Bedlam and the Bookies

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

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

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

chase08 chase12 chase11
   chase04  chase07  chase09
  chase01 chase05 chase13

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

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

chase15

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

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

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

Posted in: misc, writing news by Peter Watts 18 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 48 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.

solarishelmet


 

[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 29 Comments

Black Wedding: The Re-emergence of Lenie Clarke.

Inverted.

Inverted.

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

Somebody Get This Guy a Budget

We open on two civilians waiting to board a train. To their left stands a SWAT cop in riot gear; to their right, a battered drone right out of Blade Runner hovers menacingly at heart level. Glances are exchanged, though no words are spoken: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Slowly— making no sudden moves— the civilians climb aboard.

Welcome to the Special Economic Zone. You’ll like the shops, if you like to sweat.

*

That is not a Donnie Darko hoodie.  Then again, it could be a Donnie Darko tribute.

That is not a Donnie Darko hoodie. Then again, it could be a Donnie Darko shout-out.

When Jim Munroe was first starting out, he broke up with Rupert Murdoch. He turned his back on conventional publishing after a successful debut with Harper-Collins, choosing instead to go indie. Of course, they didn’t call it “going indie” back in the final year of the twentieth century. They barely even called it “self-publishing”. What they really called it was career suicide.

But damned if he didn’t make a go of it, years before Howey and Weir and all those other late-comers jumped on the bandwagon. Novels were only the start; Munroe branched out into games, graphic novels, lo-fi movies. His first web serial, Infest Wisely, had a budget of about twenty bucks and looked it. Its most expensive prop was a mock-up of an ATM (or possibly, an actual ATM boosted from the local 7-11 à la first-season Breaking Bad. Jim’s resourceful that way.)

postopianHis second outing was a mockumentary purporting to be a Chinese human-interest piece set in 2045, tut-tutting about the poor white underclass that had emerged following America’s bankruptcy (and subsequent repossession of the Cloud) way back in 2016. Android babies and human spam figured on-stage; the giant mutant spiders, in deference to budget reality, stayed out of frame. Ghosts With Shit Jobs weighed in at a still-meager budget of $4K and 7,000 hours of volunteer effort— constraints which didn’t stop it from showing at festivals from London to Beijing, and two dozen cities in between. It got a shitload of rave reviews and took home the Best Feature award at Sci-Fi-London in 2012. Ghosts looked significantly better than Infest— largely because Toronto’s Dundas Square makes a pretty shiny SFnal backdrop for free— but the shoestring, while thicker, remained.

Third time out, though, Jim graduated from shoestrings to bootstraps. He got 150K from the Independent Production Fund, so he could pay his crew. He raised another 25 grand on Kickstarter to cover post-production. The result is an eight-episode web-series (or, if you prefer, a 70-minute movie) called Haphead (here’s the trailer, here’s the fb page)— still made for an infinitesimal fraction of your typical movie, but still forty times richer than last time.

It shows. It premiered in Toronto just last Thursday and it’s already picked up its first nomination (Best Score, out at Vancouver Webfest). I rather expect more will be coming.

A Clockwork Orange glower for the 21rst Century.  Look into her eyes: that's the Aster*sk corporate logo. It washes out the inside of your head every time you boot up.

A Clockwork Orange glower for the 21rst Century. Look into her eyes: that’s the Aster*sk corporate logo. It scrubs out the inside of your head every time you boot up.

Haphead is a story of the near future, set in Hamilton’s “Special Economic Zone”— basically an industrial ghetto, liberated from such anticompetitive woes as the minimum wage, or safety standards. Our guide is an assembly-line grunt named Maxine, who makes a marginal living slapping together brain-game interfaces for overseas markets. The device clings to the base of your skull like a leech, bypasses your sense organs in favor of writing input directly onto the sensory cortex (I’m guessing some kind of TMS or targeted ultrasound, although we’re never told). Maxine isn’t allowed to use them herself; the tech hasn’t been approved for domestic distribution. But she steals one anyway, uses it as a passport into a virtual game world that— well, imagine Skyrim inhabited entirely by bipedal sapient kick-boxing ninja bunnies.

No, really.

Max spends a lot of time there.

The thing is, this interface is immersive. It doesn’t just fill the senses, it works out the body. Spend enough time fighting killer rabbits in fantasy-land and you develop moves— not to mention improved stamina and muscle tone — back here in meatspace. Which comes in handy when someone close to Maxine dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances…

Haphead is way better than it has any right to be. Little gems of technosocial extrapolation glitter throughout Munroe’s screenplay: upscale malls with perky automated security systems, apologetically refusing entry to consumers with “mixed-income backgrounds”; insurance companies with their own paramilitary SWAT teams to go after false claimants. The plot itself— at first glance a straightforward lefty bit of capitalist-bashing— takes turns you might not expect. People are not always who they seem to be; the victims aren’t always who you might think (or if they are, they might be a bit less deserving of sympathy than they first seem). Star Elysia White is a real find; whether Max is mourning or raging, pondering some mystery or cracking wise, her performance is spot-on throughout.

You're in good hands with Allstate.

You’re in good hands with Allstate.

It’s not a perfect film. The extrapolation’s a bit sloppy in places, the narrative occasionally inconsistent. I love, for example, the face-recognition specs that flash your net financial worth to any mall cop who crosses your path— but I’m skeptical that a social infrastructure with that level of casual surveillance would also let you extract two million dollars from a corner ATM by dragging an unconscious account-holder up to the keyboard and smushing their fingerprint onto the ID pad. And after seeing a security drone break up an after-hours Fight Club on the factory floor mere moments after it starts, I gotta wonder why none of those bots show up when Max gets into an extended knock-down-drag-out with an actual supervisor in the same building.

It’s important to note, though, that when I find something wanting in this series— something that can’t be obviously forgiven as a budgetary artefact— the fault I’m finding is that Haphead occasionally descends to the quality of Hollywood productions with Hollywood budgets. If the dialog is clunky now and then— as when a couple of generic bad guys loom and spout threatening clichés in the first few minutes, before fading away to make room for the main story— it’s still no worse than much of the dialog I’ve endured while catching up on “Person of Interest”. If some of the secondary characters don’t always hit their marks acting-wise, they still look pretty good next to some of the performances in a cult favorite like, say, Babylon 5. The only reason I grumble about them at all is because I hold Postopia Productions to a higher standard, teensy budget notwithstanding.

Personally I would've preferred Catworld. but to each his own.

Personally I would’ve preferred Cat World, but to each his own.

And in fact, most of the nits I’d pick pretty much do come down to budget. It’s impressive enough that Munroe’s modest funds were sufficient to render a high-altitude zoom from jet stream to worktable in a single continuous shot, or anchor a futuristic CGI shopping mall onto a real-world industrial park; I shouldn’t complain just because there weren’t enough customers in the parking lot. Ninja Bunny World looks curiously retro for a 2025 game environment, and a plot-critical piece of biotech seems a bit too advanced for the world we see on screen— but this is the price you pay for rendering macro concepts with modest funding. For me, the choice between rich-but-dumb vs. smart-but-poor is a no-brainer (granted, the existence of Michael Bay makes it pretty obvious that mine is a minority view). Still. Wouldn’t it be great to have that third option? Wouldn’t it be awesome to live in a world where smart-and-rich came along more often than a solar eclipse?

Wouldn’t it be great if this guy got some serious money behind him?

From troposphere to Table in one smooth shot. I would've built an animated gif showing the sequence, but I couldn't be bothered.

From troposphere to tabletop in one smooth shot. I would’ve built an animated gif showing the sequence, but I couldn’t be bothered.

 

Munroe continues to do wonders with the means at his disposal. Every time he’s up to bat, he hits the ball further. I don’t know what his next project is going to be (beyond, hopefully, another season of Haphead). I don’t know what kind of budget he’ll manage to put together. But the trend is unambiguous. One of these days— sooner rather than later, I’m thinking— Jim Munroe is going to hit it right out of the goddamn park.

Just like that battered menacing drone at the train station, I’m going to be watching him every step of the way.

 

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 33 Comments

What’s Wrong With This Picture.

A snapshot of the past work week:

Research, 5.6 hours. Interviews & columns, 1.4 hours. Blog and website, 3.8h (update: 4.5). Critiquing, 4 hours. Writing (nonfiction— I’ll tell you about it if it doesn’t get rejected), 18.7h. Writing (fiction), 0 hours.

Office work, mainly emails: 12.6 hours.

That’s a pretty-typical 46-hour work week, not counting 3.0 hours spent surfing porn (which is an underestimate overall, but 3.0 during the nine-to-five window anyway). Office work— finances, mailings, trying to figure out why I haven’t been paid for Firefall, but mostly e-mails— devours more time than anything else except actual writing-for-money, and it weighs in at two-thirds of that far-more-respectable activity. 12.6 hours on e-mails. Two work days, with lunch breaks.

If you look closely, you might see something else conspicuous in its absence: there’s no field for “genre reading”. I don’t mean science reading, or reading to research my own stupid books, or reading under a deadline because someone leaned on me for a blurb. I mean reading for actual goddamn pleasure and enlightenment. Reading to see what tricks my friends and colleagues and role models are up to these days. My writing has grown too inbred even though I’m surrounded by inspiration, whole bookshelves full of novels and stories acquired over the years but never read because some new bit of research was lighting up the feeds, or the column was due, or I’d already skipped running once this week and the plumpness was ratcheting up. That kind of reading. Because it doesn’t just shame me that the only novel I’ve read since the summer was The Martian: it diminishes me too, because I’m losing touch with the rest of the field. I’ve been losing touch for years.

I really need to make a change, and I need to do that before I dive into Intelligent Design.

In the meantime, I watch a lot of TV.

*

I blame you for that, actually. All of you. The people who insisted I shouldn’t have given up on “Agents of SHIELD” after three episodes, because it got really good just thirteen episodes later. Those who admit that sure, “Person of Interest” is formulaic and derivative and badly acted for the first couple of seasons, but if I just hang in there I’ll be treated to a first-rate, intellectually-challenging epic about bootstrapping AI. I blame you all, because my self-esteem issues make me very susceptible to peer pressure, and I’d much rather lay that responsibility on society than on me.

So I’m catching up on SHIELD and sure enough, it gets pretty good around the end of the first season before re-mediocrifying into the second. The BUG and I continue to plow through “Person of Interest”, waiting for some Person therein to become Interesting (when is that going to happen, by the way, and dear God why couldn’t it happen sooner?). “12 Monkeys” started off better than expected, and maintained that high bar right up until the second episode when we were shown a modern mental institution in which a patient— committed for presumably slashing a roomful of throats— is allowed to wander the halls with a scalpel, visiting and threatening other patients who are tied to their beds. Also an institution in which any inmate can apparently make it down into the basement sub-levels (and hence outside) if they’re at least sane enough to open an unlocked door with “This Way to Freedom” stenciled above the knob.

The return of “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” and “Orphan Black” all seem so far away, as distant as any star. Thank God Archer’s back, at least.

*

So this is the plan: allocate specific amounts to time for specific activities. Those emails that devour your whole day if you let them, then devour the next with replies to your replies? One hour, every morning. The blog, which all the Winds agree must be fed new material at least three times weekly to stave off being trampled  in the Darwinian meatgrinder of the Midlist Tubthumpathon? One. Hour. Per. Day. Five per week.

If an hour isn’t enough time to keep the emails in check— if they burst Thunderbird at the seams and spill pixels all over my desk— I’ll triage and amputate. (Some folks will have to make peace with the fact that I won’t always get back to them, and when I do I may not have had a chance to read the 50-page pdf on the lachrymal-gland secretions of Bonaparte’s Gulls they sent me.) If a blog post isn’t complete after an hour (and it never will be), I’ll just stop and pick it up the next day, and hope that by the time I finish the fucking thing it won’t be an antique.

Most importantly, I am going to read again. I am going to make the time. I am going to devote one day a week to Morgan and Miéville and Martel and a bunch of other authors whose names don’t even begin with M. I will force my gut to accept that pleasure does not equal unimportance. Henceforth, the mere fact that I enjoy reading will not give “enjoyable reading” the automatic short straw every time a deadline demands I chuck some lesser priority overboard. This is research, dammit. It will make me a better writer even if I don’t find it completely onerous.

Of course, in some ways this isn’t much of a change. My correspondence with many of you has been sporadic for years. Unanswered emails from 2010 still sit in my In box— you can never have too many unfinished tasks hanging over you, right?— but it’s been a long time since I entertained serious hopes of answering them. I’ve got several blog posts lying around in various states of completion— movie reviews, thoughts on time travel in popular culture (go see Predestination, by the way), little self-back-pats about vaguely βehemoth-like sulfur-munchers turning up under the Juan de Fuca Ridge, or hints of large potentially Big-Benian objects lurking undiscovered in the outer reaches of the solar system. (I’ve also been working on a strategy to reduce the number of unarmed civilians killed by police through the implementation of a randomized  tit-for-two-tats strategy of retributive cop-shooting, but I’m still trying to figure out if it’s possible to present such a thesis without being childishly naïve on the one hand or a reactionary asshole on the other.) When it comes to blog posts, the whole hour-a-day law seems great at producing fragments, but not so hot when it comes to finished product. Hell, I’ve had to go way over today’s hour just to get this fucking thing out the door.

Still, there’s something to be said for formalizing the approach. I’d actually planned on doing that before now— hell, I’d be long-since finished The Steel Remains if I’d booted the new schedule up on January 1 as originally planned. But you know. Things got in the way.

No longer. I will read more. I will write more. I will be a receptionist a lot less. Starting now, next week at the latest. Just as soon as I get my In-box down below thirty.

Anybody know when “Hannibal” returns?

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 47 Comments

Desperately Seeking Citation.

Can anyone point me to an anecdote about an introvert who manifested a sudden extrovertian personality change (cracking jokes, hitting on the nurses) when one of his cerebral hemispheres was anesthetized prior to brain surgery? I’m almost certain it hails from one of Ramachandran’s books, but I can’t find the damn thing and it’s relevant to a nonfiction piece that’s due next week.

(Yes, I’ve tried searching for keywords using Amazon’s “look inside” feature. No joy.)

Anyone?

Posted in: misc, neuro, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 15 Comments

Rollover

They say I'm in here.  Even though I'm not on the cover. Bastards.

They say I’m in here. Even though I’m not on the cover. Bastards.

So, here we are again. Another year.

The last one went decently enough, writing-wise at least. “The Colonel” got picked up for reprint both in Dozois’ Best SF 32 and in Allan Kaster’s Top Ten Tales of SF 7. “Collateral” made the ninth iteration of Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. I was actually a bit surprised at those choices— I thought “Giants” was more epic, and had more ideas and exotic weirdness than “Collateral” and “The Colonel” combined— but I’m not complaining.

Echopraxia seems to be doing okay too, all things considered. Ended up on some best-of lists (even the occasional non-genre one), even managed to sneak into some kind of Goodreadsian Top 25 SF/F/H tally, based on a formula whose underpinnings I’m willing to take on faith. Blindsight continued to do my translators proud, grabbing the Seiun and the Tähtivaeltaja; and in just-breaking news, I recently learned that its Bulgarian edition made the finals for something called the “Krastan Dyankov” Award for translated works. On the one hand, not a winner, just a finalist; on the other, though, the award itself is non-genre, and apparently this is the first time a genre book has made the finals for eight years. So there’s that.

So that was last year. What about this one?

greendesign2015

As it happens, I’ve made a few predictions for 2015. They’ve been posted over on a site called Inhabit.com. If you check out the opinions listed under “2015 Green Design Predictions“— scroll down past environmental superstar Bill McGibbon, the environmental activism of 360.org, the sustainable solutions of Autodesk and a handful of other forward-thinking entities— you’ll come to my own thoughts about what 2015 holds in store.

You collected data on this?  The boys in red serge would like a word with you...

You collected data on this? The boys in red serge would like a word with you…

You’ll notice that my predictions diverge somewhat from the others. For one thing, the other guys restrict themselves to predicting the future; I start off by predicting the past (which, I’ve learned, tends to return significantly higher bullseye count). Also the other soothsayers tend to be a bit— well, perky might be a good word. We’re going to “protect vulnerable areas” and “learn to build the way nature always has”; the climate justice movement will become “too powerful to ignore”.

I cover much the same territory, although I suggest it may be a lot easier to ignore voices which have already been silenced by an unexpected and previously-unknown strain of equine encephalitis. Or perhaps simply by RCMP officers kicking in your door after you’ve quantified the death toll attributable to Tar Sands development.

Don’t take it too seriously. I admit up front that I’m probably being a bit conservative in my predictions.

Ether way, though, we’re in for quite a year.

Yup.

Fellow scribe Jon Evans sent this to me yesterday. Random encounter on a subway. Oh, how I have longed for such a moment.

Fellow scribe Jon Evans sent this to me yesterday. Random encounter on a subway. Oh, how I have longed for such a moment.

Posted in: climate, interviews, scilitics, writing news by Peter Watts 66 Comments