Pones and Bones: A Trip to Anti-Narnia.

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

I’ll name the artist as soon as I find out who it is.

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.




Posted in: ink on art, misc, writing news by Peter Watts 14 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 60 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:


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

No Answers. Only Choices.

(A lightly edited reprint of a recent Nowa Fantastyka column.)

My stuff has been compared, on occasion, to the work of Stanislaw Lem. I find this intimidating. It’s kind of a high bar to clear; when expectations are calibrated to such altitudes, it’s easy to fall short.

Fortunately there’s a way to distract from that constant likelihood of failure; if you’re not quite up to scrambling onto the shoulders of giants, you can always rip into the efforts of others who’ve tried. So today I’m going to take a look back at what is probably Lem’s crowning literary achievement, as interpreted through the eyes of two outsiders. One of these is Russian— Andrei Tarkovsky— and his vision has been hailed as a cinematic classic: nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, winner of the Jury Grand Prize there, winner of Japan’s Seiun Award and frequently cited as one of the greatest SF films ever made.

The other outsider is American. Steven Soderbergh’s vision won no awards, tanked so badly in theatres it never even recouped its production costs, and was reviled by no less a luminary than Salman Rushdie before it was even made.

I’m talking, of course, about Solaris. Guess which version I prefer.

It’s not that there’s anything egregiously wrong with Tarkovsky’s; it is in many ways a truly beautiful film, apparently conceived at least partly in opposition to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but somehow ending up as more of an homage to that film. Tarkovsky’s hypnotic opening sequence, framing a lush and beautiful Earth in a series of static shots,

Which is not to say that Kubrick's vision is devoid of humanity.  You just have to look closely.

Which is not to say that Kubrick’s vision is devoid of humanity. You just have to look closely.

both echoes and contradicts the arid, hard-focus desert vistas that boot up 2001. The closing reveal of an astronaut trapped in an alien simulacrum of home is conceptually identical to the final scenes of Kubrick’s masterpiece. There’s even a man-taking-an-extremely-long-time-to-pass-through-tunnels-of-light sequence, although in Tarkovsky’s vision the highways are of human construction, the bright streamers courtesy of headlamps and taillights rather than hyperspatial stargates[1].

Although to be fair, Tarkovsky probably had a smaller budget to work with.

Although to be fair, Tarkovsky probably had a smaller budget to work with.

Tarkovsky uses his lengthy earthbound prolog to frame Solaris in an epistemological context, to question the nature and utility of knowledge itself: what’s the worth of any pile of disjointed facts, no matter how impressive, if there’s no coherent way to fit them together? Should we seek knowledge at any price? These are essential elements of Lem’s novel, and it’s nice to see them included (although apparently Lem hated the prolog in which they were conveyed). And of course, Lem’s more central rumination on the futility of communication with any truly alien intelligence is right up my alley.

So, a lot to admire. The problem I have with Tarkovsky’s Solaris is not so much with its payload as with how it’s delivered. This is a movie that tells, not shows; it’s jam-packed with monologs and arguments that belabor obvious points. People witter on endlessly about the morality of data collection, or declaim upon Man’s Place in the Cosmos while generally being assholes to one another. (One of them helpfully remarks that “We are losing our dignity and human character!”, just in case we’ve missed that point). Near the end of the film, protagonist Kris Kelvin delivers a delirious ramble about Love and Suffering.

This fondness for discourse reaches an almost ridiculous extreme within minutes of Kelvin’s arrival on the station. Almost immediately upon debarking he starts glimpsing things and people that shouldn’t be there, apparitions presenting themselves in defiance of all logic and expectation. And yet—where you and I might be inclined to grab the nearest crew member by the lapels and say “What is that dwarf doing in your cabin and how did he get here?”— Kelvin just keeps arguing with the locals about the personal integrity of his dead friend Gibarian. It’s a level of incuriosity so profound as to be almost inhuman, a triumph of verbiage over logic that runs through the whole damn movie.

Let us take a moment here to allow you all to roll your eyes at the fact that I, of all people, have the nerve to complain about talkiness in a science fiction story. There you go. Get it out of your system.

Now let’s look at the 2002 iteration of the same story.

It took three quarters of an hour to get us to Solaris in 1972. Soderburgh gets us there in seven minutes; and when we arrive we don’t find the station littered with the refuse and dismembered power cables that Tarkovsky showed us. Soderbergh’s station is pristine, icy, all mirrors and edges and gleaming alloy— which makes the bloodstains smeared across those surfaces even more ominous. Less is more: there’s a minimalism here which heightens the impact.

For chrissakes Tarkovsky, would it kill you to clean up a bit when we're having company over?

For chrissakes, Andrei, would it kill you to clean up a bit when we’re having company over?  Why can’t you be more like Steve here?

Soderbergh’s characters are more believable, too. The first time Kelvin sees someone that doesn’t belong, he gives chase; finding someone who does, his first question is What are those things? His reaction to the sudden manifestation of his dead wife at his side— shock, denial, a struggle to rein in bubbling panic and stay rational, for chrissake— is perfect.

Tarkovsky's Solaris.

Mare Tarkovskia.

Soderbergh’s movie loses more of the novel than Tarkovsky’s does, but is arguably better for it. The epistemology is mostly jettisoned (Solaristics is no esoteric quest for knowledge here, but a grubby hunt for commercial applications), and the viscous self-modeling clay of Lem’s sentient ocean has been replaced by a luminous world suffused in flickering aurorae and sheet lightning. Maybe there’s still an ocean down there, generating all those lights. Maybe it’s something else entirely. The movie doesn’t say; nowhere throughout those stripped-down 94 minutes does anyone explicitly describe what Solaris even is, beyond alien and intelligent[2]. And yet there’s something undeniably synaptic about all those writhing flux lines, something that conveys intelligence without the need for exposition. We see the lights move as Kelvin dreams, we watch those bright filigreed tendrils make connections and forge luminous pathways, and somehow we know that Solaris is watching, and taking notes. It’s a brilliant bit of visual shorthand.

Mare Soderburgh.

Mare Soderburgh.

Soderbergh trusts us to connect the dots. That’s the difference. Both films, for example, thumbnail human anthropocentrism with an elegant observation from Lem’s novel: “We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.” But while Tarkovsky buries that gem in an extended framing debate between characters, Soderbergh presents it almost in isolation: a prerecorded snippet from a dead man, playing in the background.

And yet for all the frugality with which he doles out his data points, Soderbergh does offer up something that Tarkovsky denied us: a few moments of something that might pass as actual honest-to-God contact (assuming it’s not just another troubled dream— although can there even be mere dreams when Solaris is walking through your brain?). Kelvin awakens to find his dead friend sitting at his side, eyes glinting from deep within a featureless silhouette. “What does it want?” Kelvin asks the apparition, and I can’t help hearing does it turn into do you in my head. “Why does Solaris have to want something?” says the man-shaped thing in the darkness. “If you keep thinking there’s a solution, you’ll die here. There are no answers. Only choices.”

That’s Lem’s thesis in a nutshell, right there. If anything like those lines were ever spoken in Tarkovsky’s movie, I missed them in all the sound and fury.

There is also a profoundly human element to Soderbergh’s thought experiment that’s missing from Tarkovsky’s. It’s a bit paradoxical. Both movies tell the same story, draw their plots and characters from the same well. If words and emotions are the conduits through which relationships occur, you’d expect to find the strongest human interactions in the movie with the most verbiage, the loudest histrionics— not in George Clooney’s minimalist performance, which has been described as “wooden”. But Clooney’s Kelvin is not a man without emotion; he’s a man whose emotions would overwhelm him if he ever let them out. He doesn’t exposit about his backstory (he doesn’t have to— the movie does, through a series of flashbacks) but you can see it there in the eyes, in the tremor in his voice. As the final curtain falls, the sight of Kelvin in his kitchen— performing the same rote actions that occupied him at the start of the film— evokes the scene in 2001 where space-suited astronauts touch the unburied monolith in the same tentative way their ancestors did, four million years before.

Soderbergh’s subtext is more disturbing, though. Both echoes use repetition to convey a sense of stagnation— but while Kubrick was suggesting that Humanity, for all its artifice, hasn’t really changed, Soderbergh’s Kelvin doesn’t even exist by the end of his movie. What we’re seeing is another simulacrum. And the tragedy is not that this isn’t the real Kelvin, but that the real Kelvin had so thoroughly suppressed his own humanity that it doesn’t really matter that he’s been replaced. Solaris plays with itself, endlessly running its humanoid puppets through the same routines. Maybe it puts them through those paces in service of some profound alien insight; maybe it’s just mindlessly re-enacting the obsessions and rituals that shone brightest in human minds when it was listening in. It’s Lem’s thesis of cosmic futility made intimate, humane, and even more tragic. In contrast, Tarkovsky’s decision to close the same loop using tacked-on daddy issues— invented completely independent of the novel— feels contrived and empty.

There is a double irony in the way these movies were put together. Tarkovsky built his thought experiment in the mold of 2001, a philosophical investigation in which human characters are mere chess pieces to be moved in service of a greater agenda; yet his dialog-heavy approach is the very antithesis of Kubrick’s largely-silent masterpiece. Soderbergh, in contrast, layered a deeply human story onto Lem’s intellectual thesis and made me feel for his characters— yet paradoxically, he drew me in with the same minimalist tools that Kubrick used to put us at a distance.

Both directors created thoughtful, engaging experiments out of Lem’s canonical work. But Soderbergh made me care about the rats as well as marvel at the maze in which they found themselves. That’s a trick even Kubrick didn’t manage, and it’s one I’d love to learn how to do myself someday.

Perhaps that’s the biggest reason I prefer Soderberg’s vision: it gives me something to aspire to. It’s not just a better movie than Tarkovsky’s. Ignored, panned, commercially unsuccessful, I believe that— in a very real way— it’s a better movie even than 2001.

How astonishing, to find myself admitting that.



[1] It’s not just Tarkovsky. Both he and Soderbergh owe almost as much to Stanley as to Stanislaw, from the look and pacing of their films right down to the atonal, Ligeti-like soundtracks that back up those images.

[2] I thought they might, at one point. The simulacrum of Kelvin’s wife looks out the viewport and exclaims “What is that?”— to which Kelvin replies “Solaris”, setting the scene for a bit of helpful exposition. But Rheya only nods— “Oh my God, yes…”— and the moment passes. I suspect Soderbergh may have done that just to yank the chains of viewers who wanted it all spelled out…

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 30 Comments

Black Wedding: The Re-emergence of Lenie Clarke.



Let’s get the trivial notes and minutes out of the way first. Echopraxia, “Collateral”, and “The Colonel” all made it onto the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2014. (Still no love for “Giants”, I see, though I continue to love it as perhaps only a father can). Echopraxia (which I’m told has gone into a second hardcover printing, which comes as more of a relief than a delight) has also popped up over at CBC of all places, on a lonely little page with no intro and zero comments— yet accompanied by a pithy little excerpt from the middle of the book, so someone obviously at least read it halfway. I have no idea what it’s doing there. It  just sprouted under “CBC Books” for some reason.

Maybe it has something to do with my recent co-appearance with Alyx Dellamonica at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference (yes, that’s really what it’s called). That was largely Lexus’ doing. She has a certain ease with distributors and publishers, whereas my own experience has taught me to just kind of crouch down and avoid them. Lexus dragged me into the light and we sat there at the Raincoast booth on a January afternoon, where I felt all pleased and warm because there was this lineup and so many people wanted us to sign our books for various school libraries even after I suggested that maybe I could personalize each with a pro-recreational-drug-use message next to my signature. I actually felt really good until Lexus confessed later, over Innis & Gunns, that nobody had actually bought any of our books. Raincoast had just given them away for promotional purposes. It made me sad.

Anyway, I’m wondering if Raincoast might also be behind the whole CBC thing, whatever it is.

Latest report from the Barn Door Post-Horse Department: I’ve installed a WordPress Plug-in— accessible from the bottom of the Author page or the [Contact] link over on the side-bar— which allows newcomers to send me emails without revealing my own email in turn. Those already privy to that info might as well keep using it (it’s not as though our interactions have been anything but pleasant, from this side of the exchange at least). Just be aware that from here on in, you’ll all be on the suspects list for any death threats sent to my personal address.


Born Again.

Born Again.

Today’s headline, though, hails from Poland, where Adam Rotter took a gorgeous-yet-macabre turn from his usual day job as a wedding photographer to cast his partner, Karolina Cisowska, as Lenie Clarke. Together they’ve done a 16-shot spread[1] inspired by specific passages from Maelstrom.  It’s over on facebook under the project heading “Syrena” (which I assume translates as “Siren” and not the more biological interpretation involving manatees). But I have, with Adam’s permission, posted the pics here at rifters.com, together with the associated inspirational snippets o’prose, over in the Rifters Gallery. View. Enjoy.

And my profound thanks to Adam and Karolina. From the in-your-face black rotting skull right down the telescoping shockprod in Lenie’s hand, these are just gorgeous.

[1] At least, I think it’s 16— it’s grown from the three or four that were posted a couple of weeks back when I first mentioned it over on facebook, so maybe it’s still in progress.

Posted in: ink on art, misc, rifters by Peter Watts 11 Comments

The Slippery Step-Function: Or, Reasons to be Cheerful.

Really, not so much.

Really, not so much.

An overseas pixel-pal sent me a link to a Daily Mail (UK) piece on the Davos Forum a few days back. I think he expected me to be tickled by the second half of the headline:

Harvard professors warn ‘privacy is dead’ and predict mosquito-sized robots that steal samples of your DNA

—but predictably, it was the front end of that sentence that got under my skin. And on the off chance that the headline hadn’t hammered the point home with sufficient force, the bullet points beneath beat the horse to death:

  • Researchers told Davos that privacy is already non existent
  • Say technology will allow governments and insurance firms to steal DNA
  • Also claims the same technology could help eradicate disease

It’s a tired old story— or at least it seems old, possibly because we’ve heard it so many times. Hell, you’ve heard it repeatedly even here: about that story in Wired, the self-proclaimed cutting-edge voice of the tech-savvy, offering up a token lament for the Cloud’s lack of security before telling us all that there’s no going back so we might as well just get used to it. (Late-breaking update: and sweet smoking Jesus, they’re at it again.) Robert Sawyer debating at the Gallen Symposium, leading off with Scott McNealy’s infamous claim that “You already have zero privacy: get over it”, and proceeding to claim that this was a good thing, something that would make the world a better place.   Not to mention our old buddy David Brin.  But the Daily Mail’s bullet points— and the story that followed— show pretty much the textbook talking points you’ll find in all such arguments:

  1. You have no privacy;
  2. There’s no way to regain your privacy;
  3. But hey, that’s actually a good thing! Think of all the great travel recommendations Google will be able to serve up, once it can read your mind! Think of all the diseases we can cure and contain, now that everyone is being tracked! Think of all the lost puppies we can find!
Third one from the left, actually.

Third one from the left, actually.

It’s especially easy, these days, to believe the first two points at least. Over in the UK, after the overwhelming rejection of the so-called “Snooper’s Charter”— a law that would have forced ISPs to monitor their customers’ online activity and turn it over to pretty much anyone who dressed up like one of the Village People— politicians are still trying to sneak the same damn provisions into different pieces of legislation, hoping that one of these days no one will notice. Here in Canada, the Harper Administration has just tabled a new Bill to Keep Us Safe From Jihadists by, among other things, expanding the surveillance state, reducing civil rights protections, and making it illegal to “promote terrorism” online (which is especially troubling when you remember that “terrorists” is a term that now includes environmental activists). I was chuffed, earlier this week, to see Techdirt harken back to the fears I posted last October on this very ‘crawl. I only wish it had been under happier circumstances.

Naturally, all this extra power comes 100% Oversight-free!, which should be a surprise to no one. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is that CSIS (Canada’s spy agency) is not getting any extra money to go along with the bigger club. They’ve already admitted that they don’t have anywhere near the budget to deal with their current watchlist; there’d seem little point in giving them even more tewwowists to spy on when they can’t handle those already on their plate. This has led some to suggest that the bill is more about electioneering than security, that its purpose is to make anyone who opposes it look “weak on terror” in an election year. It’s not really meant to work.

Perhaps. But that presupposes that Islamic extremists are actually the target of the legislation, and not just the pretext. You don’t need a greatly expanded budget if you’re going after, for example, Amnesty International activists. Or pipeline protestors.

Plenty of people have called Harper evil. I don’t know of anyone who ever called him stupid.

Meanwhile, down in the US— the country that started it all, with its pervasive and mind-boggling surveillance of friend and foe alike— those in power are finally talking about passing laws to rein in unchecked— well, encryption, actually. Because they don’t like it when they can’t spy on us, and they especially don’t like it when companies like Apple and Google— late to the party as they may be— finally wake up to the fact that there are better ways to attract customers than selling them out to every Sheriff Bubba who knocks at the door without a warrant. They don’t like the fact that end-to-end encryption is catching on, that the system is reconfiguring itself so that admins won’t be physically able to comply with Bubba even if they want to. The FBI wants to ban encryption, at least the gummint-proof kind. The Justice Department fears that giving citizens too much privacy will result in a “zone of lawlessness” in which bogeymen might flourish. “Tor obviously was created with good intentions,” admits Leslie Caldwell, assistant attorney general, “but it’s a huge problem for law enforcement. There are a lot of online supermarkets where you can do anything from purchase heroin to buy guns to hire somebody to kill somebody, there are murder for hire sites.”

It’s the go-to rationale for every peeping tom without a warrant: what if terrorists are planning their next daycare-center bombing on bittorrent? What if the plans for the next Parliament shoot-up are right there in someone’s iPhone and we can’t see them? Don’t you know that TOR is 80% pedophiles?

Won’t someone think of the children?

You have to admit: as hypothetical arguments go, it’s pretty much unassailable. If we can’t unlock all the doors, how do we stop evildoers from plotting behind them? The problem is that this argument applies as much to literal doors as to metaphoric ones. There’s no difference in logical structure between Tewwowists might be plotting via encrypted emails and Tewwowists might be plotting in your kitchen. If you agree that the spectre of potential evildoing is sufficient cause to let the government go through your mail without a warrant, how can you then deny them the right to check out your basement on a whim? Are evil deeds are any less nefarious when plotted offline?

It’s worse than a slippery slope. It’s a slippery step-function; the first concession gives everything away.

Which leads to a simple metric I use to assess the claims put forth by wannabe surveillers: simply relocate the argument from cyber- to meatspace, and see how it holds up. For example, Leslie Caldwell’s forebodings about online “zones of lawlessness” would be rendered thusly:

Caldwell also raised fresh alarms about curtains on windows and locks on bathroom doors, both of which officials say make it easier for criminals to hide their activity. “Bathroom doors obviously were created with good intentions, but are a huge problem for law enforcement. There are a lot of windowless basements and bathrooms where you can do anything from purchase heroin to buy guns to hire somebody to kill somebody”

If you remain comfortable with such arguments even when brought down to earth— well, enjoy the Panopticon. I know a few SF writers whose work you might like.

And yet, oddly, I take heart from these things.

I take heart from the fact that the the Free World is trying to curtail freedom at every turn. I take heart from the endless attempts of the UK, the US, and Canada to pry into our private lives and put webcams in our toilets (because you never know when someone might try to avoid prosecution by flushing a bag of coke down the john, you know). I take heart from PRISM and the Snooper’s Charter and Bill-C-whatever-number-they’re-up-to-this-week— because they put the lie to those stories in Wired and the Daily Mail and the New York Times, they put the lie to all those journos and pundits who would tell us that privacy is dead. It gives me hope.

Because if privacy is really dead, why are so many still trying so hard to kill it?

Posted in: Big Brother, legal by Peter Watts 52 Comments