Nazis and Skin Cream

I went out drinking the other night with someone who punches Nazis.

Certainly, ever since Charlottesville, there’s been no shortage of people who advocate Nazi-punching. For a while there, my Facebook feed was awash with the emissions of people jizzing all over their keyboards at the prospect of punching Nazis. People who argued— generally with more passion than eloquence— that the usual rules of engagement and free speech don’t apply when dealing with Nazis, because, well, they’re Nazis. People who, in fits of righteous anger, unfriended other people who didn’t believe that it was okay to punch Nazis.  I haven’t seen such a torrent of unfriending since all those die-hard supporters of frakking, omnipresent state surveillance, and extra-judicial assassination-by-drone rose up and unfriended everyone who hadn’t voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election. Even the ACLU has been bitch-slapped into “rethinking” its support for “Free speech“.

So, no shortage of Big Talk. But this was the first person I’d hung with who actually seemed to have walked the walk. She attributes it to her Mohawk heritage; not knowing any other Mohawks, I can’t speak to that. But I’ve known the lady for most of this century, and she doesn’t take shit from anyone.

I gotta say, I found it refreshing. So many of these self-proclaimed Nazi-punchers don’t seem to have a clue.

It’s not that I have anything against violence per se. I’m no principled pacifist: I’m the guy who openly muses about shooting heads of state and selecting random cops for assassination. If anything, I’m more into the healing power of cathartic violence than most. But even I had to roll my eyes when I saw so many of those same would-be Nazipunchers retweeting the most popular tweet of all time, courtesy of Barack Obama— a quote lifted from Martin Luther King Jr:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

As far as I could tell, all the likers and retweeters weren’t even doing this ironically. They actually didn’t seem to grasp the contradiction.

It only got worse when a bunch of right-wing 4channers repurposed a handful of domestic-violence posters, hoaxing up a fake Antifa campaign that took the Punch-a-Nazi meme and ran with it. Servers across the globe are still smoking from the outrage engendered by that little prank.

And yet— once you get past the fact that those images originated not from the left, but from right-wing trolls impersonating them— the hoax does not, in fact, misrepresent the position it’s trolling. It would utterly fail as satire or parody; it doesn’t even exaggerate for effect. It pretty much just echoes what the whole Nazi-punching brigade has been going on about these past weeks, using female models instead of males for illustrative purposes. And yet, people got really pissed about it.

The main difference seems to be that the trolls have higher production values.

The main difference seems to be that the trolls have higher production values.

What’s the take-home message here? That it’s only okay to punch Nazis if they’re male, or unattractive?  (A couple weeks back I actually asked this on on of the Facebook threads that was spluttering indignantly about the whole thing; so far, no one’s answered.) Or is the take-home, rather, that what’s said doesn’t matter so much as who’s saying it? When you get right down to it, is this just a matter of skin cream vs. gun control?

I guess that last reference could use some context.

It relates to a 2013 study out of Yale by Dan Kahan et al, a study for which I conveniently happen to have some illustrative slides because I mentioned it in a recent talk at Concordia. Kahan et al  showed data to over a thousand people— some right-wingers, some left, some statistically savvy, others functionally innumerate. Sometimes these data showed that a particular skin cream helped cure a rash; sometimes they showed the cream made the rash worse. Sometimes the data showed clearly that gun control reduced crime rate; other times, it showed the exact opposite.

Here’s the trick: it was all exactly the same data. All Kahan et al did was switch the labels.

Turns out skin cream is not a hot-button topic.

Turns out skin cream is not a hot-button topic.

What they discovered was that your ability to correctly interpret these data comes down to how statistically smart you are, regardless of political leanings— but only when you think you’re dealing with rashes and skin creams. If you think you’re looking at gun control data, suddenly politics matter.  If you’re a numerically-smart conservative, you’ll have no trouble parsing the data so long as they show that gun control results in increased crime; but if they show that gun control reduces crime, suddenly your ability to read those numbers drops to the level of a complete innumerate. You’ll only be able to interpret the data correctly if they conform to your pre-existing biases.

Gun control? Little more testy.

Gun control? Little more testy.

Smart liberals are just as stupid as smart conservatives, but in the opposite direction.  Show a numerically-savvy left-winger that gun control reduces crime, they’ll be all over it; show them the opposite and, once again, their performance drops to the point where they might as well not have any statistical smarts at all.

You’ve seen this story a dozen times in a dozen guises. Fitting in with the tribe has more fitness value than independent thought. Conformers leave more genes behind than independent loners, so our brains evolved in service to conformity.  In fact,we’ll be lucky if reflexive conformity is as bad as the malfunction gets: recent machine-learning research out of Carnegie Melon hints that we may actually be wired for genocide (hat tip to Ray Nielson for that link, by the way).

Illo credit: Mother Jones

Illo credit: Mother Jones

Tribalism Trumps Truth. ‘Twas ever thus; a smaller, pettier iteration took place not so long ago in our own so-called community.

God knows I’ve no sympathy for Nazis. I have enough trouble keeping my lunch down when I reflect upon the Tea Party. I do have doubts about the effectiveness of Nazi-punching as a coherent strategy, but I’ve never been one to rule out violence as a tool in the box.  And as for my friend, she’s on firm footing. She’s not only punched Nazis, she’s punched female ones, and she  doesn’t compromise the integrity of her position by retweeting any love-is-the-answer pablum from Obama or anyone else. She’s cool, at least. She knows which side she’s on.

But all those other incoherent people ranting on facebook? I just can’t bring myself to line up with people so resistant to cognitive dissonance that they honestly don’t seem to realize they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth at the same time.

I swear to God. It makes me want to punch someone.

Posted in: politics by Peter Watts 39 Comments

Occasional demons.

It’s pretty much done. We even have a tentative publication date: June, 2018. All I need to do now is figure out how to embed a coded message into the text.

In the meantime, a final fiblet. The Freeze-Frame Revolution. From Tachyon.


It was the Monocerus build that broke her. The gremlin came out of the gate a split-second after we booted it up: as if the fucking thing had been waiting the whole time, hunger and hatred building with every second of every century we’d been crawling across the void to set it free. Maybe it was whatever Humanity turned into, after we shipped out. Maybe it was something that came along after, something that swallowed Humanity whole and raced along our conquered highways in search of loose ends to devour.

It doesn’t matter. It never matters. We birthed the gate; the gate birthed an abomination. This one stirred something in me, a faint familiar echo I couldn’t quite put my finger on. That happens more often than you might think. Rack up enough gigasecs on the road and you’re bound to start seeing the same models in your rear-view eventually.

 The usual protocols saved us. Deceleration in the wake of a boot is just another word for suicide: the radiation erupting from a newborn wormhole would turn us to ash long seconds before the occasional demon had a chance to gulp us down. So we threaded that needle as we always did: rode our bareback singularity through a hoop barely twice as wide as we were, closed the circuit at sixty thousand kps, connected there to here without ever slowing down. We trusted the rules hadn’t changed, that math and physics and the ass-saving geometry of distance-cubed would water down the wavefront before it caught up with us.

We outran the rads, and we outran the gremlin, and as two kinds of uncertain death redshifted to stern Chimp threw a little yellow icon onto the corner of my eye—

Medical assistance?

— and I didn’t know why, until I turned to Lian and saw that she was shaking.

I reached out. “Lian, are you—”

She waved me away. Her breathing was fast and shallow. Her pulse jumped in her throat.

“I’m okay. I’m just…”

Medical Assistance?

I could see a fragile kind of control trying to assert itself. I saw it struggle, and weaken, and not entirely succeed. But her breathing slowed.

Medical Assistance? Medical Assistance?

I killed the icon.

“Lian, what’s the problem? You know it can’t catch us.”

She gave me a look I’d never seen before. “You don’t know what they can do. You don’t even know what they are. You don’t know anything.”

“I know they’d have maybe ten kilosecs to get up to twenty percent lightspeed from a standing start to even try to catch up. I know anything that could pull that off would’ve been able to squash us like a bug long before now, if it wanted to. You know that too.”

She used to, anyway.

“Is that how you do it?” A small giggle, a sound too close to the edge of hysteria.

“Do?”

“Is that how you deal with it? If it never happened, it never will?”

Five of us on deck for the build, and I have to be the one at her side when she loses it. “Li, where’s this coming from? Ninety-five percent of the time the gate just sits there.”

“As if that’s any better.” She spread her hands, a paradoxical gesture of defeat and defiance. “How long have we been doing this?”

“You know as well as I do.”

“Furthering the Human Empire. Whatever it’s turned into by now.” As if this was any kind of news. “So we build another gate and nothing comes out. They’re extinct? They don’t care? They just forgot about us?”

I opened my mouth.

Or—” she went on, “we build a gate and something tries to kill us. Or we—”

“Or we build a gate,” I said firmly, “and something wonderful happens. Remember the bubbles? Remember those gorgeous bubbles?” They’d boiled through the hoop like rainbows, iridescent and beautiful, dancing around each other as they grew to the size of cities and then just faded away.

Their invocation got me a small, broken smile. “Yeah. What were those things?”

“They didn’t eat us. That’s my point. Didn’t even try. We’re still alive, Lian. We’re doing fine— better than fine, we’ve overperformed on any axis you could name. And we’re exploring the galaxy. How can you have forgotten how amazing that is? Back on Earth— they never could’ve dreamed of the things we’ve seen.”

“Living the non-dream.” She giggled again. “That’s just fucking aces, Sunday.”

I watched some biomechanical monstrosity fade behind us. I watched a swarm of icons flicker and update in the tac tank. I watched deck plating glint in the dim bridgelight.

“Why can’t they just— talk to us? Say hello now and again? Just once, even?”

“I dunno. You ever hop over to Madagascar before we shipped out, look up any tree shrews, thank them for the helping hand?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just—” I shrugged. “I think they’ve got other priorities by now.”

“It should be over. They were supposed to call us back millions of years ago. No—” she held up a shaky hand— “we were not supposed to go on forever. How many times have we tunneled through this fucking ring already?” She threw an arm wide: Chimp, misreading the gesture, sprinkled the local starfield across the backs of our brains. “We could be the only ones left. And we still could’ve gated the whole disk ourselves by now.”

I tried for a chuckle. “It’s a big galaxy. We’ll have to go a few more circuits before there’s much chance of that.”

“And we will. You can count on it. Until the drive evaporates and the Chimp runs out of juice and the last of us rots away in the crypt like a piece of moldy fruit.” She glanced back at the tac tank, though its vistas floated in our heads as well. “We’ve done the job, Sunday. We’re way past mission expiration, Eri was never supposed to last this long. We weren’t.” She took a breath, let it out. “Surely we’ve done enough.”

“Are you talking about killing yourself?” Because I honestly didn’t know.

“No.” She shook her head. “No, of course not.”

“Then what do you want? I mean, here we are; where else can we be?”

“Maybe Madagascar?” She smiled then, absurdly. “Maybe they left us a spot. Next to the tree shrews.”

“I’m sure they did. Judging by that last one we saw.”

“Oh Jesus, Sun.” Her face collapsed in on itself. “I just want to go home.”

I gave physical contact another shot. “Lian— this is—

“Is it really.” But at least she didn’t shake me off this time.

“There’s nowhere else. Earth, if it even still exists— it’s not ours any more. We’re—”

“Tree shrews,” she whispered.

“Yeah. Kind of.”

“Well then, maybe there’s still a warm wet forest somewhere for us to hole up in.”

“That’s you. Ever the fucking optimist.” And when she didn’t respond: “Build’s over, Lian. Time to stand down.

“I promise: Things’ll look brighter in a couple thousand years.”

All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

Posted in: fiblet, Sunflowers by Peter Watts 51 Comments

The Return of the Slow-Wave Trader

Excerpts from dinnertime conversation with a retired investment banker:

Angela Merkel emerges from a meeting with Donald Trump. “Yes,” she says in answer to a reporter’s question, “we had a provocative but productive discussion.”

She rolls her eyes.

We probably shouldn't have forgotten about this as soon as we did. Blame hyperbolic discounting.

We probably shouldn’t have forgotten about this as soon as we did. Blame hyperbolic discounting.

The market soars on hearing the good news. It soars because once again, after a brief hiatus in the wake of that scary Flash Crash of 2010, eighty percent of market trading is once again done by bots,  and bots don’t get sarcasm yet.  They only read the words they see online, take them at face value; they don’t understand that Merkel meant exactly the opposite of what she said.

We, however, do. Finally, thanks to Trump, traders who inhabit meat have a fighting chance against those who inhabit silicon. Until bots learn about sarcasm and deception, at least.

That window may be closing even as we speak. The machines are already picking up some of those nuances. Not the HFT bots with split-second memories; those are dumb fast algos, always will be.  But the deeper AIs, the nets with layered interneurons; they seem to be catching on. Trump’s tweets are already showing less of an impact on the markets than they did after his Merkel Meeting.

I asked my friend: are those tweets losing influence because the people writing the code said “Wow, Trump’s a fucking loon— we’d better go in and tweak those parameters”— or because the code itself is learning on its own?  I mean, if I was a trading net, I’d use some Bayesian thing to constantly update the weight I attributed to any given source: the more often it paid off when compared to independent data, the more seriously I’d take it next time, and vice versa. Maybe the AIs are doing that?

My friend didn’t know.

I’m hoping one of you might.

Posted in: AI/robotics, economics by Peter Watts 10 Comments

Incorruptible, Indeed.

Illustration by Kevin Hong.

Illustration by Kevin Hong.

So I wake up in a stranger’s apartment in Montreal, reset routers and flush/re-register dns caches and do all those other should-be-unnecessary things this piece-of-shit Lenovo demands I do before it spins some internal roulette wheel to decide whether or not I’ll have internet access this morning, and—

What do you know. The X-Prize people posted my story over on Seat14C.

I have to admit I had my doubts. I’m not the first author to decry Mother Teresa for hanging around with war criminals. This is hardly the first story of mine to describe a near-future plagued by environmental collapse and pervasive government surveillance. I’m probably not even the first person to write a story advocating a sort of Final Solution for the One Percent.

I may be the first one to wrap all those elements into a project explicitly designed  to be Hopeful and Upbeat About the Future and actually get it accepted.  I think maybe I have Kathryn Cramer to thank for that.

And it is hopeful, ultimately. It’s even kind of prescriptive. Of all the 14C stories I’ve read so far (and I haven’t read all of them), “Incorruptible” is the only one which explicitly grapples with an inherent shortcoming of the X-Prize paradigm itself, and suggests a possible (albeit SFnal) fix. It’s not so much cheer-leading as commentary— which is, after all, presumably what this whole SF Advisory board thing is all about.

Still, I’m equal parts surprised, bemused, and gratified that it got through. About the only complaint I have is that they tagged the story with blog and twitter links to a completely different Peter Watts.

Maybe they’re trying to misdirect the hate mail.

 

Posted in: writing news by Peter Watts 42 Comments

A Tale of Two Cities (or, I Think I’ll Wait Another Year)

trudeauocalypse

The first city is Montreal, to which I’ll be returning next week: Concordia once more, this time to deliver a lecture entitled “The Best-Case Apocalypse: Why Reality Is Worse Than Fiction.” (I was going to call it “My Dinner With Daniel”, but I figured the reference might be too obscure.) It’s part of a longer program for summer students, but the events of August 10th— collectively billed as a “Workshop on Speculative Fictions and Methods”— is open to the public:

 

10AM-12PM:
 Sarah Sharma, University of Toronto  “No Exit”
1:30-3:30PM:
Ezekiel Dixon Roman, University of Pennsylvania, “Rethinking Quantification Toward the AutoPoietic Turn/Overturn”
4:00PM-6PM:
Me, using a fair bit of casual profanity.

 

I’ll be recycling the pareidolia-origin-of-religion bit from my 2014 Privacy talk, but most of the other stuff is new. Drop by if you happen to be in the neighborhood.  The neighborhood is here.

*

“I’ll bring the smokes, you bring the beer,
I think I’ll wait another year.”
—Amanda Palmer

 

The second City is Lviv, in Ukraine, and holy shit did that implode suddenly.

Or rather, it imploded over time, and I just found out about it suddenly.

I mentioned back in April that I’d be attending the Lviv International Literary Festival this Fall, in commemoration of the Ukrainian publication  of Blindsight. Things seemed to be going along tickety-boo. I was corresponding with the translators— who seemed like really nice people— and helping them out with the fiddly bits. I was in intermittent touch with Sofia Cheliak, a program director at the festival. Just a few weeks back the translators passed on a message from the publisher, asking what airport I wanted to fly out of.

Except apparently they didn’t. Or rather, the publisher never sent that message. The translators  just— made it up or something.  In fact, the whole thing had been called off sometime before July 10, and no one had told me. First I heard of it was when Sofia showed up on Facebook and asked if I could maybe apply for a Canada Council grant to cover the trip. (I could not; I wouldn’t have found out whether said grant had been approved until a couple of months after the festival. Not a chance I was willing to take.)

Turns out the translators, well, never finished the translation. And then never told me that the trip had been canceled (which apparently they’d been told to do, although since they’d also apparently stopped responding to contact from the publisher, I’m not entirely certain how that instruction was delivered and/or confirmed.)  Apparently Sofia herself didn’t know what was going on until she stumbled onto Oleksy’s (my Ukrainian publisher’s) Facebook announcement.

I poked the translators myself from this end, got a fractured reply to the effect of we’re-sure-we-told-you-before-but-here-it-is-again. Family troubles. Blindsight untranslated. SNAFU.

To Sofia’s and Oleksy’s enormous credit, they’re willing to have me over this fall anyway (last I heard, Sofia was actually approaching the Canadian embassy in hope of some kind of financial support). Given that there won’t be any book in evidence, though, there’s not much I could do there except drink and look cute. At my age, I can only do one of those things with any proficiency, and I bet the average Ukrainian could beat me even at that.

Next year, though, I’m assured that Blindsight will be ready. And I’m also assured that the offer to be a festival guest stands. So I think we’re just gonna move the date on that sidebar forward by a year, and steady as she goes.

It’s been a shitshow, but it looks like we were all blindsided— me, the festival, the publisher. Sofia and Oleksy are to be commended for offering to make it work anyway— nay, even encouraging me to come this year, and promising me a great time even in the absence of anything to pimp. But clearly it would be better for everyone if we put this off.

I don’t know if any Lvivians are reading the ‘crawl right now; if so, know that I am truly bummed about this. But know also that I am still really looking forward to getting over there— and if it takes another year, it’ll just be that much sweeter when I arrive.

Offred of Dune.

For a writer who grew up in an age when his chosen genre was routinely derided in polite company— when even impolite company could be forgiven for thinking that SF boiled down to megablockbusters about snarky sapient raccoons and alien-punching fighter pilots— it doesn’t get much better than waking up to find that a big chunk of this year’s Emmy Awards comes down to a dust-up between two actual, non-escapist, serious and thought-provoking SF series.

Not fantasy. Not superhero adaptations. Science fiction.

It is a wet dream come true.

You ask me, this is the real Wonder Woman.

You ask me, this is the real Wonder Woman.

Both The Handmaid’s Tale (13 nominations) and Westworld (22!) are brilliant in their own utterly different ways. Westworld impressed me with its clinical dissection of SF tropes and neurophilosophy, with the erudition of its premise and the skill of its execution. Handmaid’s, on the other hand, was like a weekly hour-long kick in the gut, an ordeal you couldn’t look away from, a story from a universe not so much parallel to ours as converging on it. (Yes, I’m familiar with the claim that said convergence happened generations ago, that every one of Gilead’s horrors have already and repeatedly blighted this timeline. I don’t dispute this, but it’s not the whole story. Read on.) If Elisabeth Moss doesn’t win every fucking award on the planet— and I’m including the Nobel in Medicine, and the Golden Rhododendron for best floral arrangement, and Best North American Guppy Breeder in that lot— if she doesn’t take home every award there is, there should be rioting in the streets.

One series is cryosurgical, the other intensely visceral. Both inspired widespread, almost universal acclaim; both are undeniably science fiction.

Or are they?

You might know my opinion of Margaret Atwood’s notorious aversion to the “science fiction” label when applied to her work. (If not, here’s a refresher.) Even if you’re unfamiliar with my take, you probably know about her infamous “Beam me up, Scotty”, “chemicals and rockets”, “talking squids in outer space” definitions of the genre; her half-assed back-peddling when Ursula Le Guin sat her down and gave her a good talking to; her more recent (if still vaguely ambivalent) self-acceptance: Hi. I’m Peggy, and I’m a science-fiction writer.

What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

And yet, watching the virtually-flawless Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale— twice now— I found even myself plagued with moments of doubt. This is not a future world. It contains no advanced technology; if anything, it had the feel of a particularly nightmarish period piece. Maybe Atwood was right along.

Maybe this isn’t science fiction.

Nah.

*

I’m sticking to my story. I’m going all in, too. I’m not even going to take the easy way out, stick Atwood over with those Humanities soft-SF types who aren’t even interested in science or technology, who’d rather use aliens and dystopias as metaphors for Othering and Intersectionality and Heteronormative whateverthehells. Atwood herself eschewed that particular cop-out when she wrapped herself in the flag of “speculative fiction”: the thing that separated her writing from science fiction, she said then, was that her fiction was rigorously researched and based on Real Science. (I myself have always preferred William Gibson’s offhanded rejoinder that “All fiction is speculative.”)

No, I’m going to argue— after, admittedly, some serious moments of self-doubt— that The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction in the pure sense: fiction designed to explore the societal impact of scientific and technological change. The All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again argument is true but irrelevant. The fact that Gilead is based on historical precedent does not get Handmaid a Get-Out-Of-SF-Free card.

Take, for example, the very reason Gilead was born in the first place, the catalyst that allowed the fundamentalists to seize power: a global collapse in human fertility, brought about by environmental catastrophes hinted at but never really explored. We know about “the Colonies”, places where the toxic waste is so ubiquitous your “skin falls off in sheets”. I seem to remember the novel talking about reactor meltdowns and high-rad zones. The apocalypse has already happened in that universe; Gilead smolders at the base of the same cliff that we, in this reality, still teeter on the edge of. The fact that it took place offstage, before the curtain rose, does not make it any less central; it set Handmaid‘s whole world in motion.

Environmental collapse. Imminent Human extinction due to pollution-induced sterility. A classic case of If This Goes On: the impact of technology, our birds come home to roost, sometime in the future.

Consider also the tactics used by the revolution: computer technology, used to disenfranchise half the population in an instant. Offred spells it out explicitly in the novel: “[T]hat’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand.  If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.” “All they needed to do was push a few buttons,” Moira remarks a couple of pages later.

Of course, computers and ATMs aren’t what you’d call futuristic technology. (In fact, Atwood’s references to “Compubanks” and “portable money” seemed quaint even in 1985 when the book came out; the term “ATM” never even appears in the text, although such machines were ubiquitous back then.) That hardly matters. Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon didn’t stop being SF when Apollo 11 touched down on the Sea of Tranquility. Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider didn’t turn into a historical drama with the coding of the first real-world computer virus.

If you want to be pedantic I could always roll out Offred’s cryptic references to “Feels on Wheels” and “Bun-Dle Buggies”— even the (incongruously optimistic) fact that Gilead is mainly powered by renewables, in the series at least—  to plant this society clearly in a technological future. I could cite the presence of “pocket computers”, which were undeniably futuristic back in the day when amber-screened ATs with 8088 chips were the high end of personal computing. (The TV series, made in a time when the tech has surpassed that of Atwood’s original Gilead, just swaps in iPads and laptops and doesn’t sweat it.) Either way, Gilead arises via the manipulation and misuse of a particular kind of technology, inflicted on a society. It’s pretty much the textbook definition of the science-fictional thought experiment.

I admit, they had me going for a while. The lack of FX, the staid, almost Victorian setting, the overall undeniable low-key prestige of the thing had me wondering if maybe Atwood’s protestations might have more substance to them than the initially-diagnosed fear of SF cooties. This is certainly one of those shows that people who hate science fiction could watch without being any the wiser— maybe we could call it “Stealth-SF”. But SF it is: It describes a world compromised by one kind of technology, and a societal response enabled by another. I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could disqualify it on the grounds that those elements are never the thematic focus of the tale, that the real spotlight is on the way that people use religion as a means of social control.

Of course, if that’s the literary bed you want to make, you might find yourself waking up next to a guy called Atreides…

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 27 Comments

The 600.

 

 

When a pop science symposium takes place in Bulgaria’s premiere, state-of-the-art convention hall— when past speakers include bestselling authors and actual scientists talking about their own cutting-edge research— and when they ask you to give a talk on a profoundly difficult branch of science in which you have no formal expertise whatsoever— it’s reasonable to assume, right off the bat, that the invitation is meant in jest. When it turns out to be real, it’s reasonable to wonder if the whole thing isn’t some kind of cruel hoax.

This is the attitude with which I approached last month’s trip to Sofia, to give a talk at something called “Ratio“. I didn’t know what shadowy cabal lurked behind these Bulgarian TED talks, or why they had painted a bullseye on my back. I knew it was most likely a trap, but I’d been published in Bulgaria. I had readers there. It was a risk I had to take.

Vasselina, Lubo, and me. We fight crime.

Vassilena, Lubo, and me. We fight crime.

Turns out, though, this annual symposium with the high-end production values is basically a hobby: the part-time brainchild of a couple of people with day jobs, who one day just decided that Bulgaria needed a popular science event and set out to make it happen. Lubo Baburov runs an online shopping site; Vassy Valchanova is in Marketing and loves cats. For shadowy evil masterminds they both turned out to be pretty awesome.

Their many minions, far as I can tell, put the whole thing together out of the sheer love of science; at least, they don’t get paid anything. Ratio’s numerous corporate sponsors presumably get some kind of positive PR out of their contributions, but why shouldn’t they? It’s a damn good cause.  Hey, they paid my way.

To give you some idea of just how professional, this is what was waiting for me after my talk.

To give you some idea of just how professional, this is what was waiting for me after my talk.

Put it all together, and you get a day-long event run so proficiently, so glitch-free, that it puts to shame most of the professional conferences I’ve attended.

The days leading up to this event, mind you, were not entirely without incident. I spent most of one day on interviews which ranged from smooth and free-wheeling to, well, dissonant. (Try going on live radio when, due to time constraints, the translator at your side is turning your words into Bulgarian at the same time you’re speaking them in English. I dare you to deliver focused and cogent responses in the presence of simultaneous dubbing.)  And there was this other interview with a different translator— for an outlet that was only ever described to me as “Socialist NPR”— whose first question was “Tell us, what is your favoured theory for the origin of life on this planet?”

Socialist NPR. Magic crystals.

Socialist NPR. Magic crystals.

It was not a question I’ve ever been asked before. I certainly wasn’t expecting it. I did my best: talked about my fondness for the “catalytic clay” model, where tiny vacuoles in the clays around hydrothermal vents provided convenient sticky surfaces for the accumulation of the organic molecules that precipitated from this mineral-rich, energy-dense environment, concentrating and containing them so they could interact in biologically-significant ways even in the absence of cellular membranes. I mentioned the whole RNA-World thing, pointed out how certain brands of RNA could act both as catalysts for those reactions and as replicators in their own right.

They smiled and nodded and spoke among themselves, jotting down my words on a yellow notepad. I thought it had gone pretty well until they’d departed, at which point Lubo rolled his eyes and told me that my answer had been translated as: “Magic crystals in the deep sea are awakened by energy.”

My Bulgarian Publishers! One of them is taller than me!

My Bulgarian Publishers! One of them is taller than me!

I met my Bulgarian publishers, who— judging by their choice of authors—  are obviously in the business more for love than for money. I hung out at a retro Soviet-era Space Age restaurant where you have to sit on a swing to use the toilet. I snapped pictures of many strange and dystopian monuments, ranging from brutalist Soviet-era kitsch to artefacts that have obviously leaked across the dimensional boundary from some parallel timeline.  I got briefly swept up in Sofia’s Pride Parade en route to dinner, reveled vaguely in the obvious feel-good ambiance of the thing, and then— the next day— discovered a note someone had sent me on Facebook Messenger two days before, mentioning that the local LGBT community faced a fair bit of hostility and wondering if I might want to informally join the parade. (I would have, too— for longer than those happenstance five minutes— if I’d seen the message in time. For future reference: my presence on facebook is reluctant at best, and I utterly loathe Messenger. Anyone trying to get in touch with me would be better off sending smoke signals.)

I spent much of each day sampling the local beerage and having eighteen different varieties of pork shoved endlessly down my gullet. (Anywhere else on the planet the term “pork bacon” would be redundant; in Bulgaria, it’s a high-level classification roughly equivalent to “phylum”.)

Fiording Pride. That's us along the bottom.

Fjording Pride. That’s us along the bottom.

The rest of the time I  anxiously went over my notes and hoped I wouldn’t go down in flames.  After all, the guys scheduled to speak right after me were real  neuroscientists. Plus my talk was half-recycled; a chunk of the previous month’s Pyrkon lecture stapled onto some late-breaking headlines, a couple of new modules, and a change of focus for a different audience. I was worried that someone from Poznan might have made it down to Sofia (Europe’s small, right? Traveling from Poland to Bulgaria is like taking a bus across the GTA); half-convinced they’d start booing when they realized they’d made the trip for the same old slides.

You literally couldn't take a dump without seeing my name. (Well, you could, but only if you didn't wash your hands afterward.)

You literally couldn’t take a dump without seeing my name. (Well, you could, but only if you didn’t wash your hands afterward.)

It was for this explicit reason I’d arranged to spend most of my time in Bulgaria before Ratio. If I crashed and burned, at least I wouldn’t have to hang around to face the music. I’d be out of there on the next flight.

As it turned out, though, it went pretty well. Over six hundred people in the audience and not a single catcall; in fact, people seemed to like it a lot. Made some awesome new contacts, including a corporate lawyer who specializes in contract law, and who is now on my List Of Pesterable Experts. I even got to talk about Westworld during the group Q&A at day’s end.

Really, I wasted a perfectly good ulcer.  I’d even do it again.

ratio-insectconsciousness

I think this might be my new Author Photo.

I think this might be my new Author Photo.

At this point I was just giving thanks the damn thing was over.

At this point I was just giving thanks the damn thing was over.

Oh right, and there were all these other guys too...

Oh right, and there were all these other guys too…

The day's speakers shared the stage for an overall Q&A at the end of the day. Emil Wagenstein was responsible for coming up with context-appropriate background slides on the fly. I honestly don't know how he did it in real-time, without knowing where the conversation was even going. Once I started talking about LSD and he threw a picture of a couple of sixties-era hippies up on the screen. Took him about two seconds.

The day’s speakers shared the stage for an overall Q&A at the end of the day. Emil Wagenstein was responsible for coming up with context-appropriate background slides on the fly. I honestly don’t know how he did it in real-time, without knowing where the conversation was even going. Once I started talking about LSD and he threw a couple of sixties-era hippies up on the screen. Took him about two seconds.

Emil, the Slide Guy. For some reason all the pictures I took of him were blurry, so I just grabbed this off his facebook page. It really shows you all you need to know.

Emil, the Slide Guy. For some reason all the pictures I took of him were blurry, so I just grabbed this off his facebook page. It really shows you all you need to know.

Signing after. Apparently one of these books did really well in Bulgarian. The other tanked.

Signing. Apparently one of these books did really well in Bulgarian. The other tanked.

This is that lawyer I was telling you about. She is now on whatever I use in place of a Rolodex.

This is that cool lawyer I was telling you about. She is now on whatever I use in place of a Rolodex.

I don't quite remember why I was sticking a pen up this guy's nose. I think I got the idea from a Cory Doctorow novel.

I don’t quite remember why I was sticking a pen up this guy’s nose. I think I got the idea from a Cory Doctorow novel.

This is a basement bar the Ratio people visit a lot. We're over on the left.

This is a basement bar the Ratio people visit a lot. We’re over on the left.

 

This is a beer for necrophiliacs. I was going to say Only in Bulgaria, but I bet you can get it in Poland too.

This is a beer for necrophiliacs. I was going to say Only in Bulgaria, but I bet you can get it in Poland too.

 The Wild Dogs of Sofia are a placid and gentle lot. In Trump's America, they'd tear your fucking throat out.

The Wild Dogs of Sofia are a placid and gentle lot. In Trump’s America, they’d tear your fucking throat out.

 You gotta use one if you want to use the other. Especially after all that Pork Bacon. Leverage, you know.

You gotta use one if you want to use the other. Especially after all that Pork Bacon. Leverage, you know.

 

Sofia is rife with monuments. I am amazed that this derelict Terminator Factory does not show up in every dystopian movie ever made.

Sofia is rife with monuments. I am amazed that this derelict Terminator Factory does not show up in every dystopian movie ever made.

 

The Tomb of the Forgotten Tourist.

The Tomb of the Forgotten Tourist.

 

This is a Terminator sent back to 400BC and stuck on a time-delay switch that never tripped. Either that or someone painted a statue's eyes with radium.

This is a Terminator sent back to 400BC and stuck on a time-delay switch. Either that or someone painted a statue’s eyes with radium.

This is what the Terminator did to its digs before the snooze button kicked in.

This is what the Terminator did to its digs before the snooze button kicked in.

 

I don't even want to know what these guys are doing.

I don’t even want to know what these guys are doing.

 

This is the least intimidating monument I saw in Sofia. I believe it is called "The Coming of the Lord".

This is the least intimidating monument I saw in Sofia. I believe it is called “The Coming of the Lord”.

Me trying to gracefully ignore Lubo's look of profound awe and worshipfulness as he counts down the seconds to my departure.

Me trying to graciously take in stride Lubo’s unmistakable expression of profound awe and reverence as he counts down the seconds to my departure.

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 11 Comments

Promises, Promises

Yeah, it’s been a while. There’ve been deadlines: stories to complete, talks to give. Mostly met now, for the time being. I’m never deadline-free but the pressure’s off for a month or so. I’m back.

There’s Bulgaria to report on, the usual crunchy science if I can get caught up.  Today, though, I’m going to fill you in on two things that are well underway but not yet finished. One of them you may have already heard about, because it’s got a big budget and it’s getting pimped all the hell over social media.

The other thing, though, will probably take you completely by surprise.

 

The Masochist Mod

You may remember my recent ascension to the ranks of X-Prize Advisoryhood. There’s a whole school of us, ranging from scientists to film-makers to authors. The first task assigned to each of us was to write an “optimistic” 3,000-word story about a “positive” future, one informed by technology that might be bootstrapped by the X-Prize itself. We were all given the same premise:  Flight ANA0008 en route to San Fransisco passes through a timespace distortion over the Pacific Ocean and ends up in 2037. Each of us tells the story of one fish-out-water passenger as they come to grips with this new, hopeful future.

As you can see, they're not exactly skimping on the production values...

As you can see, they’re not exactly skimping on the production values (although one might wonder why the flight crew wouldn’t just steer around any giant cosmic bagel that reared up in their path…)

Once again, I asked Kathryn Cramer if she had perhaps mixed me up with someone else. She insisted that I had an appropriate sense of humor for the job. I suggested that some might say any story revolving around the phrase “weaponised Ebola” couldn’t possibly be optimistic almost by definition.  She told me not to worry about it. I wrote a story called “The Masochist Mod”. She preferred “Firewalker”.

I handed it in last night. I have not yet heard back. I’ve been told it’s scheduled for upload on July 26— they’re adding one story per week for the next eight weeks— but that was by someone who had not actually seen what I’d written. The site went live yesterday, though: a very glossy, graphics-intensive production with 22 stories already in place. You should check it out: just scroll down the seating diagram, click on the passenger who’s story you want to follow, voila.

I’ve only had a chance to read a few so far. They are optimistic. If nothing else, I think “Firewalker” would be suitable company in the role of counterpoint.

I don’t know if my story will even run; but XPrize wants the word out now, so I’m jumping the gun a bit. In the meantime, here’s the briefest of dialog snippets to give you a sense of my optimistic future.

“Wait a second. Everyone had a brain interface when the flare hit? On the whole planet?”

“Well, no,” Tami admits. “Lots of people didn’t.”

“But none were Americans,” George says.

It takes Malika a moment to process this. “So you’re saying every single American had a brain interface in 2032.”

A moment’s silence.

“It was kind of a law,” Tami says at last.

“War on Terror,” George adds. “You remember.”

“Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Stop terrorists before they commit crimes.”

“Stop terrorists when they just start thinking about them.”

“Saves a lot of time.”

“Plus, you know. Pedophiles.”

“Think of the children.”

They trail off.

 

That’s “Firewalker”, folks. AKA “The Masochist Mod”.

Let’s hope that someday soon, you can read the rest of it.

 

The Ultimate Fan Site

I’ve teased you, in the past, with intriguing illustrations and tactical maps that obviously have some kind of relationship to the Blindsight universe. (Figures like this, for example; or this.) I’ve never really told you where they came from because I actually wasn’t quite sure myself; some dude called Danil just kept dropping them into my mailbox. Pictures of space suits. Pictures of Theseus in LEO; Rorschach renditions. They all blew my mind; they were all delivered in utmost confidence (well, mostly.  They said I could post a couple of shots). Some kind of fan project underway. I didn’t know much more than that.

I know something now, though. I know that those weren’t just illustrations: they were screen grabs.  These things are animated. CGI. Game-level graphics at least; cinematic, even.

Now a teaser site has gone live, and— in service of driving traffic there— the embargo has been partially lifted. Not entirely, mind you; they’re trying to build interest for some later reveal, not give away their best tricks out of the gate. So I’m still partially muzzled. The clip I’ve embedded here [Update 30/06/17: replaced with more official teaser with soundtrack and title card!] is pretty fucking cool, but it’s not the most impressive sequence in their arsenal. You should see the attack on the lab-hab. You should see the way they make Scramblers swarm.

 

 

You will, some day. For now, though, you’ll have to settle for what you see here, and whatever may show up over at blindsight.space. Sign up for their mailing list. If you’ve got graphic skills, I know they’re looking.

I wish I could show you more. I’m utterly gobsmacked by pretty much everything these guys have shown me, and it’s only getting better. I may not have many fans, but I definitely have the best ones.

If CGI chops translated into sniper skills, I’d have an army that could take out entire Senates.

Oh, all right. A few more stills for you.

Oh, all right. A few more stills for you.

All the solar system objects in this sequence are real; they were extracted from the IAU database and cycled through to their predicted positions circa February 2082.

All the solar system objects in this sequence are real; they were extracted from the IAU database and cycled through to their predicted positions circa February 2082.

Okay, that's enough. Now it's off to bed with the lot of you.

Okay, that’s enough. Now it’s off to bed with the lot of you.

Posted in: art on ink, ink on art, writing news by Peter Watts 51 Comments

Proof of Principle

Dateline Munich. Scribbled in a near-coma while sitting in a chair which has been designed by aliens who obviously never looked at a human body.

Which is to say, at an airport…

 

 

Something slipped under my radar last week. I was nose-deep in “Freeze-Frame Revolution” and the upcoming Ratio talk, and when I looked up to find my way to the airport, “Fish To Mars” had hatched.

It’s still larval, mind you. Eighty percent yolk sac and 10% big round eyes. But there it was, wriggling in the current for an hour on the evening of May 31: a live trailer-for/excerpt-from next year’s (hopefully) full-blown production “Fish To Mars” belted out— appropriately enough— amongst the seals and lumpfish of the Bergen Aquarium.

I’m writing the story. It involves terrorist vegan gengineering and academic hierarchies and marbled lungfish and autocannibalism.  Also terraforming and First Contact with aliens who showed up on Earth long before Kubrick’s transcendent monolith-makers, and who— being not very bright— bet on an utterly wrong horse. There’s a lot of story, a lot of backstory, and yet the story almost seems to be the least of it. It’s an actual opera, you see; a fusion of classic high-pitched arias and growling distorted black-metal grunge. There’s music, and a libretto. There are singers and sets and costumes— relatively primitive at this stage, the event was basically a proof-of-principle exercise after all— and scientific fact-checking courtesy of  a number of real authorities, not the least being the co-discoverer of Dark Energy. We’re after verisimilitude, here. This aims to be the most scientifically-rigorous opera about alien lungfish on Mars ever written.

It is a high bar to clear.

The production is so multifaceted that the story itself is really more seed than structure; the actual production was built by people from a half-dozen institutions and I-don’t-know how many independent agents and artists.  It was an orgy of musical collaboration between Oded Ben-Horin (on the classical side) and Arild Brakstad (on the black-metal side), all of us herded by the award-winning jet-setting Karin Pittman of the University of Bergen (and who honestly seems way too connected for your average marine biologist— I’m starting to think that’s a cover identity or something).

Really, it shouldn’t have worked. But I’ve heard some tunes, and I’ve seen the pics, and…well, yes. It really seems to have turned out nicely. Wish I could’ve been there.

All the following photos are by Jarle Hovda Moe.

The set was really cool.

The set was really cool.

...although admittedly, some of the props could have used a bit more work.admittedly have

…although admittedly, some of the props could have used a bit more work.

JHM_8739-small

JHM_8742-small

JHM_8969-small

JHM_8829-small

JHM_8788-small

I think those were scientists on the left. And the guy with the bowling ball on his head is an engineer.

I think those were scientists on the left. And the guy with the bowling ball on his head is either an engineer or the most overqualified post-doc in the solar system.

I think this might be kind of a post-apocalyptic Greek Chorus.

I think this might be kind of a post-apocalyptic Greek Chorus.

I don't actually now if this is part of the performance or not, but it looks cool.

I don’t actually now if this is part of the performance or not, but it looks cool.

This is Karin, who set the whole thing up. And something else I got a PhD in once, but I've forgotten the details

This is Karin, who set the whole thing up. And something else I got a PhD in once, but I’ve forgotten the details

Posted in: ink on art, On the Road, writing news by Peter Watts 11 Comments

An X-Prize for Irony.

 

 

You may have heard of these things called “X Prizes”: big cash awards, handed out by the non-profit Xprize Foundation to encourage advances in everything from spaceflight to genomics to undersea exploration. It’s run by some pretty big names; Craig Venter may ring a bell with some of you. Or Ray Kurzweil. Or, um, Arianna Huffington.

Together, they want to save the world.

It’s obviously a pretty optimistic endeavor. “The benefit of humanity” shows up twice in a  mission statement of only 15 lines. The email I received last night, encouraging me to help spread the word about their new advisory body, suggested use of the phrase “chart a path toward a positive future”.

Given all this, you have to wonder why they’d want me anywhere near their clubhouse. Maybe they haven’t read any of my stuff. Maybe they’ve got me mixed up with some other Peter Watts. I asked the person who recruited me about that. She said I had the right sense of humor.

So there I am, second shelf from the bottom: part of X-Prize’s “Science Fiction Advisory Council“, up there with sixty-odd other SF writers, film-makers, and scientists, most of whom are of far greater stature than I. I’m told we hail from nine countries; that among us we have 13 doctorates, 44 Hugos, 28 Nebulas (Nebulae?), 35 Locuses, 10 John W. Campbells, six Arthur C. Clarkes, six British Science Fiction Association Awards, and one Academy Award. Looking beyond all that chrome I see a collection of colleagues, friends, personal heroes, and benefactors (you may know Straczynski from B5; I also know him for the massive donation he made to my legal defense back in 2010). I see a large number of people I’d love to hang out with over beers (and only one or two that I wouldn’t). It’s an august group, and I’m proud to be part of it.

One thing that makes me cringe a bit is my bio note. It’s self-aggrandizing. I wrote it years ago, in deference to some agency or application that demanded extreme tub-thumpery. I freshened it up and sent it off to the X-Prize people in case they, too, demanded Ultimate Pimpage— but I also submitted another bio which, as I told them, “has much less of a stick up its ass, and would be the one I’d choose if I had my druthers.”

The dude told me it was the best email he’d received all day. But they went with the ass-stick anyway.

I submit the other below. Because it’s better.  Just so you know.

Peter Watts spent the first two decades of his adult life as a marine biologist. After fleeing academia for science fiction, he became known for the habit of appending technical bibliographies onto his novels; this both confers a veneer of credibility and covers his ass against nitpickers. Described by the Globe & Mail as “one of the very best [hard-sf writers] alive”, the overall effect of his prose is perhaps best summed up by critic James Nicoll: “Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts”.

Watts’ debut novel (Starfish) was a New York Times Notable Book, while his fourth (Blindsight)— a rumination on the utility of consciousness which has become a required text in undergraduate courses ranging from philosophy to neuroscience— was a finalist for numerous North American genre awards, winning exactly none of them. (It did, however, win a shitload of awards overseas, which suggests that his translators may be better writers than he is.) His shorter work has also picked up trophies in a variety of jurisdictions, notably a Shirley Jackson (possibly due to fan sympathy over nearly dying of flesh-eating disease in 2011) and a Hugo (possibly due to fan outrage over an altercation with US border guards in 2009). The latter incident resulted in Watts being barred from entering the US— not getting on the ground fast enough after being punched in the face by border guards is a “felony” under Michigan statutes— but especially these days, he can’t honestly say he misses the place all that much.

Watts’s work is available in 20 languages. He and his cat, Banana (since deceased) have both appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. A few years ago he briefly returned to science with a postdoc in molecular genetics, but he really sucked at it.

Now I sit back and wait for the conference calls with James Cameron.

 

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 15 Comments