment they folded more than a few degrees off dead-center.

The shoes, right? Those new fucking shoes. They’d screwed with my gait somehow, thrown everything out of balance. Couldn’t be the distance: I routinely ran further than 6.5 miles with no ill effects at all. So I chalked the pain up to experience and reunited with those beloved stinky old plastic sandals that Caitlin hadn’t quite been able to rid me of after all. I’d stressed my body past some limit, but it would self-repair over time; that’s just what bodies did. So the family packed up, and hugged the cats, and headed off to Greece.

Where my body did not self-repair. It got worse.

The stiffness, the frozen range-of motion, the pain, spread to my shoulders. Lifting a leg, bending a knee became an ordeal; pulling on my underpants was now a major event, each foot having to stamp and lift in repeated warm-up maneuvers until inertia and rebound bounced it high enough to crest the elastic of my Joe Fresh gauchies and plunge back down through the leg hole (please God let it be the right leg hole) while the outraged knee, bent briefly past some critical threshold, threatened to explode all over again. Sometimes I couldn’t quite clear the band; my toe would catch in the elastic and I’d topple like a big dumb one-legged redwood, roaring with frustration. The simple act of rising from the bed, sitting on the toilet, of bending over to pick something off the floor— suddenly, they were all spectacles you could charge admission for.

There was no real loss of strength, mind you. The moves hurt, but I could still do them as long as they didn’t require much range of motion. I didn’t have my exercise equipment but I could still do chin-ups from the arched trellis, push-ups by the pool. I could still go on extended futile hikes with the Unicorn Girl, looking for mythical mountain churches (even if what we mostly found was lizards). Some of you may have seen such expeditions documented on facebook; they all happened as described, even if I tended to fall over more often than usual. I did not get flabby or fat, for all the wine we guzzled.

It just— hurt. All the goddamned time. For the first time in my life, I felt old.


Home. Doctor. Referrals. All my subjective symptoms lined up with something called “polymyalgia rheumatica”, which if you go to the original Latin translates as we have no idea what causes this but the symptoms look familiar. No known cure (which goes well with “no known cause”). Goes away on its own after a year, maybe 18 months. Sucks to be you in the meantime, but Prednisone works really well on the symptoms. Mind the side-effects, though: osteoporosis, cataracts, plumpening, loss of muscle mass, meat tenderizing (i.e. your skin bruises if it so much as gets hit by a dandelion seed), penile slough—

OK, so much for the Prednisone. I guess I’ll just grit my teeth through the next year and wait for it to get better.

But then all the blood work came back negative.

Not that it would have told us much anyway. There is no smoking-gun diagnostic for PMR, which is not surprising because— once again— nobody knows what causes it. Mostly the bloods just test for tissue inflammation; RBC sedimentation rate, something called “C-reactive protein”. Those come back positive, and the doctors can say Aha! It is inflammation causing you pain! And while inflammation has a whole shitload of potential causes, today we are going to attribute it to polymyalgia rheumatica on account of where it hurts or something!

But my tests showed no inflammation. Everything came back clean. I’m subjectively experiencing every goddamn symptom of PMR— including, disturbingly, a week of symptoms consistent with Giant Cell arteritis, an equally-mysterious malady that frequently double-dates with PMR and which causes blindness if not treated— and my body doesn’t even have the good grace to show a generic inflammation response. Still, there we were. And things did seem to be manageable. Good days and not-so-good days; I was now officially a crotchety old man but I kept slinging the weights, kept pounding the trails even if I didn’t seem to be taking the 15K route any more. Just sticking it out until things get better, you know? And they would, eventually. Sure the bloods came back negative but those were crap diagnostics anyway; what else could this be?

So just last Friday, the BUG and I decided to walk to one of our favorite restaurants, a distance of about 10K. No big deal, right? I run that far all the time, and this would be a nice leisurely walk. Why, just like the walk we took back in June, after buying those accursed Birkenstocks. Pretty much the same distance, even. And to ensure my own pedular comfort, I wore my running shoes.

Apparently my lips were purple by the time we made it to the restaurant. The BUG didn’t mention it at the time, but then again she didn’t have to: I already knew something was wrong because my fingers had turned to pins and needles. That passed, fortunately. So did the fever and sheet-soaking sweats that kept me awake over the next three nights. Then there’s that mysterious, undiagnosable pain that’s been sitting on my should like a tax audit for the past four months; in the wake of our latest epic walk, it spread to abs and elbows and forearms, to the grinding bones in the heel of my thumbs, to all the places it hadn’t reached back in June when I was first laid low.

And this time, something scary and new. Suddenly I could barely grip a pen, had to use both hands to carry a bowl of cat food onto the porch. Last night I couldn’t even open the screw top on a bottle of wine.

Not me. Just the way I feel these days.

Not me. Just the way I feel these days.

It’s not a loss of muscle mass. There hasn’t been time for me to starting wasting away yet. It’s as though some cousin of Star Trek’s Salt Vampire, some weird hokey rubber alien with peculiar dietary needs, has sucked all the ATP out of my muscles. It took a half hour’s effort at this laptop before I even started hitting the keys reliably.

I seem to be coming back again, bit by bit. The pain seems to be withdrawing to its initial habitat; it’s easier to lift a pot of coffee now than it was when I started writing this 24 hours ago (although typing still provokes a strange exhausting ache in my forearms). I’m no longer terrified of the prospect of standing: whatever my left testicle (and only my left testicle, curiously) was pulling on when those vectors aligned has backed off on its threats to rip my guts out. I hope, in a few more days, to have returned to that state of chronic creaky heartiness that I’ve been clumsily dancing with for the past four months.

But you know the most depressing aspect of this whole damn experience? It’s not the mysterious sudden onset or the acute painful incapacity, which has passed. It’s not the chronic stiffness, which had better fucking pass but which is manageable in the meantime. It’s not even the weakness, which I hope is temporary. It’s the insight that accompanies the weakness. It’s the time travel: this first-person, total-immersion glimpse into a future when there’s no onset or remission, no mystery disease to wonder about, no hope for improvement because I’m not sick: I’m just old, and this is just the way things are. A time when the simple standard baseline of my life is that I lack the strength to write a fucking “3”.

Why I Stopped Ego Surfing.

Why I Stopped Ego Surfing.

Anyway. I’ve got another appointment with the specialist in early October, although she’s already sampled half my blood volume and come up empty. I get the sense neither she nor I really know where else to go with this thing. So I’m coming here, to the ‘crawl. (I’ve already tried asking the Internet at large, but Google can’t even return a search on “Peter Watts” AND “Starfish” without filling my screen with bad porn; you can imagine what “polymyalgia rheumatica giant-cell arteritis pain stiffness no-inflammation C-reactive-protein” turns up.) Has anyone heard of anything like this— a system-wide gimbal-lock that kicks in when you walk a long distance, but never when you run it?  Something that presents every subjective symptom of PMR but causes no detectable inflammation? Something that, you know, can maybe be fixed?


Because the next stop after this is the Healing Power of Crystals page on…





Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 106 Comments

Actually, You Can Keep a Good Man Down…

Or, more to the point today, a good woman.  Turns out it’s quite easy, in fact: all you need is a phone or an email account, and a certain kind of craven cowardice.

Quoting Sisyphus, whom I introduced in my previous post:

Hello again, Peter.

I enjoyed your blog post, though thank goodness I didn’t suggest reading it in any way with my class. As it turns out, I am no Sisyphus, and before I even began to teach the novel, one parent had written an email, and another called the principal (neither spoke to me) both outraged at the idea of teaching a novel which had at one point contained such language. I told my administrator, who is a completely reasonable man, by the way, to call off the dogs. If it was this big an issue before we’d read a single redacted page, it was going to become a catastrophe. I will continue to teach “Ambassador” in the future. And as for the kids who began reading the novel on their own, they were quite disappointed and asked if they might still be able to discuss the novel with you over Skype at some point.

Thanks for even considering this. It’s unfortunate how things turned out; in the words of Kurt Vonnegut: so it goes.

So it is not enough to be a good teacher. It is not enough to be a challenging teacher. It is not even enough to be an accommodating teacher, one so dedicated that she sought me out and enlisted my support for an act we both regard as downright odious— but were willing to commit if it meant that students could be exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking.  It is not enough to hold your nose and slash the prose and spread your cheeks in an attempt to appease these ranting, rabid Dunning-Kruger incarnations made flesh. They will not be appeased.

It is not enough to gut a book of its naughty bits.  That the book ever had such bits in the first place is offense enough.

We do not know the names of those who complained; they struck out bravely under cover of anonymity. I do know the name of the school at which this travesty went down, but if I spoke it here the teacher would be fired. I find it curious that those so full of self-righteous fury, so utterly convinced of their own virtue, would be so averse to the spotlight.  Are they not doing God’s will? Should they not be proud of their handiwork?

Strangely, though, these people don’t like to be seen.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. It’s not as though this is an isolated case, after all; it hails from the heart of a country where more adults believe in angels than accept evolution, a country where— in the race to rule a hemisphere— an orange demagogue with zero impulse control is once again even in the polls with a corporate shill who revels in the endorsements of war criminals.  The problem is not one outraged parent, or one school, or one county. The problem is the whole fucking country. The problem is people.

Naming names in one specific case— even if that did do more good than harm— would be like scraping off a single scab and hoping you’d cured smallpox.

But there she is, doing her goddamned best in the center of that shitstorm: Sisyphus, and all those like her.  Today she lost the battle, but I know her kind.

The war goes on.

Posted in: blindsight, politics, writing news by Peter Watts 62 Comments

Zounds, Gadzooks, and Fucking Sisyphus.

“Those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves.”
—Neil Peart, 1981


Did you know that Blindsight contains 73 instances of the word “fuck” and its variants? I’ve recently been informed of this fact by a high-school teacher down in a part of the US that— well, in the name of protecting the identities of the innocent, let’s just call it JesusLand.



The ubiquity of “Fuck”— not just in Blindsight but in other contexts as well— carries a number of ramifications. For one thing, it implies that the characters who use it have better vocabularies and language skills than those whose mouths are squeaky clean. It also means that they probably have a greater tolerance to pain.

And in the case of this particular teacher— here in the Twenty First Century, for chrissake— it means she could lose her job if she taught Blindsight, unexpurgated, to her advanced English class. Apparently high school students in her part of the world are blissfully unfamiliar with this word. Apparently all sorts of calamities might ensue should that precarious state of affairs ever change.


It’s a hard scenario to wrap my head around, even though I myself had a relatively genteel history with profanity back in childhood. Raised by Baptists, I must’ve been eleven or twelve before I even used words like “damn” or “hell” in conversation; even then, I could only live with such unChristian lapses by telling myself that at least I limited myself to “clean” swearing.  I never lowered myself to the truly dirty stuff like “fuck” or “cunt” or “asshole”.

It cut no ice with my mother, who— as First Lady of the Baptist Leadership Training School— had appearances to maintain. When I pointed out that my use of such mild expletives didn’t hurt anyone, her response was always the same: “I find it offensive. That’s all you need to know.” I suspect it was this idiotic response— that unthinking preference of gut over reason— that inspired my defiant and long-overdue upgrade to F-bombery shortly thereafter.

While I changed, though, my parents never did. When my first novel came out decades later, there was Fanshun, sadly shaking her head— not angry, just very, very disappointed—  wondering why her son, who had such a way with words, had to ruin a perfectly good book with all that profanity. Especially since she had, in years past, gone so far as to suggest non-offensive alternatives for me to use.

One of them, believe it or not, was “zounds”.

Neither of us knew back then that “Zounds” was the “fuck” of its day— a contraction of “God’s wounds“, referring to the stigmata of Christ and purged from yesteryear’s polite literature the same way “fuck” is purged from mainstream outlets today (by spelling it “Z— ds!” and leaving readers to figure out the fucking omissions for themselves). Gadzooks— a similar contraction of “God’s hooks” (i.e., the nails of the crucifix)— was apparently considered equally vulgar, back before it ended up as a common expletive in Saturday comics and Bugs Bunny cartoons.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that taking offense at the word “fuck” is, rationally, no less nonsensical than objecting to “gadzooks” or “zounds”— in fact, those latter words should by rights be more offensive, since they hew closer to “taking the Lord’s name in vain”. (As far as I know, no part of scripture forbids taking the name of sex in vain.)  Should be case closed. Case shouldn’t have even been opened in the first place, in any rational universe.




Cut to the present, and here we were: me, author of a book I’m pretty damn proud of in hindsight; she, a teacher who wanted to share that book with a gang of unusually bright students. Standing in our way— reluctantly, I’ve been told— was a department head who quailed at the prospect of teaching a novel that gave so very many fucks. Apparently there’d been trouble in the past. Jobs lost. Parents throwing shit-fits over course material they might have described as progressive, if such folks had ever been able work their way up to three syllables. So, this teacher asked, would it be okay if her students read a bowdlerised version of Blindsight? One from with all the f-bombs had been expunged?

It was a tougher question than you might think.

On one hand, it’s not as though I hammered out the novel thinking Oh boy, I’m gonna introduce fuck to a whole new generation! That’s what this book will be remembered for! I didn’t even think about the use of profanity, beyond the obvious need to ensure that my characters had consistent speech patterns.  Blindsight‘s essential themes could have been conveyed in language pure as the driven snowand it’s those themes that matter, not idioms of dialog.  Here was someone who wanted to introduce her students to riffs on evolution and neurology and human nature that a lot of post-grads never dip their toes into. Here was someone who not only wanted to educate, but challenge. Christ knows I would have benefited from more teachers like that during my own slog through the educational process.  I’m not seriously gonna throw a monkey wrench into her aspirations over a few expurgated curses, am I?  Am I?

And yet.

It’s not so much the change itself that rankles. It’s the demand for that change.  Where it comes from. Where it leads.

Because my work— whether you regard it as art, literature, or florid pulpy hackwork— is my work. You may love a painting or revile it, but you don’t walk into an art gallery and demand that the curator put duct tape over all the yellow bits in various paintings— no matter how easy it would be to do that, no matter if the basic theme of those paintings survives the mutilation. If the sight of yellow elements in paintings offends you, the solution’s simple: don’t go to the fucking gallery.

But these vocal Jesusland parents, who have the staff of this school so terrified: they are evidently not the kind who say I find this book offensive so I will not read it. They are not even the kind who say I do not want my children exposed to this so they will not read it. (If they were, students whose parents objected could simply be excused from that part of the class— problem solved— but this was never presented as a option.)  These parents— these hysterical, brain-dead dipshits with the room-temperature IQs— would say instead I find the profanity in this book offensive so I will have it removed from the curriculum. I will have it removed from the library.  I will have it removed from whatever parts of the world I can intimidate into bowing to my demands.

I find it offensive.  That’s all you need to know.

But isn’t that always the way it is? The line is rarely Abortion’s not for me but rather Abortion should be outlawed. Fundamentalists who demand that their creation myths be inserted into science classes tend to look at you funny when you suggest that likewise, we could insert passages from On the Origin of Species into the book of Genesis. The Ayatollah did not simply opine that The Satanic Verses wasn’t his cup of tea: he literally put out a hit on Salman Rushdie.

Maybe I’m going off the deep end here.  Maybe I’m being a self-important dipshit myself, grandiosely equating a bit of petty bleeping with homicidal fatwas and the bombing of abortion clinics. Certainly there’s no denying that Blindsight‘s troubles down in Jesusland don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to these other things, conflicts where lives are all too often at stake. But that’s kind of my point: I’d hoped that we’d won this small battle at least, that we could move on to bigger fights. It’s been a while since Catcher In the Rye was in the news. A few years back I read something about the fundies raising a stink over The Handmaid’s Tale— but that article left me with the sense that those protesters were some kind of relic population, kept alive only because of a captive-breeding program (sponsored by the Smithsonian, perhaps). PEN still has its work cut out for it but they focus overseas, on third-world totalitarian  regimes that imprison or murder writers of “offensive” or “subversive” material.

I’d hoped  that over here, we’d won on the profanity front at the very least. It’s hard to imagine a smaller victory. There’s still the ongoing war to be fought against the creationists and the racists and homophobes and the trans— hell, let’s just save ourselves a few lines and call them phobics, generic— but by all that’s holy, swear words? We haven’t even come this far, here in 21st-Century N’Am?

Evidently not. Educators in this place literally fear for their jobs, because they want to teach a book containing the word “fuck”.

I’m not claiming that Blindsight, stripped of profanity, would lose something essential. In fact, it’s the very triviality of this censorship that bothers me; it seems like such a ludicrous thing to get worked up about, such a high price to pay for something that really doesn’t matter. Such a little thing to risk one’s livelihood over. So let’s give in, and save ourselves the tantrum. Let’s pay this small, unimportant price. And Nineteen Eighty Four‘s Newspeak dictionary will have one fewer word in it, and Fahrenheit 451‘s grass-roots dystopia will burn one more book that someone considers offensive (That’s all you need to know). Only next time it will be the ideas and not the slang, it’ll be the political statement you have to cut if you want to keep your job, and it’ll be even easier this time because we’ve already taken the first step down that slope.

But that’s okay. After a few more iterations the problem will solve itself— because none of us will have the vocabulary to express dissent any more.

Back here in the present I suggested some workarounds. Maybe they could run the bowdlerized edition off on a Gestetner that blurred the words unto illegibility (I figured, given the outmoded attitudes at play in that part of the world, maybe their educational equipment might be equally antique)— at which point the teacher could simply point them to my website where the original text lay in wait. I seized upon the the department head’s reported objection to teaching a “non-classic” book containing profanity; did this imply that books regarded as “classics” got a pass? (I’m pretty sure To Kill a Mockingbird gets taught without having been purged of the word “nigger”, for instance.) As it happened, Omni had recently stuck my name on a list of “Greatest Sci-Fi Writers of All Time”, right up there with  Orwell, Wolfe, and Le Guin. It was completely bogus, of course— my name doesn’t belong anywhere near those folks, not yet at least— but somehow it had slipped in, and maybe that would be enough to classify Blindsight as a “classic”? No?

Okay, then. Maybe she could replace every instance of the word “fuck” with the name of some local personality, evil and/or corrupt in some way— someone whose name could be used as a common epithet in some dystopian future. I didn’t know who that might be— “Cheney”, “Harper”, and “Trump” would all be candidates on the federal scale, but I didn’t know anything about the local one. Since the teacher knew the locals, though, I figured I could trust her expertise.

That’s the option she went for.

And that, as far as I know, is where things stand. She says she’s cool with me blogging about this (I’ve filed off the serial numbers), and I’m told the students themselves are privy to our email conversation. (She’s also bringing “Mr. Robot” and the BSG reboot into the discussion, to illustrate various strategies by which one might get profanity past Standards & Practices; for this and other reasons, I think she’s pretty cool.)  I expect I’ll be Skyping with the class somewhere along the line. There’s little chance that any of those students will go home thinking that the characters in Blindsight used word like “heck” or “fudgemuffin”. No one will be fooled; in that sense, nothing will be censored.

And yet, I still don’t know quite how to feel about this. Some part of me still thinks I should’ve climbed onto some higher horse and refused to budge, out of sheer ornery principle. There’s not much chance the book will read smoother without the fucks than with them; in that sense, the reading experience has probably been compromised. On the other hand, Blindsight is hardly the smoothest reading experience anyway, even for people with a degree or two under their belt. (I’ve told you all about the smart-ass who asked me when it was going to get translated into English, yuk yuk yuk, right?). I don’t care how “advanced” this class is;  if the biggest problem they have with Blindsight is the rhythm of its curses, I’ll consider myself insanely lucky.

I should consider myself insanely lucky anyway. There are whole libraries of books that any teacher could go to if they wanted to turn their kids on to the joy of reading or the challenge of SF; pretty much every one of those books would be more famous than Blindsight, easier to read, and way less work. And yet, this person has chosen to climb uphill, doing all the heavy lifting herself.  She has become Sisyphus, because she believes that something I wrote might matter to people she teaches.

How often does an author get to say that?

Posted in: ink on art, politics, writing news by Peter Watts 54 Comments

The Dudette With the Clitoris, and Other Thoughts on Star Trek Beyond

I used to be a huge Star Trek fan.

The weird thing is, he did these after "The Forever War"...

The weird thing is, he did these after “The Forever War”…

I watched TOS reruns repeatedly and religiously in high school. Even watched the cartoons. Bought the James Blish episode adaptations, then the (better-written) Alan Dean Foster ones, then an endless series of mostly-forgettable tie-in novels (a few written by the likes of Joe Haldeman and Vonda McIntyre). I reread the Gerrold and Whitfield commentaries until the pages fell out of their bindings. I wrote Star Trek fanfic.The very first con I ever attended was a mid-seventies Trek con at the Royal York. I was pulling graveyard in the Eaton Center’s IT department that summer; I’d work from 10pm to 10am, stumble down to the con for the day, stumble back to work again at night. (My most vivid memory of that weekend was Harlan Ellison introducing his then-wife as the love of his life on Friday evening, then publicly excoriating her as a faithless slut on Sunday afternoon. Not quite sure what happened in between. I may have dozed.)

These, and many others.

These, and many others.

This one too. Did you know that Vulcan urine has the consistency of machine oil, and can kill plant life?

This too. Did you know that Vulcan urine has the consistency of machine oil, and can kill plant life?

I still have the original Franz Joseph blueprints of the Constitution class starship hanging around somewhere, along with the Technical Manual and the Medical Reference Manual and the Star Trek Concordance and the Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology and— I kid you not— the official Star Trek Cooking Manual (authorship attributed to Christine Chapel). I always hated the third season but I blamed NBC for that, not the Great Bird of the Galaxy. I endured The Motionless Picture, breathed a  sigh of relief at The Wrath of Khan, grimly held my nose and watched the first two seasons of Next Gen until they put Gene Roddenberry out to pasture so it could finally get good.

You thought I was kidding, didn't you?

You thought I was kidding, didn’t you?

Of course, this was all seventies-eighties era. Eventually I got tired of lugging a steamer trunk’s worth of paperbacks back and forth across the country and unloaded most of it onto Goodwill. I only made it halfway through DS9, got less than a season into Voyager before giving up on it (honestly, I wanted to throw in the towel after the pilot), and made it about as far as the easy-listening opening-credits song for Enterprise before deciding I’d had enough. I was clean and sober for years afterward, and proud of it.

Point is, I’ve earned a certain amount of ST cred. I didn’t just know episodes, I knew writers (on of my happiest moments was when Norman Spinrad raved about my work in Asimov’s). So I’d argue that my opinion, while watching these Abrams reboots coming down the pike, is not entirely uninformed.  I mostly loved the first one even though it went of the rails in the third act, even though it arbitrarily relocated a whole damn planet (Delta Vega) from the very edge of the galaxy (where it lived in TOS’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) to mutual orbit around Vulcan for chrissakes, a planet which has no moon (“The Man Trap”). I mostly hated Into Dumbness for far more reasons than I mentioned in passing back in 2013. Didn’t really weigh in on either of them here.

A couple of weeks behind the curve, though, we finally checked out Star Trek Beyond, our hopes stoked by its stellar rating on Rotten Tomatoes (No, I will never learn): 216 professional critics, 180 of whom applauded.  And finally having seen it for myself, I gotta ask that Ratey-One Eighty: What the fuck were you on?

Spoilage follows.

But beyond what, exactly? It can't be beyond reason; they haven't got there yet.

But beyond what, exactly? It can’t be beyond reason; they haven’t got there yet.

For starters, forget the bad science. Or at least, forgive it; Star Trek has never been the go-to franchise for rigorous verisimilitude, and that’s okay.  Forget the depiction of “nebulae”   as impenetrable fogs of cloud and rocks jammed so cheek-to-jowl that they’re forever colliding with each other. Just accept whatever weird biological mechanism grants you immortality by turning you into a horny toad (the lizard, not a sexually-aroused amphibian). Forget the fact that we shouldn’t even be using starships any more, since Into Darkness showed us Federation transporters reaching from Earth to the Klingon homeworld without straining, and communicators that did the same without any noticeable time lag.

Let’s put all that aside, and consider these questions instead:

  • Stripey-warrior-girl Jaylah is hiding from Krall’s forces in the wreck of the Franklin, which she has cleverly cloaked to avoid detection. But the Franklin was originally Krall’s ship; he was the one who crashed it on Altamid, back when he was Edison. So why doesn’t he know it’s there now, even though it’s invisible? In fact, why doesn’t the fact that his crashed starship has suddenly vanished raise all manner of red flags, draw attention to Jaylah’s hideout rather than concealing it?
  • Krall— and presumably his whole merry band of lizard-faced minions— are actually human, physically modified as a side-effect of alien life-extension tech. (At least, if his minions weren’t Franklin crew, someone please tell me where they came from; we’re told that Altimid’s original inhabitants abandoned the place centuries ago). So what’s this weird alien language they’re speaking throughout most of the movie, the one that we require subtitles to comprehend? I’m pretty sure it’s not French.
  • The last twenty minutes of the movie or so— basically, the climax— revolve around Kirk chasing a “bioweapon”— imagine that the Smoke Monster from “Lost” had its own Mini-Me— around the vast variable-gravity reaches of Starbase Yorktown. The weapon is on the verge of detonation. Kirk has to fly around and pull on a bunch of levers in a specific sequence to open a convenient airlock and suck it into space. One of the levers gets stuck. The clock ticks down. And not once does anyone say Hey, we’ve got transporters— why don’t we just lock onto the motherfucker from here and beam its squirmy black ass into space?

I mean, seriously: transporter technology and warp drive are the two most iconic  technologies of the whole 50-year-old franchise. Not using the transporter— not even mentioning it— is like putting an asteroid on a collision course with the Enterprise, then expecting us to believe that everyone on the bridge has just kinda forgotten  they can simply move out of the way. Such scenarios do not inspire you to grip your armrests and wonder how our heroes will escape this time; they inspire you to cheer for the fucking asteroid.

Two of these three quibbles are mission-critical plot elements; the story falls apart without them, yet they make no sense. And there are other issues, smaller issues, that chipped away at my increasingly desperate attempts to squeeze a bit of enjoyment out of this rotten fruit.  The lighting was incredibly dark, even in locations that should have been brightly lit; it was as if the theatre’s main projector bulb had burned out and someone was filling in with a flashlight. The sound was almost as muddy as the lighting;  at one point, Caitlin swore she heard someone make reference to “the dudette with the clitoris”, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell her what else it might have been.

Much has been made of Beyond‘s “return to basics” in terms of characterization, which seems like a fancy way of saying that Spock and McCoy get to trade jabs again like they did in the old days. That’s true; but these jabs are soft and flaccid things, never as funny or poignant as some of the sparks that flared between Kelly and Nimoy back in the sixties. “I do not blame him, Doctor.  He is probably terrified of your beads and rattles”; “They do indeed have one redeeming feature. They do not talk too much.”; “I know why you’re not afraid to die: you’re more afraid of living!”

Remember those?

Now take a moment to consider just what Star Trek Beyond has driven me to: it has driven me to praise (albeit in a relative way) the quality of the dialog in sixties-era Star Trek.

I could go on. I could complain about the absurdity of a soldier who felt abandoned by the Federation because “Starfleet is not a military organization”— despite the fact that Starfleet’s ships are armed to the teeth, and carry out military engagements with the Federation’s enemies, and are crewed by uniformed people assigned military ranks who follow a military chain-of-command. (Yup, no military organization here. Just the galaxy’s best cosplayers…)  I could remark upon the surrealism of two Starfleet captains locked in mortal combat while berating each other about their respective Captain’s logs: I read your diary! Yeah, well, I read your diary!—

Evidently, in this timeline, Starfleet captains tweet their logs for all to see. You might be forgiven for wondering if this doesn’t constitute some kind of security issue, were it not for the fact that Starfleet is not a military organization.

I could also go on at lesser length about the good things the movie served up. The FX were great, when you could see ’em.  Nice to see a Universal Translator that needs to be programmed now and then, and which actually voices-over audible alien dialog instead of magically reshaping the speaker’s sounds and mouth movements into English. I liked the almost-sorta invocation of nearest-neighbor algos to explain the schooling behavior of the alien swarm, even if they used a hokey made-up name and hand-waved the exploit. The acting was fine; the cast, for the most part, both honor and improve upon the legacy they’ve inherited. And—

Well, to be honest, that’s pretty much it. Not great Star Trek. Not a great movie.

And you know what really doesn’t make much sense? I’ll still probably go see the next one when it comes out.

Maybe I shouldn’t have tossed all those paperbacks after all.



Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 32 Comments

Insect Awakenings.

Another PSA announcement: If anyone’s trying to email me, I’m not ignoring you. I haven’t got email for going on 4 days now. Alleged attempts by Dreamhost (the ISP that hosts to fix the problem have so far succeeded in changing its status from from “Everything’s pretty much cool, just a bit of leftover email congestion for a couple of users” to “critical problems, no estimated fix time, you’re hosed, we’ve disabled comments on the status update page, and we won’t even pretend to answer any follow-up queries.” So I don’t know when I’ll have a chance to even read any emails, much less respond to them.

In the meantime though, have a look at this expanded Director’s Cut edition of a recent Nowa Fantastyka column.


The study looks almost perfect, if ridiculously low-tech: the kind of thing an undergrad might do with a budget of $3.50. All you need is a mirror, a piece of Plexiglas, and a bunch of ants.

Oh, and blue paint. The whole thing comes down to blue paint.

Start with the Plexiglas. Put Ant A on one side, Ant B on the other. Ant A shows no reaction to its buddy at all. So far so good.

Stick it in front of a mirror. Now it pays attention. Goes up to the glass, taps its reflection, shows interest it never showed with the real ant on the other side of the plexi. Interesting.

Maybe closer than you think.

Maybe closer than you think. (Photo: screen grab from Phase IV.)

Maybe it’s reacting to something in the mirror, some chemical in the silver backing perhaps. So put a dot of blue paint on its head and put it in front of the mirror again. This time it checks out its reflection and starts grooming its head, as if to get rid of that weird-ass dot that just appeared there. It never tries to groom its reflection, which is where it actually saw the paint.

This is starting to get creepy.

Okay, um, maybe it could just feel the paint up there. Maybe it itched or something. So try a speck of brown, ant-coloured paint, something that won’t be visually obvious in reflection.

No grooming.

Put a speck of blue paint on the back of the head, where the ant can’t see it in a mirror. No grooming.

I’m not one to jump to conclusions, but I’m having a hard time interpreting these results in any way other than: ants recognize themselves in mirrors. Which means they pass a test frequently used as an index of self-awareness, a test that even some higher primates fail.

The stats seem sound, generally returning P-values of less than 0.001 (for the statistical neophytes in the crowd, that means the odds of getting those results by random chance are less than 1 in 1000). But the remarkable thing is, the researchers didn’t even do stats on most of their results. They couldn’t do stats, because there was no variation in the data. All the face-painted ants groomed their faces once they saw themselves in a mirror; none of the unpainted ones did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clean data in a behavioural study before.

Yup. Sure looks like a top-flight journal to me...

Yup. Sure looks like a top-flight journal to me…

What is this simple-yet-profound experiment, this rock-solid research with the batshit crazy results? Why, it’s “Are ants capable of self recognition?“, by Marie-Claire Cammaerts and Roger Cammaerts. Where will you find it? In the Journal of Science, a publication whose website veritably screams JunkWoo. The title bar on its website looks like a banner ad for generic penis pills. Just below that you’ll see, for some reason, a stock photo of a smiling dude in safety goggles and a yellow hard hat. “Instruction to Author” is either a typo or a tacit admission that every paper in the journal is written by the same person under different pen names. Even the journal’s name seems designed to encourage confusion with more respectable platforms (“the journal, Science?” “American Journal of Science?” “Journal of Science Education?”) while simultaneously discouraging investigation into its actual pedigree. (Google the phrase “Journal of Science”: you’ll get 67,000,000 hits. I scrolled through the first 300 and couldn’t find a single link to the actual journal.)

The Cammaerts are not flakes. They’re well-published in respected, peer-reviewed journals. I don’t know what they’re doing in the Journal of Science, unless they lost a drunken bet at a party somewhere. Or maybe their results are just so incredible that no one else would publish them.

I’m thinking maybe it’s that second thing. If you go to Wikipedia’s page on “Mirror Test”, pull back the curtain and read the backstage discussion, you’ll see editors and commenters stating that they “flat out don’t believe those results”, even while others praise the methodology that produced them. The idea that ants can self-recognize just opens too big a can of worms.

And yet, Cammaerts and Cammaerts are not entirely alone. Way back in 2010, writing in the top-of-the-line Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Björn Brems described research suggesting that fruit flies have Free Will. It wasn’t “free will” in the classic sense— it basically amounted to any behaviour complex enough to make you unpredictable to predators— but as anyone conversant with the literature will tell you, that’s pretty much the only kind of free will we humans can lay claim to as well (albeit with more bells and whistles). And just this year, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ran a piece called “What Insects can tell us about the origins of consciousness“, by Andrew Barrona and Colin Klein.

Evidence against vertebratism. Modified from Barrona and Klein 2016.

Evidence against vertebratism. Modified from Barrona and Klein 2016.

Barrona and Klein argue that vertebrate consciousness is seated in the midbrain, which acquires information about both the organism’s internal state and its external environment. It integrates these into a model that generates behavioural goals— if your internal state is too hot then move somewhere cooler, that sort of thing— and relays those goals to the motor system. The midbrain contains all the elements necessary to sense, navigate, and survive in a given environment. Barrona and Klein argue that such integration is the root of consciousness, and point out insect brain structures serving the same functions; they conclude that insects should experience comparable levels of awareness. (Nematodes, lacking comparable structures, would not.)

It’s important not to go off the deep end here. There’s a huge difference between consciousness and self-awareness, between sentience and sapience (and a belated thankyou to Leonid Korogodski for hammering that difference home to me many years ago); an organism can have conscious experiences without consciously reflecting on their own existence. And the Mirror Test has always struck me as a questionable metric for self-awareness anyway (for one thing, it’s easy to envision an algorithm that recognizes the self without being aware of the self). But the traditional view of insects as mere computer programs wrapped in chitin, utterly deterministic in their behaviour, appears to be wrong. Stimulus A does not always provoke Response B, as you’d expect from purely deterministic reflexes; sometimes the insect is focused on other input, sometimes it can be distracted. We are learning that insects pay attention to things. It seems increasingly likely that their experiences are conscious ones, to at least some extent. Consciousness may be far more ancient, far more widespread than we ever suspected.

Which means that suffering is, too, by the same token.

I’m not sure why, but I bet that explains a lot.



Posted in: neuro, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 38 Comments

Virtual Appearances, Virtual Realities

Couple of PSAs to start out with:

  1. I’m going to be participating in tomorrow’s Future of Mind Symposium, put on by the Center for Transformative Media down in NYC. (I will, no big surprise, be participating via video-link to reduce the chances of getting killed and/or arrested en route.) The event is free, but you gotta register. Also they’ve already had to move to a bigger venue so I don’t know how available tickets might be.
  2. Spacecat.


    I’ve already participated in another interview with Jasun Horsley’s “Liminality” podcast. This time, like the last, we rambled on so long that it ended up being a two-parter. As of this writing only the first hour is up; according to the page summary we discoursed erratically on UFOs, Michael Persinger’s helmet, abduction narratives and sexual abuse, J. Allen Hynek and close encounters, MKULTRA, the parliament of voices, ritual abuse and False Memory Syndrome’s disinformation campaign, Whitley Strieber & the Nazi-US alliance, Elizabeth Loftus, using satanic elements as cover to invalidate memories of abuse, and organized pedophilia in the British aristocracy. To name but a few. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the whole thing, so I have no idea how coherent or incoherent it might be. Think of it as sitting across from us at a bar after I’ve had a few drinks.

Gotta love what Jasun does to my author photos, though. He swears that any resemblance of that upper-right yellow blob to a seventies-era Space Invader is purely accidental.


“Nothing is real.”
—John Lennon

So. The latest variant on the classic double-slit experiment continues to support what all other such experiments have supported in the past, namely that whether something behaves like a particle or a wave depends upon whether it’s being surveilled, which demonstrates in turn that (in the words of the study’s author) “reality does not exist if you are not looking at it”, which in yet another turn means that nothing makes any fucking sense whatever. I’ve always clung to the belief that it all does make sense, but — because stuff that happens on quantum scales has no relevance to the process of natural selection up here in the classical world— our brains simply aren’t wired in a way that lets us grok such things intuitively. But let’s put that aside for now, because I think I might have come up with an explanation for all this quantum dumbness that actually does make sense at classical scales:

Nick Bostrom is right. We’re all living in a simulation. More, these dual-slit experiments suggest that (and here’s my little contribution, which probably has its head up its ass because I don’t know anything about this stuff but bear with me) we’re living in a simulation with a really low budget.

We are somewhere below the line

We are somewhere below the line

Most of you already know Bostrom’s argument. For the rest of you, his reasoning boils down to 1) if it’s possible to create simulations with self-aware inhabitants, and 2) if some advanced species is inclined to actually build such sims, then 3) there are probably way more simulated universes (>>1) than real ones (=1). Which means, based purely on the odds, that we are far more likely to be living in one of a myriad simulations than we are in a singular baseline reality.

I’ve always liked this thought. It fits in nicely with the whole Digital Physics paradigm that seems to have taken root in the Physics community. It jibes with the way reality seems to kinda “stop” below a certain scale of resolution (Planck Length and Planck Time may be no more than pixel dimensions and clock cycles). And if enough studies like Bean et al come down the pike— and if they hold up— the Simulation Hypothesis might even find its way out of the it’s-untestable-so-it’s-not-science swamp that’s mired String Theory for so long.

So what do we know about our own baby steps into building simulated realities? We know that when you’re playing Fallout 4, the graphics engine doesn’t waste energy rendering the landscape behind you. We know that when you put on your Oculus Rifts, they don’t paint the vista at the back of your head. Why should they? Nobody’s looking there. Oh, they keep all the pointers and variables on hand, sure. They’re completely capable of rendering the world to your left the moment you turn your gaze in that direction. But they don’t actually solidify any part of the world until someone looks at it.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Maybe not so Unreal an Engine after all...

Maybe not so Unreal an Engine after all…

First-person gaming is a pretty good metaphor for quantum indeterminacy; nothing is real until observed. Maybe it’s more than a metaphor. Maybe we’re living in a cut-rate Bostrom sim, one that can’t afford the computing power to render everything in hi-res detail all the time— so it cuts corners, saves cycles only for those parts of the model that are being observed.

Maybe there’s nothing insane or counterintuitive about quantum indeterminacy after all. Maybe it’s perfectly understandable— depressingly familiar, even— to anyone who’s lived on a grad-student budget.

Posted in: astronomy/cosmology, Digital Physics by Peter Watts 65 Comments

Shooting Back.

For at least three years now— probably longer— I’ve been worrying at a perpetually-unfinished blog post that tries to take an economic approach to murders committed by cops. I’ve never posted it, for reasons that should be obvious when I outline its essentials. The basic argument is that conventional attempts to reform police behavior are doomed to fail for two reasons:

  1. the cost (to a cop) of gunning down the average black person in the street is low; and
  2. the cost of not covering for your buddy when he guns down someone in the street is high.

I don’t believe these are especially controversial claims. We all know how rare it is to see a cop indicted, even when there’s video evidence of him choking the life out of someone or shooting them in the back. The astonishingly high rate of “equipment failure” experienced by body cams on the beat is old news. When you’re used to that level of invulnerability, why not indulge in a little target practice if you’re so inclined?

Likewise, the Blue Wall of Silence is news to no one. It is very difficult to get a cop to turn in their fellows because their very lives may depend on their partner having their back at a critical moment. You get a rep as a rat, your backup may just look the other way for that critical half-second when a real threat draws down on you. (I once compared civilian-police interactions to dealing with snakes in the desert: 95% may be nonpoisonous, but it’s still a good idea to pack an antivenom kit when you head out. No, said the person I was talking with, the cops are worse: with snakes, at least the nonpoisonous 95% don’t go out of their way to protect the other five.)

So: cost of murder low. Cost of turning in murderer high. These are the economics of Homicide: Cops on the Street. Seems to me, the only way to change the current pattern is to change those economic costs. For example, what if you increased the cost of not turning in a bad cop? What if, every time you didn’t turn in a badged murderer, you yourself stood significantly higher odds of getting killed?

What if we started shooting back?

Not at the guilty cop, of course. He’d be too well protected, too on guard by the time the word got out. But what if, for every cop who gets away with murder, some other random cop within a certain radius— say, 200 miles— was shot in reprisal? It wouldn’t matter that they were innocent. In fact, their innocence would be central to the whole point: to make the nonvenomous 95% stop covering for those “few bad apples” we’re constantly being told is the heart of the problem. The point would be to raise the price of collusion enough make those 95-percenters think twice. Simple economics.

From Ross, 2015.

From Ross, 2015. Risk Ratio (of getting killed by police): Black-and-Unarmed to White-and-Unarmed.

Of course it’s not justice; you’d be killing an innocent person. But we’re way past the point at which justice should have any say in the matter. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of justice in the number of people who get gunned down by police on an ongoing basis. There’s little justice in the statistical finding that on average in the US, unarmed blacks are 3.5 times more likely to be gunned down by cops than unarmed whites (over 20 times as likely in some corners of that benighted country). Anyone who tells you that you must remain polite, respectful, and most of all nonviolent while your fellows are being mowed down like mayflies has either chosen a side (hint: it ain’t yours), or drunk about ten litres of Kool-Aid.

When it comes to game theory, tit-for-tat remains the most effective strategy.


I never published that blog post. Never even finished it. The solution seemed way too naive and simplistic, for one thing. In a world of rainbows and unicorns cops might do the math, realize that murdering unarmed black people endangered themselves, and change their evil ways— but if we lived in a world of rainbows and unicorns, cops wouldn’t be murdering with impunity in the first place. In this world, it seems a lot more likely that things would simply escalate, that police forces across the US— already militarized to the eyeballs— would go into siege mood, feel increasingly justified in shooting at every shadow (or at least the dark ones). They’d rather put the whole damn country under martial law than lose face by backing down.

It also didn’t help that I’ve known some very decent people who happen to be cops— one a 9-11 first responder, another who actually reads my books and writes his own— and while that wouldn’t change the logic of the argument one iota, random assassination is still a fate I wouldn’t wish on good people. Because when it comes right down to it this is wish-fulfillment, for all the economic and game-theory rationales I might invoke. It was born in my gut, not my neocortex. Every time I read about another Philando Castile or Alton Sterling, I want to start throwing bombs myself. (My greatest disappointment in Bruce Cockburn welled up when he back-pedaled on “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”.)

I want the fuckers to pay, and I know they won’t.

Oh, maybe this month’s killers have some rough times in store— the public documentation of those crimes was so incontrovertible that the politicians don’t really have the option of sweeping them under the rug. But viral videos of murder in progress didn’t send Eric Garner’s killers to jail. Nobody got indicted for the murder of Sandra Bland. The killer of Samuel DuBose is at least awaiting trial, but given the history of such proceedings dating back to Rodney King I’m not counting on any convictions. And those victims are the lucky ones, the ones “fortunate” enough to be gunned down on camera. What about the greater number whose deaths happen out of camera range, whose killers are free to make up any story that fits without fear of contradiction or scrutiny by a legal system which continues, unfathomably, to treat the word of a police officer as golden?

They keep getting killed. And we keep rending our garments and sending them our fucking thoughts and prayers, and the moment they block a road or stop a parade or express a fraction of the rage that is their due we back away and tell them that they won’t get anywhere with that kind of attitude. We trot out the same insipid MLK Jr. quotes about the virtues of nonviolence, about peace being the only way to achieve “dialog” or “brotherhood”— as if the people who have them in the crosshairs give a flying fuck about any of that. We tell them to have patience, to let the system work because we’ve got the evidence now, everyone saw it on YouTube, no way those fucking cops will walk away from it this time— and yet they do. Time and time again. The cops walk away from it.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman. According to the Atlantic article from which I cadged this photo, a number of readers sided with the police.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman. According to the Atlantic article from which I cadged this photo, a number of readers sided with the police.

Why should the black community care about alienating us? Why should they give us another chance to express our shared anguish and deepest sympathies, only to have us wag our fingers at them the moment we’re inconvenienced? A quarter-century after Rodney King, why should they believe that the next time will be different, or the next, or the time after?

What’s left to try, except fighting fire with fire?

That is where my game-theory imaginings came from: not some rational step-by-step multivariate analysis, but vicarious rage. And while I might be able to construct such an analysis to yield the same result; no matter how rationally I might to put that argument; no matter how many of you I might even convince— all I’d have really done would be to craft a clever excuse to let my brain stem off the leash. I try to be better than that.

Which doesn’t make keeping it to myself all this time feel any less like a betrayal of some principle I can’t quite put my finger on.


Anyway, I never posted it. And now the scenario’s been realized anyway: five cops dead, six others critical. All innocent, so far as we know (although if they were black civilians, I’m sure Fox would already be pointing out that they were no angels…) All shot in direct retaliation for the murder of black people, for the sins of their brethren.

The only deviation from my own scenario is that the shooter didn’t get away alive. They blew him up, used a robot carrying a bomb on its arm like it was delivering a pizza.

The usual aftermath. People “coming together”. Pastors and politicians urging calm. The same old Kingisms and Ghandi-isms popping up like impetigo sores all over Facebook. Everyone expressing support for the members of the Dallas Police Force, chiefed by a black man who has, by all accounts, turned that department into a model of progressive policing and perhaps the worst target Micah Johnson could have chosen. (Although it bears mention that that same progressive chief, and those same progressive policies, are apparently quite unpopular with the DPF rank-and-file.) As usual, none of this seems to have had much impact on the tendency of certain cops to gun people down and lie about it afterward (I mean, Jesus— by now you’d think they’d dial back the shootings on account of the optics if nothing else). So far, nothing out of the ordinary.

Except now, here and there across the US, these other people have begun threatening reprisals against other cops. There’ve been some actual shootings. Copycat attacks, you might call them. Or perhaps “inspired reprisals” might be a better term.

Micah Johnson is becoming a role model.

So what now? Have we finally reached critical mass? Is this a smattering of isolated blips, or the start of a chain reaction? Have we finally reached a tipping point, will black lives matter enough to starting shooting back? Given the stats on the ground, who among you will blame them if they do?

For my part, I’m more glad than ever that I didn’t make that blog post. At least nobody can blame me for the events of the past few days. (Don’t laugh— following my post on Trump’s burning of America, I had at least one long-time fan renounce me completely for “throwing [him] under the bus”, as if my thoughts might have even an infinitesimal impact on the unfolding of US politics. Some people seriously overestimate my influence on the world stage.)

I have no idea what’s in store. I’m not sure I want to find out.

All I know is this: if we are, finally at long last, starting to reap the whirlwind— no one can say it hasn’t been a long time coming.

Posted in: politics, rant by Peter Watts 87 Comments